The magic of music

2011-03-22 00:00

THE desks and chairs have been cleared back against the walls and a carpet has been unrolled onto the bare cement floor of a classroom at Nottingham Road Combined School. Sixteen girls in Grade 4 sit in a circle.

“What did you do last week?” asks Barbara Kerr, music co-ordinator for Music Literacy Africa. “Sing,” they respond in unison. “What did you sing?” “Music land.” “Well, sing it then…” and without any accompaniment barring the clapping of hands, the girls begin: “... follow me to music land”.

Kerr teaches a music class twice a week at Nottingham Road Combined — one for girls, one for boys. “There were 34 children altogether,” she says. “Too many for a music class — especially when we get on to playing instruments such as recorders. So we split the class in two.”

Kerr is music co-ordinator for Music­ Literacy Africa (MLA), an organisation­ dedicated to bringing music education to underresourced rural schools. MLA runs music classes in four schools in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands — Nottingham Road Combined, Nottingham Road Primary, King’s Primary and Silindele Primary — taking a total of 210 pupils to music land.

As well as music lessons, MLA runs recorder ensembles at primary schools in Bergville, Mooi River, Nottingham­ Road and Silindele. Eleven­ pupils have passed Grade 1 of the Associated Board of the Royals Schools of Music recorder practical.

At Nottingham Road Primary, MLA also runs a choir, while 10 pupils are taking tuition in music theory. A recent development has seen the formation of a group of bell ringers from Hlanganani School, at Treverton, Mooi River.

MLA also exposes pupils to music in performance, taking them to live choral and orchestral presentations as well as musical productions. The pupils are no stranger to performance themselves — 25 of them recorded the choral backing for Holly Wasserfall’s album Strawberry Skies, a choir of eight recorded the backing music for the Toughees television commercial and seven schools parti-cipated in the Midlands Choir Competition.

Not only do pupils benefit, teachers are involved as well. Class teachers sit in on the music lessons and learn with the children, taking notes so that they can practise during the week, thereby upgrading their skills. Fourteen teachers of young children attended the early childhood development (ECD) course for music foundations held at the Midlands Community College.

By any yardstick it’s an impressive track record for an organisation that started only two years ago. Founder Helen Mennie, now MLA project manager, had taught music at several schools, all the while nurturing a dream to take music education to less privileged schools.

One of the stark ironies of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands is that some of the top schools in the country, boasting some of the best facilities in the world, stand cheek by jowl with rural schools with little or no resources when it comes to teaching a subject such as music.

These schools tend to serve the poorer sections of the community, with the children frequently travelling long distances, often on foot, to attend. Operating­ against a backdrop of poverty­ and ill-health, such schools also lack adequate facilities and infrastructure. In such circumstances arts and culture — A&C as the curriculum styles it — takes a back seat.

But even if circumstances were otherwise, the majority of teachers in rural schools do not have the necessary skills for the job. “The teachers say ‘we want to teach arts and culture, it’s in the curriculum, but we don’t know what to do’,” says Mennie.

Consequently pupils at rural schools lose out on a subject which children at most urban and private schools take for granted. It is a major loss because, as Mennie points out, there is more to music than music.

“Skills and concepts such as discipline, creative expression, spatial awareness, co-ordination and time management are all part of learning music,” says Mennie. “These provide a foundation of life skills and they are automatically acquired in the disciplined training of formal music lessons. Not being exposed to such things at an early age is a real disadvantage for rural pupils.”

Mennie, a long-time resident in the midlands and long aware of the gap in skills and resources existing between the private and rural schools in the area, decided to begin remedying the situation. “I had always wanted to do this and two years ago I felt the time was right,” she says. “I believe in the power of education as an investment in the future. But it’s tricky, you want to offer your services, but you don’t want to be pushy, you don’t want to come along and say something like ‘I’ve got something here and you must learn it’.”

Mennie needn’t have worried. It was the schools that were pushy. The principal of Nottingham Road Combined School, Thamsanqa Sokhela, who knew Mennie, invited her to come and teach at the school. “So I did, and after that, well, word gets around.”


