United Colours of Africa
"No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. " Kahil Gibran
Classical Music Development & Buskaid
“Music has to be recognized as an…agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony and mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.” José Abreu
I interviewed Susan bass in Johannesburg 2010
It was my interest in the arrival of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to South Africa that inspired me to talk to her.
Susan Bass says,
I am a cellist I play professionally with the JPO and have been involved in the project with Buskaid for 11 years. I am the primary Cello and Bass teacher in Soweto.
Can you tell me about the your involvement with the JPO and the invitation of the BPO (Berlin PO) in 2012.
I am also in charge of the education and development for JPO and run JPO academy, which is a programme for children who are at a tertiary level and can't go to university, so we provide tuition at a tertiary level and training for them as orchestral musicians. This is part of the link with the BPO that are coming out to do some work with the academy and the academy orchestra. I don't know the extent of what the BPO are going to do, but the collaboration is coming from the JPO side and we will have to find the money to bring them out year.
How does the academy outreach programme operate?
The academy has a membership of 28 learners it has been going for three years. The orchestra is of about 55. It is made of academy musicians plus other capable young musicians from around Johannesburg. We are building a feeder orchestra for the JPO. We have not got to that point yet where we can say we have produced ‘X'. We are still in the building stage. Next year there will be a couple of people employed by the JPO's cadets, with a view to after a year after the cadetship, they will become fully professional musicians. That process by 2013 should be quite substantial. We are still in the stage of developing these musicians. We provide scholarships. For these 28 students everything gets paid for. Education, tuition, everything gets paid for through the JPO.
How is the system that the musicians own the orchestra?
You need to talk to Shadrack. He is the CEO, he will be able to answer those questions.
We are involved with the running of the orchestra. That is how the JPO started. I don't know how else an orchestra should be run? Things have changed from the old days of bureaucracy and the people on the top and you are just an employee. In many businesses, that shift has taken place. Orchestras have adopted the same approach and it is nice to have a say. Not everybody says what they feel and not everybody is involved. There are a few who think that it is a job, but they do care how it is managed, so I think it is a good thing.
What is the plan for the Buskaid orchestra
There is an incredibly successful ensemble that exists in the Buskaid orchestra. It has toured throughout the world. The most recent tour was to Syria. They have performed in Botswana, all over South Africa, Europe many times, America. It is a very high standard string orchestra ensemble. Hopefully one day it will become something that is professional. And when you say professional, we are talking about people earning a living by playing in that orchestra. That is the dream. It is difficult with young people as they have a lot of aspirations and a lot of them want to try different things.
And the problem with music is it takes many years to become proficient on their instrument so to build up a group of players that are sufficiently proficient takes long and then sometimes you lose them along the way and they go in different directions and then you have to start again. To get to that point could take longer than one had hoped, because there is a constant cycle happening of new ones coming up and old ones moving on and circumstances change, they have babies and don't want to play anymore and you have spent ten years training them and then you lose them. It is a difficult process.
Is Samson Diamond an outstanding student from Buskaid, or are there others?
Samson is unfortunately not really very much part of Buskaid anymore. We supported him and sent him to the UK. He was there for seven years. The first 4 years we paid exclusively for his intuition at the Royal College of Music. He got further support in the UK to help him. He did a post graduate degree and then he started free lancing in the UK. Why he came back you would have to ask him, but he came back and he has decided to pursue his own solo career. He is a product of Buskaid but he is not really part of the organisation anymore. But, we have other students. We have two studying at the Royal academy in London Kabelo Molotebe and Tietshietso Mashieshie and they are in the second year now. And the plan is that they will come back after four years and continue working with Buskaid and playing with us.
What we have got at Buskaid which is quite exciting: this has been the first year that we have started formally employing some of our older students who have now progressed from student to teacher. They are teaching and an integral part of the group. When Kabelo and Tietshietso come back on their holidays they get involved in that teaching and performing aspect of the Buskaid organisation. There is lots of talent in Soweto. Just about every child that walks through the door is talented.
Rosemary was saying that there is a particular sound that inspired her?
There is an energy about the African spirit that comes through in their playing. When Rosemary first heard them playing on a BBC article, she heard this rather scratchy noise coming over the radio. But, she said there was definitely something there that made her listen. They have a natural instinct about classical music. They really know how to play things. As long as you are channelling the energy in the correct way you get amazing results. There is huge talent.
