Boogie Pilgrim

Community Outreach, Travel

Boogie Pilgrim: Part 3

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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 3


JUNE 4: The professional development phase of my trip is nearing an end, and I have had the privilege to gain exposure to a dozen diverse arts outreach programs here.  Each community, teacher, and facilitator has opened new doors of understanding for me.  Of course, I know it will take some time to fully distill all I have learned, but I have drawn some initial conclusions at this stage.  In recent years, I have come to suspect that classical music was probably not the most appropriate musical tool for community development.  The obvious reasons for this include the fact that it is a relic created mostly by dead white men (a population far removed from the very alive, and mostly racially mixed youth and adults I now teach).  Also, much of it is centuries old.  So, its relevance is difficult to convey to young students.  But more significantly, I think the primary issue lies in the fact that the music itself requires a highly complex set of skills and comprehension, making its immediacy as a tool for building self-worth, teamwork, and creativity limiting.  Conversely, the marimbas here use only 9 pitches (C,D,E,F,F#,G,A,B), allowing for 4 total keys (C Major, a minor, G Major, e minor) instead of 16.  Consequently, as I observed in every marimba band session, this restricted vocabulary actually expands the students’ aptitude and creativity.  They are rapidly able to become fluent in this simple language.  And more impressively, they are able to improvise within this useful frame early in their development.  This quite reminded me of the astounding results I have got from students when leading haiku activities in Artist-in-the-Classroom engagements with the Vancouver Biennale.  Similarly, the straightforward, 5-7-5 syllable, 3-line format enables young writers to clarify their thoughts in profound ways.

In these marimba bands, it was also helpful that the note names were written on the wooden keys so that students could learn visually as well as auditorily and kinesthetically.   Finally, it is a purely oral tradition, so everything is taught by modeling, and students learn basic patterns by rote.  This facile patterned-learning seemed extremely effective to me.  However, a director of a more classically oriented program, in Joburg, alternatively pointed out the additional benefits that students gain from developing note-reading skills and complex physical techniques (i.e. coordinating a bow arm and finger board hand; random wind instrument fingerings, etc.). When considering the cognitive benefits, I agree.  However, I have become increasingly more interested in the transferrable benefits that music-making affords a child or an adult.  This is what initially informed my choice to teach rock (and not classical) music to women in prison.

And that has proven to be highly successful.  This ease of learning (IE. Thousands of rock songs use only 3 chords) also lends to a great time had by all.  This fun factor became glaringly evident to me in one particularly rough Joburg neighborhood called Hillsboro.  I visited a program there, today, which taught both orchestral instruments and marimba.  (As my comments are somewhat critical I will omit the name of the organization).

That afternoon, I initially observed a recorder group session and a private violin lesson.  In both cases, students were corrected for “wrong” posture, notes, rhythms, hand position, etc. Negative approaches to teaching have sadly often become the tradition in classical pedagogy. Here is one example I overhead in this particular program:

Teacher, “Do you think that was good?’,

To which the shamed student meekly replied, “No”.

The teacher continued, “Then, why not?”

Student, “Because I was not holding my bow correctly.”

Surely, there must be more positively reinforcing ways to boost the enthusiasm and confidence of these highly disadvantaged kids.  And given the chance to immediately follow that discouraging experience with a visit to the marimba band in this same program, I confirmed that this positive approach is highly preferable.  In this context, students were given ample freedom to experiment, to make their own mistakes and learn how to correct them independently, to grow through repetition and creative exploration, and to teach and learn from each other. Facilitators merely offered initial demonstrations of musical patterns, and then assured the maintenance of a safe and supportive space.  But it was largely student led.  The success of this “letting go” amazed me.

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JUNE 6: My last day of observation brought me to the Music Empowerment Program in Braemfontein, recommended at the last minute by Helen Vosvoo, the director or the Keiskampa Music Foundation, with whom I had an enlightening exchange over breakfast this morning.    MEP is another orchestral program.  However, it clearly succeeds in creating an enjoyable and uplifting music-making experience for their students. Their kind director, Adi, offered me a chance to speak with the group of 30+ young musicians for about 15 minutes after class.  Instead of talking “at” them, I rather asked them to tell me why they make music. And their answers simply astounded me. “To build compassion. To use all the parts of my brain.

To become more cooperative and accountable to my peers.”  Clearly, this was not the first time they had had this discussion.  At this point, a light bulb went off for me.  As facilitators and educators in North America, we often talk amongst ourselves about the bi-products of arts-based learning.  But we rarely spell them out for our students.  I have now come to realize that this is a huge mistake, since this is actually key to the success of these programs.  This kind of value-based conversation gives these students voice, and also makes them understand that these programs are being offered because they are valued.  So, this instils their reciprocal hard work and earnest effort.

Also, there is a definite sense of urgency within the students I met in South Africa.  An urgency to grasp to anything that will give them a better chance in life.  I believe that for many inner-city North American students, this urgency is equally valid.  I also believe that our school art and music programs are in crisis, creating further urgency.  And it is our job to make this apparent to the students we teach, so they value and appreciate the arts-based offerings that non-profits like ArtStarts, the Vancouver Biennale, and Instruments of Change are leading, to supplement what should already be a mandatory part of their curriculum.

