COVID-19 and violin lessons for township children: an interview

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Maria Botha, founder of Muzukidz, talks to Naomi Meyer about a hope-giving project: township children playing the violin during lockdown.

Dear Maria, thank you for sharing the information on violin lessons in the townships during this time (more information below). What gave you the idea of children in the townships learning to play the violin during this time?

The children have already had violin lessons for the past four years, but the "lockdown" period, of course, meant no lessons for an unknown amount of time. We decided to try and teach them via videos that we send to them on WhatsApp. With them having no access to internet data, computers or any tools, we found a phone number in each family where we were sure the kids would have access, and we send them data so that they can continue lessons.

A violin is an expensive instrument for somebody living in a township. How did the process work of organising the instruments and getting them into the hands of the children who wanted to learn to play?

As mentioned above, the children have been playing since they were five or six years old. For the first two years, we taught them on violins that we kept with us, and we explained to their parents that they could purchase violins so that they could have one at home, too. The parents had time to save, and, after two years, once the kids were able to handle the violin, most of the parents had the savings ready to purchase one. We believe that this "investment" in a violin gives them self-value and pride and empowers them, rather than letting them just get it all for free and making them dependent on getting everything from us. Moreover, it accentuates the importance of "investment in education". As you are familiar with the violin yourself, you are aware that it does not happen overnight! The violin is like a symbol of what could open up for a child "in the future" and the work that needs to go into something before it can start having benefits!

The children’s families are very much involved, and practising at home and having to see the kids follow our videos has also made them more aware and committed to this long process of learning!

Did any of the children have a musical background before learning to play the violin? Please share some of the stories.

No musical background. Of course, classical music is completely foreign to them, but they quickly acquired enough skill to start playing their own traditional African music tunes. The whole learning process is a transformation in their lives on an everyday basis. One boy in the group would have ended up a dropout, and surely, like most adolescent kids, got into drugs and gangsterism in later life. His violence with other kids, which had already started when he was at a young age, has been completely disappeard in the past few months through his daily connection with his violin. He plays almost every day and can continue for hours. All the school teachers are noticing that this "badly behaved boy" is getting focus and motivation to improve himself. He said to me the other day: "I will say no to the bad Alizwa and only allow the ‘good’ Alizwa to be alive within me."

There are many similar stories also of the families, and how the whole family is transformed and their lives are organised around the next violin event!

How about the teachers: where are they from, and how did they become part of this initiative?

The principal teacher spent most of her life abroad teaching in Europe, and therefore had a big network of colleagues overseas. When the project started, some of these teachers from overseas came every year during their summer European vacation to help teach the children. They became part of the children’s and their families’ lives, and the kids are familiar with them, and they were willing to participate in helping to teach them during this period via WhatsApp videos.

Making music has a positive influence on people during this lockdown, as can be seen in Italy, too. Please would you elaborate on why you think this is the case?

Well, the children have absolutely "nothing" to do and are stuck in extremely small spaces, often with many other people. Everyone is overwhelmed with fear of the virus and, moreover, hunger, because they have no more income. They have something to look forward to every day with the videos, and this gives the whole family communication and connection with the world outside; it also gives them the feeling of others caring about them, and gives them the opportunity to communicate their needs to others outside. I believe that when those violins "ring" outside and through the empty streets, even more than only these families can "escape" this rude reality and feel comforted by music for a few magical moments!

Do you think that these children will eventually be able to play together – maybe form an orchestra? What is the long-term goal with this project?

They do play together on a regular basis, and have also started playing with a Cape Town orchestra and meeting many other kids from all cultural backgrounds. They will definitely be part of a generation of good players in the future of Cape Town – and even broader – and are all already dreaming of playing in orchestras.

Where do you get your funds? What can people do if they want to participate in any way?

The founder and principal teacher, as mentioned above, had a network overseas; many friends came to visit the lessons in the townships, and it all started very organically! A friend of the founder was the first to fund – through his company – a small monthly donation, which was enough to buy a few violins and cover the initial costs. As the project became more and more visible, people got interested, and more donations were established to grow the project and allow for more kids to start having the same opportunity in following years.

Watch a video of the initiative here:

More information:

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people across South Africa, none more so than those living in the townships in and around Cape Town. Children are unable to go to school until further notice, parents cannot go to work and many have lost the modest jobs they had. Everyone has to stay at home.  
 
But a special group of children, from different corners of the townships, remain united through that which has been providing them and their families with hope and joy long before COVID-19 entered the world's reality.  They are learning to play the violin through the NPO program, Muzukidz, which offers free and intensive violin tuition to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, although the pandemic is preventing teachers and learners from being together and attending their lessons at school, it is not stopping them from continuing their progress and enjoying the many benefits that learning music offers to young children. Teaching continues via WhatsApp, with specialist teachers from across the world sending them their lessons and teaching them online, daily.       
 
A beautiful video edit combining the children’s practicing and teachers’ teaching clips with some comments from the parents, is available on https://youtu.be/z8zuQS-utBM. All the clips (excluding opening shot) were self-filmed by learners in the Muzukidz program and their families, and the teachers from across the world. 
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