Joanna Estelle:
A Very Special Student

This article originally appeared in the
University of Ottawa Department of Music's newsletter
Da Capo ( February 2008, Volume 16, page 3).

Photo: John Armstrong with Joanna Estelle

If you take the time to look, there is usually a special story behind every special student. This is particularly true in the case of Joanna Estelle who has been a special student in the Department of Music since 2001. Joanna is a published Canadian composer, lyricist and arranger currently living in Ottawa. Her work has been arranged, orchestrated, performed and recorded in Canada, the United States, and Europe, as well as broadcast on CBC.

Joanna studied classical piano and theory with the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto). She began writing jazz and folk-inspired pieces, as well as art songs for solo voice and piano, but her family did not encourage her to study music. Instead, she graduated in Psychology and English (Brock ’72), went on to study management accounting, and built a career in the federal public service. But writing music was always in the back of her mind.

While working fulltime, Joanna pursued private studies in modern piano, advanced theory, and arranging with several teachers in Toronto and Ottawa Laurence Ewashko first recognized her musical abilities and brought them to the attention of others, including John Gordon Armstrong who arranged some of her early choral works for Cantata Singers of Ottawa (CSO).

Although Joanna still composes part-time, she has already realized a degree of success not achieved by some full-time composers. In 1996, her “little songs” first attracted international attention when she was commissioned to write a piece for an operatic recital in London, England (November 1995). Since then, she has created many other vocal and choral works, including “The Water Canticle” and I Am My Home”, both premiered by CSO. Her last major choral work “Canada Forever Free” was premiered at the NAC on Canada Day, 2004 by the 400-voice UNISONG massed choir. When CSO released their latest CD in December 2005, it included John Armstrong’s arrangement of Joanna’s carol “Child of the Manger”.

Photo: John Armstrong with Joanna Estelle

Joanna recently completed working with Broadway composer David Horne to orchestrate “Canada Forever Free” and to prepare a concert band arrangement that was premiered at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa by the Canadian Forces Band of the Ceremonial Guard (August 2007). Her carillon arrangement of this piece has been played several times on the Peace Tower Carillon, Parliament Hill by Dominion Carillonneur Gordon Slater who also plays his arrangement of another of her compositions “Faraway Star” in recitals around the world. “The main reason that I enrolled at University of Ottawa was to study composition with Steven Gellman,” Joanna explains. “It took five years of part-time study to complete the pre-requisites needed to enrol in Steven’s composition course, but it was worth the effort. Steven encourages me to explore various musical genres and discover what I can do. He is a talented and compassionate person who has been a mentor, friend and inspiration to many of Canada’s best emerging composers. I am honoured to be one of his students.”

Joanna Estelle plans to leave the public service in 2009 to pursue her composing and music studies full-time. She has established an endowment fund at University of Ottawa in her name to encourage other Canadian women composers to continue their studies and to thank the Department of Music for its support in realizing her lifelong dream.