Buskaid employs a unique teaching method. It embraces natural body movement. They have a natural ability to use their bodies very expressively and creatively. This is the natural rhythm they have in themselves and this method works very well with that aspect of who they are.
What is interesting is that you have got a collective of musicians that have all been taught in the same way and stylistically playing in the same way. This is something very rare. Most orchestras are made up of different schools and elements. Buskaid is very unique as every single player has been taught with the same methodology and technical aspects. It has this incredibly cohesive aspect that makes the music making more exciting. Very flowing, lots of movement; we do pieces where they dance while they play. You don't see many classically trained musicians doing this. They have this spontaneous thing. It is the use of natural body movement and how the body works. It is based on natural movements. When you play string instruments you can do one of two things, you can either use your whole arm in a circular movement, where there is always a curve or a stop start movement where you are cutting off part of your body and just using one aspect of your arm to play. We find in Soweto that that doesn't work too well because they want to involve their body to play the instrument and natural movement.
Everything in the world that is natural is made up of circles. Everything has curves and shapes. Everything that is man made is right angular and at 90 degrees. It makes sense that when you want to play an instrument. If you look at the science of how a violin is made it is very meticulously designed around circular natural mathematical phenomena in order to create this acoustic miracle that when you stretch four pieces of wire across something and it has a natural amplifier, it produces this magnificent sound.
It is all based on nature. The shape of the string instrument is a natural forming shape it makes sense that when you play it you want to use your body in a natural way. That is what this method is based on; that natural aspect of circular movement. We have a ball and socket joint and it needs to work in a natural circular movement. When I started with Buskaid I kind of learnt these things along the way, nothing was formalised. I had been given this information as I had terrible tension and back problems when I was younger. I was in constant pain at one point my physiotherapist said I either have to stop playing or live with the pain. I started exploring and went to other teachers who gave me these things based on circular movement. When I got down to Buskaid and started learning this method, it put it into a formal way of teaching. There are four books that develop this approach into a formal aspect of teaching. I embraced it and I changed things in my playing to learn so that I could then teach that to my students and I got rid of all my tension and my back ache so for me it worked. There are lots of different schools of thought. It works and it works in Soweto. It depends on the people who you are teaching and who you are.
What is the evolution of Buskaid?
When I started in 1999, Buskaid had been going officially for two years. When Rosemary started she had 15 students in 1997 on her own. She single handedly raised the money for a purpose built music school. She found the land, negotiated everything, raised the money and built the music school which started in 1999. I started working with them in October. There were about twenty to thirty students. From there we realised we had to start new students to continually keep the cycle going. Our big problem is that we did not have teachers. Bad teachers you will not get anywhere. You got to have dedicated responsible good teachers. And not every performing musician is necessarily a good teacher. Teaching is definitely a vocation as far as I can work out. Those days in Soweto, people were still quite nervous to come down. Until I joined she had had some cello teachers, but it hadn't worked. When I came down it created some sort of stability in the lower half of the teaching. She deals with all the violins and violas and I was teaching cello. We had another double bass teacher and then something happened. He dropped off the radar and then I started teaching double bass as well, but as they are similar in the way you play it, it is the same thing like the violin and the viola. It operates in the same way, just different fingering and different clef. It started stabilising in late 2000.
We realised that if we wanted more students we needed more teachers. We realised that what we had to start training our own teachers. So we started the process with our older students who had a good understanding and had been through the process of book one to book four and were now at the level of senior students, started coming and helping Rosemary when we took in a new intake of six or seven little kids and started learning how to teach, hands-on in the classroom, fixing things, adjusting position and really helping. Once they had become proficient, they would then come in and help the younger ones. This process is still ongoing. I have my intermediate students helping my junior students and my junior students helping my beginner students. It is a process that is continuing all the time and now we have got to a point where the oldest students are now fully employed at Buskaid and that has taken us ten years to produce that.
How many teachers do you have in total?
Aside from Rosemary and I, we've got two full time girls that have come through the system, Cecelia and Kebetsa. We have got Lesego who doesn't teach every day. I have a cello student who helps me on a part time basis and bass student who help me regularly. And then there is Simiso who also does a bit of teaching.
