The wind whips up dust circles on the streets of Nyanga, Cape Town’s oldest township and home to over 10 000 people. People mill and congregate on the streets: a man holds a woman’s hand; a mother walks behind her three children wearing brightly coloured woollen caps; street vendors cook skewers of cow’s intestines braaied over fires in tin drums. Goats saunter down the street. The surprising sound of a bow being scraped slowly across a violin string accompanies this scene like a musical score to a movie. Follow the sound of Mozart’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, played with a beginner’s halting uncertainty, and you arrive at Hlengisa Primary School. Peer inside the window and see a group of six kids, violins tucked neatly under their chins.
It seems as if many centuries and cultures congregate in this small space. Not only are the children learning violin, but they are being taught the instrument through the revolutionary Suzuki method, developed by the Japanese master who has gained worldwide acclaim for his innovative
teaching methods. South Africa has only a handful of violinists who have undergone the rigorous three-year training to qualify as Suzuki teachers. Among them is Maria Bothes, who returned to South Africa after spending 23 years at one of Europe’s foremost training centres. Now, she’s employed by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra as project manager for the Masidlale (let us play) outreach programme that provides violin lessons to 80 children in Nyanga and Gugelethu townships.
Initially, Maria had to be careful not to tread on the local school teachers’ toes. Not all of them saw the value of missing ‘proper’ lessons to fiddle about with an instrument. But despite some misgivings, they sacrificed their staffroom to create space for the children to practise. Although having people wander in and out to make coffee is occasionally disturbing, Maria welcomes the exposure as it has allowed the teachers to witness the children’s efforts and created a family atmosphere. The Suzuki method develops children’s musicality through listening and feeling
rather than engaging the intellect and teaching students to read music.
As Maria says: “You go to notes, you go to the head.” Suzuki teachers believe the instrument must become part of the student’s body. Maria claims that people taught with rigid classical methods don’t “feel the vibration of the violin going into their soul.” The souls of Maria’s student shine through the smiles that split their faces as they learn the rhythm of a piece of music by miming songololos. Their pleasure fills the staffroom. As we accompany the kids back to their classroom, Maria is everywhere greeted with cries of “Violin, violin!” One young boy hops in front of her, dramatically waving his arms back and forth, drawing an imaginary bow. “All the kids want to play music,” says Maria.
The violin can offer a passport out of the township. Louis Heyneman, CEO of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Predicts that a future generation of CPO musicians will come from the townships. He believes that many of these kids have an innate musicality. In addition, some have the hunger derived from not being born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Take the boy who doesn’t have a fouth finger, essential for playing the violin. He was so keen to play that Maria at first didn’t have the heart to turn him away. When she eventually had to tell him htat it would never be possible for her to teach him properly, undaunted he demonstrated that he could just manage to reach the string with the tiny stump of his finger. While the possibility of a career as a professional musician is lucrative, Maria stresses that whatever the outcome, the process of learning to play the violin is worthwhile in itself.
The lessons teach children, often traumatised by hardship and hunger, many valuable skills, including focus and co-ordination. Perhaps most important is the self-esteem that they gain from mastering a difficult task. According to Maria, learning the violin can even, almost magically, instill an etchical disposition. She believes that “no violinist can be a bad person; the violin creates goodness in you.” Each centre has 20 violins that each cost R1500 and their safety is a concern. Already, in the year since Maria started giving lessons, the school has lost their computers in two burglaries. Each time Maria was relieved to find the violins untouched and safely locked away in a storage cupboard where they are packed between bags of rice and mealie meal.
Ten-year-old Sandiswe is one of Maria’s most dedicated and promising students. When she first saw a violin, she was immediately fascinated and vowed that one day she would play in a concert on a stage. Currently, Sandiswe plays three times a week. To progress further she must work on her technique daily. There are plans to buy another 20 violins, some of which can be taken home to practice, but this raises a lot of dilemmas; would Sandiswe be safe walking home with the violin or would it perhaps make her vulnerable to attack?
Sandiswe lives with her grandmother, Momawelo, in a brick home, cold and damp but neat as a pin. Maria goes to meet Momawelo at her home to discuss the possibility of Sandiswe taking a violin home. “The violin will be safe,” Momawelo assures Maria. She will store it on top of the wardrobe and Sandiswe’s sister will accompany her from school. Momawelo welcomes the opportunity for Sandiswe to develop her talent but admits that the violin is not a sound she’s used to. “Oh my God!” she exclaims, covering her ears at the prospect of Sandiswe rehearsing scales every night. But while lerning the violin is a screechy process, I can imagine a time when Sandiswe has mastered the violin, and her music wafts through the township. Maria believes that already the violins are bringing healing to the community:
“What makes me think that love is hanging over the school, the kids, the staff, and sometimes the shacks outside? I guess it can’t be explained rationally, but it seems to me that the overwhelming power of the energy that each child releases through the ringing notes of their melodies gently strokes the heart of the whole neighbourhood.”
May 30th 2011, 00:00