Spotlight on Stewart McKelvey & Sound Symposium

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any organization. From offering their advice and individual expertise, to helping with administrative duties and marketing efforts, selling tickets to events and everything in between, they truly are the oars that keep the boat moving forward. The folks behind Sound Symposium know this quite well.

A biennial celebration of sound, Sound Symposium brings people from around the world together for 10 days of workshops, performances, jam sessions, film screenings, soundwalks, lectures, daily Harbour Symphonies (in which the ships of St. John’s harbour are transformed into a floating orchestra) and more. Many of the events are free, and all are open to the public.

Four local knitters recently volunteered to join Sarah Albu (upper left) of Rokkur on stage during Sound Symposium XIX. Annie Corrigan photo

This year marks the 19th iteration of Sound Symposium, which kicked off on July 5 and runs until July 15. As with many other arts and culture organizations, Sound Symposium relies on a dedicated army of volunteers to help ensure smooth sailing. But while organizations undoubtedly benefit from those who freely give of their time and knowledge, oftentimes, the volunteers receive just as much in return. Rod Zdebiak, Partner at Stewart McKelvey, is just one example.

Back in 1993, the Sound Symposium team faced a challenge when they learned that they had to incorporate in order to continue to receive arts funding. Zdebiak, then a newly minted lawyer and “a transplanted prairie boy whose sole musical skill was playing a cassette deck and a CD player” he says, was brought on board to help.

Eventually, Zdebiak helped the team create Sound Arts Initiatives Inc. – a not-for-profit umbrella organization that produces Sound Symposium and other events like Night Music (a monthly improvisational music series held at The Ship Pub). It wasn’t long before Zdebiak was asked if he’d be interested in joining the board “and helping out with the legal stuff” he says.

A Sound Symposium performance at Cape Spear, 2014. Greg Locke photo

“While I knew little about music stuff, I figured that I knew enough legal stuff to be of some assistance. Being a come from away, it also gave me an opportunity to widen my social circle and experience new things. The firm encouraged me to join the board as the firm has always been a big advocate of working with, and giving back to, the community. The firm has continued to support my involvement with Sound Symposium to this day,” Zdebiak says.

While his initial involvement was limited to legal help and board governance, Zdebiak says, that soon changed.

“I wasn’t just giving to Sound Symposium, Sound Symposium was giving back. I wasn’t just there as ‘the guy who knows some legal stuff’ anymore. I was becoming part of it.”

Over two decades later, Zdebiak’s involvement with Sound Symposium is still going strong. In addition to legal help, his volunteer duties have included everything from emceeing events and tooting ships’ horns in several Harbour Symphonies to selling t-shirts and event tickets. (He even played a starring role in a Sound Symposium commercial filmed in the mid ‘90s.)

Participants at a Sound Symposium workshop in 2016 making music together. Greg Locke photo

Out of all of his volunteer experiences, Zdebiak says, his favourite by far is billeting visiting artists.

“Sound Symposium is fortunate to have a great group of volunteers who open up their homes to the artists and performers. These volunteers play a big role in making Sound Symposium happen because their hospitality makes it possible for many of the artists to come to St. John’s. Billeting also gives us hosts an opportunity to meet different people from different places and different walks of life. Some of the artists my wife and I have hosted are counted amongst our dearest friends,” he says.

“Again, while we are giving something to Sound Symposium, Sound Symposium is giving back far greater. That is why, for 25 years, I have continued my relationship with Sound Symposium, wearing both my Stewart McKelvey hat and my Sound Symposium hat.”