Learning to be amazed

2008-11-24 00:00

If you think that environmentalists come standard issue with khaki shorts and a brown leather hat, then meet John Roff. The environmental education officer for Hilton College greets us at his gate in blue and orange takkies and a bright home-knitted beanie. But Roff’s clothing style is the least of what makes him unusual as an educationalist.

“God is not boring,” he says, once we have sat down at his long farmhouse table, outnumbered by children and noise. “God is extravagant. Music, the visual arts, creation, all of these things express something of God’s extravagance. What I want is to help people bring out the spark of creativity that God has put in them.”

One of the ways Roff tries to encourage people’s innate creativity is by combining music with nature. He has a range of kalimbas (African thumb pianos) and home-made

bamboo flutes. These he takes along with him when he and the Hilton boys go exploring on the College’s 1 600 hectare estate.

“I’ll give a thumb piano to a boy, seat him by the river and ask him to make music that sounds like rushing water. Most of these instruments are based on pentatonic scales, so any combination of notes will sound good. There’s no right and wrong. This brings out the creativity in people. My highlight is when boys realise they can do it. When they say, ‘Wow I’ve never played an instrument before. It’s amazing.’”

But Roff’s reason for combining music and nature is not just to encourage the boys’ creativity. It’s also to help them appreciate the natural world. So, he takes them on flute walks, leading them to beautiful spots on the reserve and then playing the flute to them. “I want to help people love creation. You can’t force someone to care.

“Creation is awesome enough to create a response in people, but often they don’t respond. So I use music in various forms to reach the heart. I find the act of being musical in a place can lead to building a connection with the place.”

Roff readily admits that not everyone responds to his methods. “It all starts at birth: right from then there is pressure on children to get ahead. They have to be top of their grade to succeed. So sometimes they don’t see the point in learning about the natural world. Maybe they’re not interested or maybe it’s not cool. A computer is so much more interactive than a tree. But then, sometimes the lights come on. I hear boys saying, ‘Isn’t it amazing how that insect eats termites. I never realised a python was so scary and massive.’ And that’s what I want. I want them to understand, to be amazed by and to care for creation.”

The noise around our table has just reached jazz pitch. The Roff’s home is scattered with instruments: recorders, guitars, bamboo flutes, thumb pianos, xylophones, drums and there is one child per instrument.

“We will resume in a couple of minutes,” Roff says. Then turning to the children, in a gentle daddy

bear voice that would have sent Goldilocks packing, he says, “Go and dig a hole outside please. Go and get dirty.”

This is Roff’s “get ahead” plan for his children. Climb trees, build vegetable gardens, capture bugs and leave lots of unbreakable musical instruments lying around. It can only develop a love for both music and nature.

We move outside to watch Roff combine the two as he makes a bamboo flute. Everything he uses is natural. The bamboo grows locally around Pietermaritzburg. He dries it out and then chooses one lucky piece. Using a rod that has been heated in a charcoal fire, he burns a hole for the mouthpiece. He then blows over this mouthpiece to check the sound quality of the bamboo. Some sticks of bamboo just don’t sound right and you can’t explain why. This one doesn’t and so it gets thrown in the bushes. The next one does and so he then follows a prescribed set of measurements to mark off where the fingerholes must be. Once these holes are burnt, the fine tuning is done with sandpaper. If the sound is flat, the holes get widened, until the tone is good.

Soon this old piece of bamboo is playing Amazing Grace in a way we have never heard before.

And Roff, the only musician I know who counts it a blessing that he was not formally trained in music, quotes Robert Philip: “Never forget that music is much too important to be left entirely in the hands of professionals.”

We leave the Roff home with a new bamboo flute and a new goal: to get dirt under our children’s fingernails.

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