Music initiatives to transform kids’ lives

How good it is to see pop and classical luminaries like Marlon Williams and Michael Houstoun being joined at this year’s Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards by Judith Bell, Jane Egan and Elizabeth Sneyd, finalists for the inaugural Music Teacher of the Year Award.

This award, presented in association with the New Zealand Music Commission, celebrates “the exceptional influence music teachers have on our children, not only in establishing the foundations of careers in music but in general ensuring a positive and long lasting impact on their lives”.

Hear, hear to that.

Sneyd is founder of Virtuoso Strings, one of three charitable organisations in the Wellington region I have been researching to assess the very impact the award talks about.

Virtuoso Strings, Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley and Porirua Soundscapes run free orchestral music education programmes in low-decile schools in Cannons Creek, Taita and Stokes Valley. As well as providing music lessons, they make music accessible to young people in lower socioeconomic areas and have created inclusive orchestras that celebrate their young players and embrace diversity.

Although different from one another, the organisations share similar goals and aspirations to El Sistema. El Sistema is a Venezuelan music and social development initiative that began in 1975 and is now one of the world’s largest and most famous orchestral music education programmes. Sistema-inspired programmes operate in more 60 countries – there are at least eight in Aotearoa – providing musical and social opportunities to underprivileged children with the aim of transforming their lives, their families’ lives and their wider communities.

A number of researchers have shown how orchestral music education can benefit children individually, for example by enhancing reading, language and mathematical skills and by improving academic achievement. However, less attention has been paid to the wider social development aims of Sistema-inspired organisations.

One of the first things I noticed about Arohanui Strings, which is Aotearoa’s longest-running Sistema-inspired music education programme and works with over 100 children from low decile schools in Taita and Stokes Valley, is the cultural and ethnic diversity of its young orchestral players. This string orchestra includes children of Pasifika, Māori and refugee backgrounds, reflecting the demographics of Taita, where the orchestra rehearses twice weekly after school.

One of the critiques of orchestral music education programmes is they prioritise Western art music above other musical forms, thereby marginalising students from non-Western backgrounds. This is not what I see happening at Arohanui Strings. In the April 2018 holiday programme, the young people learned and performed the Samoan song “Malie Tagi Fa” from Samoan community members, and a 2017 holiday programme included kapa haka practice. Founder and Director Alison Eldredge, who last year won the Wellingtonian of the Year Award for Education, makes an effort to incorporate Māori, Samoan and other languages and musical repertoires into their orchestral practices. This sends a powerful message to the children and their families that their identities and musical heritages are valued and can sit alongside Western art music.

Porirua Soundscapes, which is run by Marie and Andrew Eales, provides free lessons in recorder, flute, clarinet, guitar and percussion to approximately 30 students from low-decile schools in Cannons Creek. Another criticism of orchestral music education programmes is teachers tend to be from a different class background and draw on Western music teaching practices that can alienate the young people they are working with. In contrast, Marie Eales takes a culturally responsive approach. Her years of experience as a teacher in Porirua have led her to incorporate the Māori learning and teaching concept of tuakana-teina relationships into her orchestral practice, whereby older students are actively encouraged to help and guide younger learners. In the context of New Zealand education, this is an example of fostering mauri ora (wellbeing) for Māori and Pasifika students, which contributes to Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Success, the Ministry of Education’s strategy for Māori student success.

Virtuoso Strings, which also operates in Cannons Creek, runs an in-school teaching programme for around 160 students at low decile schools as well as an orchestra with 175 students of varying ages and abilities. Like the other organisations, it provides lessons and instruments for free and relies on volunteer labour from parents and community members. Sneyd is passionate about celebrating the local talent she sees in Porirua. As well as incorporating Māori and Pasifika musical traditions into its repertoire – often performing pieces written specifically for the orchestra by composer Craig Utting – Virtuoso Strings uses orchestral music to challenge preconceptions about young brown people from Porirua. It does this by fostering musical excellence and providing young people with opportunities to play with internationally renowned artists like operatic trio Sol3 Mio, dance company Black Grace and Grammy-award winning bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu in Porirua and at venues such as the Opera House in Wellington.

These opportunities can indeed be life-changing for the young people, their families and their wider communities and well merit their moment in the spotlight of the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.

Arohanui Strings has a concert at 3pm on Friday 12 October at Pomare School, Taita, as part of its free holiday programme all this week. Dr Lorena Gibson is speaking about her research as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī ‘Music from Her’ panel discussions at Thistle Hall in Wellington on Saturday 14 October. Porirua Soundscapes is performing at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua at 1.30pm on Saturday 27 October. Virtuoso Strings is performing with Jonathan Lemalu at the Opera House, Wellington, at 7.30pm on Monday 3 December. The Music Teacher of the Year Award will be announced as part of the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards on Thursday 15 November.

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