Cape crusaders fight poverty with violins

18th March 2011 at 00:00
South Africa: A Cape Town music project has overcome parents' scepticism to bring classical training to townships

The violin: it's an unlikely weapon in the fight against poverty, violence and despair. But for music teacher Maria Botha, it's the perfect tool to turn troubled children in Cape Town's township into disciplined pupils armed with a talent and hope for the future.

For the past two years, Ms Botha has taught the violin at three schools in the city townships of Guguletu, Nyanga and, more recently, Langa. She teaches a total of 120 pupils - 40 in each school - aged five to 12, roughly half male and half female.

Supported by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra and the city council, the Masidlale Music Project aims to give hope to Cape Town's poorest children and provide classical musical training for young people who could go on to make a career in music.

"Some of these children live in miserable circumstances in tough areas where crime and drugs are everywhere," said Ms Botha. "But when I see them pick up a violin and play, I see their eyes light up and love for the instrument and the music.

"Many of these children want to get out of poverty and learning the violin gives them discipline in their lives, away from the utter poverty they live in. It could be any instrument - the guitar, the cello - but I play the violin so they learn the violin."

South African Ms Botha moved to France as a teenager, and trained in Lyon where she followed the Suzuki method of learning. Based on the approach of Japanese violinist Shin'ichi Suzuki, the curriculum focuses on teaching children at a young age by placing emphasis on learning by listening rather than by reading musical notation.

Ms Botha said: "Young children pick it up very quickly. For a lot of these children, learning the more classical way at home is not an option, so they come to us and get a feel for the music and learn by listening and watching.

"It's incredibly therapeutic to watch them progress. At first, many of the parents were suspicious and wary about what we were trying to do. They didn't see the value in it because it wasn't bringing in money. Many just want their children to earn money, begging or whatever.

"But we brought them along, took them to see orchestras and the opera and showed them their children on a stage. They're incredibly proud and can see the perspective their children are getting."

Ms Botha said that most of the pupils at the three schools are under eight years old, and that there is a drop-out rate of 5 per cent, mainly through physical disablement.

She said it usually takes around 15 years to become a professional violinist, but added that she has already identified 20 pupils who she thinks could go on to have a career in classical music.

"Because of historical reasons and poverty, too few black people are professional musicians in South Africa, but we think this project will change that," Ms Botha said.

"These children are being given a tool to change their lives. It's not just about learning the violin, it's about learning discipline and self-respect and giving them opportunity."

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