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Academy Alumni in South Africa

 

 The students in the Mangaun String Program directed by Peter Guy continue to amaze us. This week we have been teaching private lessons, hosting Interactive Performances, holding masterclasses, and running sectionals. It's fascinating to see such an ambitious and self-sustaining music program, and I have to say that it rivals many that I've seen in any country. The most unique part of this string program is its model of learning. In Mangaun, students that have become advanced players, namely the students who are finishing high school and entering college, actually are hired to teach the young beginners. This happens because there are just not enough teachers, and Peter told us that it is staggeringly effective for the students to learn from someone who grew up in the Mangaun program, and have probably grown up in the same neighborhood as their own as well. We saw a spectacular example of a group beginner violin class at St. Mary's school one morning.

We arrived early, and saw the sprawling low buildings that form St. Mary's; it was raining so we did our best to avoid the bug mud puddles that had collected around every entrance. In South Africa, schools seem to be open air - that is, the schools are a collection of connected classrooms, one story only, with outdoor sidewalks that allow passage from one room to the next. It is strange to see children sprinting around from class to class outside, with their violins held firmly in a tiny little fist, and I wondered how many violin casualties had been encountered this way. But no matter - older students in the program also step up and learn how to fix instruments as well, so it's not rare that I saw an older violinist or cellist carting around four bows and several violins while fixing them up, or for a student to ask to leave a lesson because he heard that a cello endpin wound up in the body of the cello...and he must at that moment go take care of it...all I could think of was how firmly I insisted that my students at NYC Queens' PS 63 never even move without putting their violins in "rest position," and how adept these youngsters were at maneuvering at such lightning fast speeds so as not to break anything at all. Usually you just see streaks of maroon or green uniforms tumbling about the quad.

The little ones stood in a circle and waited expectantly as their teacher made sure each violin was correctly lodged underneath each tiny chin, and then counted off (in Sotho, of course, not English or even Afrikaans) to begin the lesson. These children plucked the strings only, for it seemed that the bow technique was taught after knowledge of all the strings. I was amazed at watching a lesson in such an extraordinarily foreign language. When a student made a mistake, you could feel the energy and silliness in the room, as the tiny eyes sparkled and darted to whomever had made a misstep, but always the children helped each other, somehow intrinsically knowing that the further the group could go together, the more everyone would learn. This supportive and communal nature seemed apparent with all the students, grade 2 through college, and Peter explained that he found it a cultural norm in this area of Bloem. It was very beautiful to watch.

As our time with the students came to a close today, there were frantic photos being taken left and right, and one girl even took my camera for awhile, and I had no idea where she'd gone with it. When I got it back there were photos on it of possibly every child in the school yard, grinning ear to ear and striking poses. The older kids shook or hands and told us they'd see us in Durban, and the younger ones gathered for numerous hugs and group shots, trying to delay the departure before they climbed aboard the brightly painted bus that would take them all home tonight. As we left, I hoped only that they would continue this culture of community and music, and that they would find that it leads them to many, many possibilities.

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