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Community Outreach, Travel

Boogie Pilgrim: Part 2

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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. Read Part 1 here.

Boogie Pilgrim

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

Part 2


MAY 27: Similar to the challenges of the Saint James Music Academy, where I teach in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it is often problematic for township students to take instruments home (due to the threat of theft, or even parents struggling with addiction who are at risk of selling them for drugs).  Fortunately, my second week has exposed me to programs where students have access to instruments throughout the week (safely stored in school, church or community centre spaces).  This, of course, dramatically improves the amount of progress that these young musicians can make, and subsequently I heard some tremendous talent.  Most memorable was the diminutive Huamani, a precocious 10-year old who bled music out of his every pore. As serious and focused as he was curious and playful, this killer marimba player picked up new melodies in seconds.  His every movement embodied the groove of the music he played.  And often, he deftly assumed leadership over his much older peers.  Also impressive was Masalino Felix, an official youth leader, trained by Music Works.  He skillfully leads three marimba bands in Heideveld (two for girls only), using the most structured disciplinary style I’ve seen in South Africa so far.  Having grown up with these students, mostly 10 years his junior, they showed him deferent respect and responded well to his firm but friendly style.  I, on the other hand, when given the treasured chance to play along to their Africanized version of “When She’s Gone”, was shaking in my boots as he reprimanded me for slowing these young keeners down with my lazy left hand technique!  I might have earned some cred because several kids mistook me for colored.  But unfortunately, my “white folks can’t swing” genes were revealed when my instrument had to be played by a mallet 12 inches away from my hands instead of right under my fingertips.

MAY 28: Something I could not have expected from this experience was the in-depth education I received daily, during our two-hour car commute from the NGO offices (where I bused) to Cape Town’s outer communities.   What a privilege it was to see the townships from the perspective of the Khosa community musicians, (employed by Music Works), who grew up there themselves, and continue to live in the neighborhoods where they teach.  From them and other Music Works instructors, I gained a more nuanced understanding of certain realities than I could have surmised myself.  Monday, one facilitator explained that we might have been unable to reach our program that day.  Since a taxi driver conflict, over “stolen” fares, had occurred in that area the night before, resulting in several deaths, she was concerned that it would be deemed unsafe.  However, we proceeded to the gang-ridden Lavender Hill with ease.  On our way home, another facilitator commented on the quiet behavior of a normally effusive youth leader in that neighborhood’s program. Apparently, he had been offered an important promotion, with substantial added responsibility for Music Works’ programs, only the week before.  But she suspected his low self-image was causing him to doubt his ability to “step up”.

So, he was avoiding any decision-making.  Mark, a Khosa leader from Khayelishta, who brings years of experience as a therapeutic wilderness facilitator to Music Works, offered fascinating insight to the different collaborative skills I observed between programs in Khosa or colored communities. The former, which I heard in Nyanga, possessed an innate ability to listen, groove together and make facile cooperative choices.  Conversely, while the Heideveld students still played at a quite a high level, it took considerably more time for them to find each others’ beat, or to agree on style and tempo. Mark attributed this to communication and learning styles that were deeply ingrained in these disparate cultures.  Interestingly, this Khosa talent was recognized and supported by Canada’s own Sarah MacLachlan Foundation, who helped fund a tour of the Nyanga marimba band to Toronto last year.  Of course, my mind is already spinning with ways to bring them to Vancouver as soon as I can.

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JUNE 2:  No one here seems to bother with idle chit chat.  Life in South Africa is deep and complex, as is every conversation with passing strangers.  A street cleaner shared his doubts about the effectiveness of outreach programs that reach only a scant few while thousands ofyouth go unattended.  A friend of a friend, and black immigrant to South Africa, mentioned her frustration with beggars, seeing as she came here with nothing and always did whatever it took to fend for herself.  Another Khosa local described the social barriers that make it difficult to set up community gardens in townships riddled with hunger.  He felt that his own people ultimately hold a “fend for themselves” attitude in order to simply survive in this culture of such huge wealth disparity.  Consequently, he believed they would even steal food out of the earth from their own neighbors.  I cannot verify his perceptions, but I was encouraged to see some Khosa community members finding solutions to such problems.  Four mothers from the township of Nyanga, outside of Cape Town, independently established their own, now very successful community centre which houses one of the music outreach programs I visited.  It also offers many other social services including food, sports programs, and a lush garden that the local youth reap and sow.  My favorite memory from this Etafani Centre was the moment when, for about five minutes, a half dozen mothers broke down and boogied to one of the student’s marimba tunes.  Can you ever imagine such a thing happening at a conservatory in North America?!   It is precisely this music and dance that pulses through the veins of South African people which drew me here.  And it is what already makes me want to return.


Community Outreach, Music for Social Change, Pedagogy

Boogie Pilgrim: Part 1

No Comments

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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