Boogie Pilgrim: Part 1

Editor’s note: In May and June 2014, flutist Laura Barron traveled to South Africa to observe music education programs devoted to fostering positive social change. For the first three Fridays in December, we are pleased to present her recollections of that experience in a multi-part series. 

Boogie Pilgrim

An exploration of the solitary soul enchanted by the primal, charged, intimate encounter of naked sensation with the astonishing world.

Part 1


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MAY 20: I am so awake!  My forehead is getting creased from simply trying to keep my eyes and ears open enough to catch the barrage of new stimulation and information coming my way.  This plan, to immerse myself in the rich arts outreach culture of South Africa, has immediately connected me to a number of fascinating local people eager to fill my brain with endless stories about the history, politics, culture and arts of this incredibly interesting nation.  Their generosity has also been extended to me through meals, rides, and even bus passes.  The latter, believe it or not, was lent to me by a local dancer I merely met in a coffee shop my first morning.  As fellow foodies, travellers, and artists, Jenna and I hit it off instantly.  When she learned of my intention to visit various programs, throughout a large geographical area of Greater Cape Town, she simply handed me her student bus pass (which she rarely uses as a frequent walker and downtown-based resident) to use for two weeks. This allows me to take the FREE and very safe student shuttle all over town.  What a way to feel welcomed!

MAY 21: My introduction to South Africa’s music outreach culture began watching three doe-eyed girls playEidelweiss on their saxophones.  While I only expected to be a curious bystander, I was thrilled to be offered a chance to teach these enthusiastic learners.  Thankfully, my rusty memory of fingerings, taught to me in high school by my tenor-playing brother, came in quite handy.  What most impressed me was the complete absence of behavior issues, to which I’ve become so accustomed amongst North American school kids.  Refreshingly, these students hung on their teachers every word, never played out of turn, and seemed to be genuinely aware of the privilege they were being afforded.  Our session ended in the prerequisite hugs and photos that I have so often enjoyed with children on my travels.

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MAY 22: Thursday had me teaching trumpet, believe it or not (where I pulled a C Major scale out of my archives, from 15 years back when Geoff briefly took up the instrument).  Again, I heard a few sweet and eager students, including a boy who jammed out on the drum kit, though barely taller than its bass drum. Interestingly though, some kids in Landsdowne (a slightly more middle class area than the first township) were not so rapt in attention, nor perhaps fully appreciative of their privilege or their instructor’s efforts (2-hour daily round trip drive). Like at home, some students came to class late, brought wrong equipment, and were less willing to practice patiently despite George’s encouraging though firm approach.  Fascinatingly, he explained that the need for classroom management here is conversely proportional to the wealth of the students (the richer, the more entitled and less grateful).  This makes me curious if a similar phenomena exists at home.  However, I know that we even struggle with chaotic behavior in our Downtown Eastside inner city music school which offers instruction for free to 200 kids.  I continue to ponder why, and will use my experience here to gain more insight.

MAY 26: It is now Monday and today’s outreach experience was exactly what I travelled to South Africa to observe – traditional African marimba band and choir music taught to marginalized children in a safe and supportive setting.  Music Works has run extensive therapeutic programs in the Cape Town surrounds for a decade.  And these folks really get it right.  Their edict says it all: VIP stands for Valued students allowed ample Initiative in a Playful manner.  This 11-year old organization has a broad geographic and demographic reach, highly trained therapists & perfomer/teacher/facilitators, in addition to a well-articulated mission that they truly implement.  Many students have stayed with their program for years.  Subsequently, Music Works has wisely trained many of their own participants as youth leader/facilitators in their programs. They extend this same empowering approach to every student. A brilliant community musician, Zwei, taught his students complex marimba parts through modeling. Then, he left them ample time to experiment and falter until they taught themselves to correct their own errors. This trusting approach worked wonders. Mark, the main singing instructor, used a similarly fluid approach.  Song choices seemed to occur organically, and were frequently offered by the students.  Group songs often erupted into games.  And all music-making was accompanied by animated movements, sometimes prescribed and other times improvised.  I joined all the activities as a fellow student, and my little peers got a kick out of trying to get me eliminated from their Simon Says contests, or egging me on to invent my own moves to songs I did not know.  With 6 youth and professional leaders for these 30 students, a healthy balance of play and learning was achieved. The session was followed by a debrief, to assess strengths and needed improvements in facilitation style and planning.  My hosts claimed that it was a hectic day, and that they hoped to harness the students’ energy better in the next session.  But to me, what emerged was a beautifully organized chaos that fostered passion and musicianship in each child very effectively.

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