Apr 052017
 

Music Graduates: Interested in an African Adventure?

We are looking for two musicians to work as volunteer teachers in Kenya for a one or two year placement, starting Aug/Sept 2017.

You will be based at Starehe Boys’ & Girls’ Centres in Nairobi. Duties include individual lessons, choir training, preparing students for ABRSM exams and Kenya Music Festival, piano accompaniment and some classroom teaching. You will have a Music degree/B.Ed with Music or equivalent and be a competent pianist. You may already have experience teaching, accompanying and training ensembles but this is not essential.

Starehe Boys’ School is a charitable boarding school with an international reputation, being the first school to offer free secondary education to some of the brightest but poorest boys in Kenya. The school has grown from its humble beginnings in two tin huts to educating 1000 boys at any one time. Starehe Girls’ School is its partner institution.

This is a wonderful opportunity for an enthusiastic and committed musician with high expectations to work in an inspiring educational and social environment. The students are well motivated, eager to learn and ready to seize any opportunities offered them. There is free accommodation, a monthly living allowance and the return air fare to the UK.

We have been sending volunteers to Kenya for life-changing experiences since 2004.

Please send CV and covering letter to the UK sponsor of this post:

THE MARTYN DONALDSON MUSIC TRUST, 7 Manor Crescent, Tytherington, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK10 2EN.

www.mdmt.org.uk / andy.donaldson@mdmt.org.uk / 01625 433187 for further information

Closing date for applications is 1st May 2017

Jan 252016
 

At the end of 2015, volunteers Ellen McPherson and Lucy Meredith completed two years working at Starehe Boys’ & Girls’ Schools in Nairobi, Kenya as volunteer music teachers.  In this report, Lucy sums up the highlights of her time in Kenya…

 

Summary of being a Starehe Volunteer 2014-15

 

It’s almost impossible to summarise two incredible years but I’ll try and highlight the important parts…

  • At the end of my first year, December 2014, five Starehe Boys joined the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya (KNYO) on flute, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet. Three of the same boys have been in the Safaricom Youth Orchestra (SYO), which rehearses every Saturday, since April 2015. They have learnt an incredible amount musically but also, by interacting with other young musicians and tutors, Kenyan and otherwise, they’re learning more about the world too. The trumpeter, Samuel Ndungu, a fully sponsored boy with one parent, performed a jazz solo at the last SYO concert and received a standing ovation from the audience and a request to play it again. I shed a few tears that day and I have sent a trumpet back so he gets his own trumpet, as he has truly earned it.  Samuel still has one year left at Starehe where he is the band leader and a natural born conductor.
  • Many boys have taken ABRSM practical and theory exams in both the 2014 and 2015 period, but three in particular shone out this year receiving distinctions at Grade 3 and Grade 5 piano. As a result, they were asked to perform at the ABRSM High Scorers Concert and performed very well. Also the majority of theory candidates passed with merit or distinction at Grade 5.
  • There are many instruments considered rare in Kenya; viola, cello, double bass, oboe, bassoon and French horn all fall into that category with very few young Kenyans receiving the opportunity to play them. There have been two professional musicians from the US visiting the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Lydia Van Dreel – French horn and Elizabeth Tomorsky Knott – Oboe. I was lucky enough to organise for them both to visit Starehe on several occasions and teach selected music students. We have two boys doing very well on the oboe and two trumpeters who had a few lessons on the French horn, so we’re hoping that they’re good enough to join the Youth Orchestra soon.
  • After two years at the National Kenya Music Festival (KMF) I’ve seen the boys go from strength to strength in all of the categories, with countless trophies and 1st I will remember two of the boys in advanced piano in 2015 coming 1st in solo and duet and rushing with the same boys over to another venue, to perform in our woodwind ensemble and our windband (they are both flautists too!), which I conducted and for which we came 2nd and 3rd respectively, then running to a different venue again for Moses Otieno, who came with us to UK, to conduct and accompany choir pieces which he trained. Doing their best from beginning to end of each day definitely made us proud.
  • During the two years at Starehe I have managed to increase the instruments, both by donations from UK or Kenya and ones I managed to purchase and fix myself. These include; upright acoustic piano, electric Yamaha Clavinova, 3 acoustic guitars, 3 violins, 4 flutes, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 4 trumpets (MDMT donated), euphonium, music stands and countless music books and enough spare reeds etc. to keep them going for a while. These instruments are used for hours on a daily basis, whether in their music lessons during the day or after school, in the band or other ensembles or just learning from each other in their spare time in the evenings and at weekends.
  • My personal highlights would be; performing in a wind trio in the School Christmas Concert 2015 with two of my “superstars” in the youth orchestras, taking the 6 boys to Macclesfield in September 2014, working hard with the wind ensembles at KMF performing Bohemian Rhapsody and A Whole New World and conducting the performances at the festival witnessing all the hard work paying off, watching the President of Kenya dance with our boys who were the main performance for Uhuru Kenyatta at a prize giving at State House in 2014 and finally throwing the surprise thank you party for the musicians at school where I bought cake and soda for over 50 boys and where many kind words were exchanged and a song or too also.
  • The majority of the best parts happen in the evenings, weekends and holidays. The day to day work of teaching about 35 students individual instrumental lessons, mainly piano with some flute and violin, can seem rather mundane.  However some of those are preparing for the Young Musicians competition in February 2016, with pieces I wouldn’t attempt myself, so those lessons are never actually boring and I feel I’ve learnt a lot from them also.