What we have also got is what we call learnerships. A lot of them are on a learnership. Which means that they come to the music school at 9:30 they practice for four hours and then they teach in the afternoon. There is a combination affect, they are learning and they are also helping us with the teaching. We have kids coming here every day knocking on the door. We have a waiting list from here to Cairo. We are up to 85 students. We need to expand the school. The school is too small.
Is the expansion infinite?
The more teachers you have got the more space you have got the more you can expand. It is based in Diepkloof we like to offer it to the community in that area for a number of reasons. We have kids that come to us from other areas but they always encounter problems with transport. I have a student who lives quite far away and he has to catch two busses and a taxi to get to the school for his music lessons. This year has been quite difficult because I get down there at 3:30 to teach him and he doesn't pitch. No, he has been kept late by the school or he couldn't get on the taxi. It does create problems. Ideally when they live in the area and go to school in the area it is wonderful they finish school they walk and they are there. It is open to everybody. We have children that come from professional backgrounds, parents who are more affluent and we also have got the very very poor kids that come and have no mother and father and are living with the aunty because the parents have died of HIV. And some of them are quite damaged, emotionally and mentally and we work very hard to try and get them something positive in their lives, something that they can grab onto and use to elevate their lives somehow. It was started as a project for people of disadvantaged communities but Soweto has changed hugely in the last ten years. It is not the Soweto of ten or eleven years ago. There are many more people from more stable environments, it is a more beautiful place, people are living in slightly better conditions.
How far does the vision extend, as example the El Sistema reaches 300 000 kids. Do you see Buskaid having such a magnificent outreach?
It would be wonderful. El Sistema is an amazing concept and what we do in Soweto is very similar. Our biggest stumbling block is finances. To reach 200 000 kids you need 50 000 teachers who have been trained properly; you need instruments, you need buildings.
We decided many years ago to concentrate on quality rather than quantity partly because we did not have the resources to open our doors to 150 kids at a time. We have grown from 15 to 85. We went through a stage of four or five years where we fluctuated between 40 and 50 students. What we started doing a few years ago was instead of taking in one student on a whim that wanted to learn,
Our music school is built no the grounds of a church in Diepkloof so we went to the church and told them we would like to involve the kids that come to their church. So we opened our doors and we had thirty kids arrive. That is the first time we ever took in such a big intake. After about six months the ones who don't want to do it leave and you get left with 14 or 15 which you can manage. And then as the years progresses you might lose one or two who drop away and one who shows a lot of promise. So you push that child to get them to the level. There is this constant juggling that is going on. We did it again the following year. Two years ago we had a cell class of 12. I have four from the cello class. We did it again last year, I had ten or eleven and now I am down to six.
The big problem is that you don't have a lot of support from the parents and they don't really understand how important it is for the children to come regularly. Children are also inherently naughty so they say to their parents that they are coming to Buskaid when they aren't. The parents think they are at Buskaid and we think they are at school and sometimes it is a bit unnerving because we don't actually know where the child is. I have a little kid now that I haven't seen for four months and suddenly appeared the other day. I said what are you doing here. And he said my mother wants to come and talk to you. I said she can come and talk to me. The caretaker then told me that the problem is the mother thought he had been coming but he was lying to her. You are dealing with so many different issues on so many different levels; cultural levels, community levels, family levels.
When I was a young girl and I expressed interest in doing music, my mother was a musician. She made damn sure that I practiced and that I went to my lessons. She had to pay for my lessons, so she made damn sure I went. They pay R35 a month, do you think we can get R35 per month out of the parents? It is such a problem to get them to take ownership to take responsibility. You know if you charged R500 a month they would pay it and be there. But they can't afford that, so you can't charge R500, you have to charge R35 and the they attach no value to it. It is really a catch 22.
What happened with El Sistema?
El Sistema the government got involved. The government poured huge amounts of money into that system and that is why it reaches 200 000 kids. They identified that music education was something they could use to eliminate poverty and that is what they did. Over thirty years they must have poured in millions and billions of dollars into that project. You have to have the resources, you have got to have the teachers, the facilities, the instruments and it costs huge amounts of money.