“When we come to school we say hello ...” sing the children at Nottingham Road Combined and as the song continues the children get to sing “hello” in various languages: “The French say bonjour … the Sotho say dumelane … the Zulu say sawubona … the Xhosa say molweni … the Afrikaners­ say goeie môre.”

Then the pupils begin to learn to make music: small hand sticks are handed out, two per child, which are used to create different notes, sung as “Ti, ti, ta, ta”. After this exercise, cards with musical notes are circulated and, as Kerr sings an arrangement of notes, the children lay out the cards with the notes in the correct order.

What the children have retained from their previous classes is impressive. More so is their sheer enjoyment, derived from the satisfaction of achievement. This class is clearly one of the highlights of their week.

“We give them the freedom to make mistakes,” says Kerr. “We create a safe place. There tends to be such an emphasis on being right or wrong in schools. That can stifle learning and development. Here it’s okay to make mistakes and move on.”


“We have got to where we have thanks to support from our friends and husbands,” says Mennie, who funded MLA from a personal loan. “Friends with lathes made the music­ sticks. Other friends made the various toys and other objects we use in the music lessons.”

Recorders were donated by the South African Music Education Trust and later this month a whole brass and wind section, including French horns, saxophones, trombones and trumpets, will arrive by ship in Durban, all donated by Uppingham School in England.

Local schools have provided support as well. Michaelhouse Community Partnership hosted a choir competition, Clifton Preparatory donated the proceedings from their My School link, while Hilton College, St Anne’s, The Wykeham Collegiate and Michaelhouse donated the takings of their Four Choirs Festival. Nottingham Road Pre-primary has also supported MLA through donations.

But success has seen MLA grow to a size where its funding requirements have outstripped those that can be supplied by its founder. “We need funding for more instruments, for transport in getting the children to and from events, as well as funding to pay teachers who teach at the various schools on a part-time basis.” A website would be useful as well. (If you would like to assist contact Mennie at 082 828 8068 or za)


From Nottingham Combined School, the mobile music team travels along the Fort Nottingham road to Silindele­ Primary School — a three-roomed building amid the fields. There are only two teachers: the principal, Nonhlanhla Mlotshwa, and her assistant Nomathamsanga Ndzingi. They both take part in the lesson that includes boys and girls from Grade 4, Grade 5 and Grade 6. Soon these children will be loaned recorders. Kerr explains to Mlotshwa how the loan system works, how the recorders are kept track of and how they are cleaned. “It integrates so many learning areas,” says Mlotshwa. “Learning about the need for cleanliness promotes health and hygiene, and counting how many instruments there are — that’s maths.” Mlotshwa says the MLA music lessons have been a great success. “Now the children are saying bonjour to us,” she laughs.

There is no carpet for the floor at Silindele and the children sit on blue plastic chairs. Today’s lesson sees the children move from singing “ti” and “ta” as words to using the notes on the cards as prompts to singing the sound these notes represent. They make the transition with ease.

“You’ve done beautiful work,” Kerr tells the children at the end of class. “Today you’ve read your first music notes.”

LEFT: (from left) Nonhlanhla Mlotshwa (principal of Silindele Primary), Helen Mennie (founder and project manager of Music Literacy Africa), Nomathamsanga Ndzingi (teacher at Silindele Primary) and Barbara Kerr (MLA music co-ordinator).

What music helps children learn?

MUSIC is a universal language and a form of expression in the learning of which:

• pupils use both sides of the brain, encouraging development of creativity and discipline;

• important concepts such as crossing the midline, spatial awareness, listening, co-ordination, psychomotor functions and the concept of time management are developed;

• pupils, in learning about and playing a musical instrument, gain self-discipline, mental agility, sensitivity, teamwork, routine of practising, focus and concentration;

• self-expression by making music boosts confidence and broadens horizons; and

• an understanding of music structure and composition contributes to language comprehension.

— Music Literacy Africa.

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