The big problem we have here is the arts in the governments eyes is very much at the bottom of the list. To get government in this country is unbelievably difficult. It is not impossible. Even with the lottery funding the amount of effort and paperwork and drama you have to go to get the money, monitor it, report on it takes huge amounts of time. When you should be down there teaching. You spend hours and weeks and days sorting out. We have got lottery funding which is fantastic. It has given us the opportunity to employ these teachers and that kind of thing. On a monthly basis we have to account for every single letter cent we spend on what we said we were going to spend it on. And id we don't spend it on the right thing you have to give it back to them. And you don't get it all in one go. You get it in these tranches and when you finish these tranches you have to report on that. And then you wait six or eight weeks for the next tranch to come in. And then you have to cover yourself while you wait for that money. And then when that money comes in you pay yourself back and then before you know it you have to report on that tranch again. It is a lot of PT. The arts council seem to go through phases where they will support things that are dance orientated, but instrumental teaching is maybe not so important to them.
Does a golden age of music need government support?
Culture is something that over the years people have realised that it is not something that fits into a capitalist economy. You can't make a profit from it. It is very difficult for an orchestra to make a profit from it. For every Symphony concert we do we loose a lot of money. If you were to charge a ticket price to cover the cost nobody would be able to afford to come to the concert. Ticket sales never cover the costs. Because classical music is incredibly expensive to do because you have all these highly skilled musicians that have to get paid. And then you have conductors. In this country we don't have a wealth of amazing conductors we have to bring them out from Europe or America or whoever. And so you have to pay for their flights and their hotel accommodation and their fees. And then you have soloists. We use local soloists as much as possible and it is good that we do always have the integration of the culture we have here and we bring in overseas artists and conductors because in Europe there is so much competition that the standard is understandably that much higher. This is good so people know what the standard is there and we can always aspire to get to that level. Then you have to pay for the venue this costs us R1 mil per year and then you have to pay for the music that you have to hire. If it is still under copyright you have hire it, you have to pay R350 per minute or you buy it. You have to ship it out from America. It is all those costs that go into putting on a performance. Classical music has never been something that people make money out of. It is art. It is a cultural thing. Governments over hundreds of years people realised that this was important for their country, their folk and their people and thought it was necessary and therefore subsidized it.
As the world has changed there have been other priorities for governments to attend to such as education and health and welfare. Because music is seen as a luxury item less and less money has been poured into it. What El Sistema has shown is that if done correctly it creates more and it is more useful to put your money there then use it for health, welfare and education? You put your money there and use it as part of your health, welfare and education programme. If you have got young people who are creative by nature, skilled and have the opportunity to earn a living they become productive members of society. They pay their taxes and the government has more money in the coffers to help poorer people. There are less poor people. There is less strain on the country. It makes sense. Unfortunately in this country they don't see the benefit of music education. There have been so many studies done over the years on the benefits of a child learning a musical instrument. They don't have to become professional musicians: but to develop their co-ordination skills, their motor skills, their reading skills and team work, there are huge benefits. It is proven that a child who studies a musical instrument at school does better in science and maths than a child who does not. The right and left parts of the brain is developed. That is studied and proven. Venezuela latched onto that they realised that that was something that could help this country.
I believe passionately in music education. From working eleven years in Soweto and dealing with those communities, I have realised that the black people in the country are an incredible creative nation. They have a creative spirit and are naturally creative people. What is happening to the young people they go to school and from day one get science and maths? I understand, we have had a brain drain, we need doctors and engineers. These kids go and they don't get. They struggle and they don't pass. They get to matric and they fail. They have been told that they have to get matric and pass science and maths. Eventually they give up and what happens is they are 19 or 20 years old, they haven't got a matric certificate, they can't go anywhere and study anything and they become reprobates, they stand around on street corners getting into gangs, drugs and become non-productive members of our society. I am not saying there are no mathematicians and scientists in the black community. They are a minority. And if there was a way in which we could design the education system so children could be identified as to where their strong areas are and channelled into an arts school or an academic school or a sports school and really challenged in their area of what they are good at. Everybody has got talent. If they are encouraged in the area that they are good at and come out of their twelve years of schooling with something positive then they become productive members of our society, instead of filling up our prisons.
Traditional music has an ancient form of music education.
At Buskaid we encourage the children to create their own arrangements of traditional African music and we have released a couple of cd's with those arrangements. It is taught in the traditional folk music way. Whether you are talking about the rural villages of KZN or Romania, folk music is folk music. And the wonderful thing about folk music, is it is always been passed down by ear and some people have taken the trouble to notate it. Bartok for example went into his native country in Romania and notated folk tunes which he used in his big orchestral pieces. Dvorak did the same when he went to America he took melodies from his home country Checkoslavakia. Folk music gypsy music has always been passed down by ear.
What happens in Buskaid, there is a small group of them that come up with an idea. If they like a particular song they arrange it, how they are going to play it, using the instruments of the orchestra and then they teach it by ear to the other members of the group. It is a very noisy affair. You hav the whole grouo in there and everybody is playing and people are learning by watching and listening what the notes are. The only way we preserve them is through a recording. So we do try and get this aspect of their music alive.
Have you thought of incorporating traditional string instruments?
That is not where we came from. We came from Western classical instruments. We have tried over the years to start a brass project. Unless you are a 100% focused on making sure everybody does their job and you leave it up to other people, the whole thing collapses. That is one of the reasons Buskaid has been so successful is because Rosemary has been very hands on and very determined to make sure that everything happens the way it should happen. This takes a huge amount of energy and time. Sadly a lot of people don't really see the value to making sure that people do the job and do what they have said they are going to. It is human nature. People rather take the easy route than the hard route. Teaching music is such a discipline. If you don't do it properly you might not do it at all because what are you going to produce? People who can not play? It is frightening what is going on in other places in this country. We had a Royal Schools examiner come down two weeks ago, an examiner from Europe. He is a flautist. He and his wife started a project in Ireland. They did it for ten years and they couldn't do it anymore. They were exhausted. He said he was taken to a music project on the South of Joburg somewhere. These poor kids had been entered into exams and didn't even know what a scale was. You even have a situation where you don't have teachers and somebody doing something because they need to have it on paper that kids have done exams. Or it is a case of bad teaching. You come back to the whole thing of teaching, it is so important. If you have good teachers you will have good results.
People look at Buskaid as a model of excellence. Part of the reason for that is because we took a decision not to go big, but for quality and control and to make sure that what we produce is something good.
We are not going to please anybody. There were probably thousands of kids that could have been fabulous string players but we turned them away because we didn't have the space. But I don't know which is worse.
I am very proud to be involved in the process. I have learnt so much about how to teach from Rosemary. She is an amazing women she is very driven and dedicated and she is an absolutely phenomenal teacher and she has produced many fine fiddle players over the years. Sadly not all of them have continued.
It is fascinating when you listen to the group as a whole; it is amazing how these kids play. When they go overseas some of the professional orchestras have sat down and said what can we learn from these kids? What can we incorporate from their performance to make our performance even better? They actually collaborated with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which was an amazing experience for everybody.
You listen to the orchestra and they are so polished, stylistically beautiful performances and very well rehearsed. And then you listen to some of the individual players and they are not very good. It is the sum of the whole. It doesn't matter that there are a couple of people who are not as great the others. It is what happens when they collectively get together that I find so fascinating with the group. Part of it goes back to the fact that they are all trained the same way and they all have a common idea of how they put the bow on the string and produce a sound. No matter what the technical limitations of the individual players when you put riot all together you get something absolutely amazing, which I find quite fascinating because that is the uniqueness of it.
The kids I have in the academy most have had individual lessons and they don't have ensemble training. They are at a level where very soon if they continue working and practicing they will be good enough to play in a professional orchestra but we can't throw them into a professional orchestra if they don't know how to play in a group. There is a gap.
The Buskaid kids can make a transition into a professional orchestra no problem as they have had an incredible journey from little to older of playing in groups and getting good teaching. A lot of the kids in the academy have no, bad or erratic teaching. And that is what Rosemary discovered when she first arrived in this country is that someone like Samson had was very talented had had very erratic teaching in his first few years as a fiddle player. So when she got hold of him and gave him regular lessons and a plan of working from A to B to C, he realised his potential. It would have taken him far longer and he had developed lots of bad habits. It is so important to practice regularly and have regular lessons.
When you play a string instrument there a certain things you do that are uncomfortable for a while. It takes three days to develop a habit and twenty one days to undo it. It is so easy for things to develop slightly wrong. The problem with bad habits is that when they start playing music that is technically more challenging they suddenly can't do it.
That is where Rosemary has been so successful and able to create an environment where they understand the aspects of self discipline and problem solving and all these things.
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