 

I must thank MDMT wholeheartedly, as without this incredible opportunity to teach many talented boys, I wouldn’t have learnt so many things about myself in the last two years, including how to live alone in a new country and how important friends and family are, whether new or old. I also continued learning and pushing myself by achieving ABRSM Grade 8 Viola, starting the viola sections in both of the youth orchestras in Nairobi during 2015, leading the Nairobi Orchestra viola section and performing solos, conducting ensembles, accompanying ABRSM students, teaching saxophone to a Grade 5 student who passed and also taking cello lessons!

 

I’m currently going back to teaching upper strings in schools across my county, as a temporary job until I (hopefully) train to be a Secondary Maths teacher later in the year and probably stay for a few years teaching. My long term goal is to train teachers to be teachers in poor areas across the world, as I’ve seen my fair share of bad teachers. I strongly believe that a good quality education is the key to success and pray for a world without extreme poverty.

 

Asante sana (Thank you very much)

Lucy

Aug 282012
 

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Rob Stewardson tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.

 

There are only so many academic articles one can read in a day, and only so many times one can break the ennui by checking one’s emails in the hope that somebody will have responded to one’s query about an obscure score. On one such check on a Friday afternoon in July 2008 while writing my Masters degree at Manchester University there was a rather more interesting email; ‘The Martyn Donaldson Music Trust are looking to hire a music volunteer to work at Starehe Girls’ Centre in Kenya,’ it read! Needless to say, the thesis took a back seat for the afternoon and four days later I had been interviewed for and accepted a job 4000 miles away.

Fast-forward to January 2009 and I arrived in Nairobi late in the evening and was whizzed (quite literally) through the city and then into what seemed like the middle of nowhere; Starehe Girls’ Centre is 20k north of Nairobi and 4k through coffee and flower plantations from the main road. The school is in beautiful countryside with its own dam and no shortage of wildlife; monkeys, dik-dik, giant forest hog and over 70 species of bird were seen within the grounds and the place is utterly tranquil. At 11pm after an 8 hour flight it is quite bewildering, however!

‘I would like a band’, the Director, Mrs. Wanjohi, told me. Two trumpets with stuck mouthpieces stuck, two with stuck valves, two French Horns, two trombones and various woodwind instruments in varying states of dilapidation were available. ‘The German Embassy has promised more, we are just waiting for them,’ was often repeated. Two years later the donation came through and my last job at the school was organising the purchase and delivery of £4000 worth of instruments from the UK which are now widely used. We endeavored gamefully at the time and achieved a good National Anthem which is played every Monday morning at parade.

The first job at Starehe is to pick the music students. 80 confused Form 1s are lined up around the music room and given rhythm and pitch tests; the best 15 become music students and your piano students. Trying to find time to teach piano to 35 girls when one is only allowed to take them out of certain lessons and with other teachers distinctly obstinate is…tricky. In January 2009 we only had 1 electric piano which only worked when we had electricity. Life at SGC can be frustrating but is always fun!

Term 2 is Choir term. The provincials and nationals of the Kenya Music Festival are held in July and August and are taken very seriously. Rehearsals from 4-6, Monday to Thursday, for the 75-strong choir and then extra lessons, sometimes late into the evening, for all of the soloists and small ensembles. In 2009 we were exceptional winning three categories including the prodigious Class 301A, Girls’ Unaccompanied Set Piece ‘The Handsome Fool’. The look on the girls’ faces when the result was announced will remain with me forever. KMF is an experience and could test the patience of even the most serene. Lack of a piano (because it had slipped the committee’s mind, apparently), for instance, held up day 1 of the 2009 provincials; lack of water, either for drinking or sanitation, did not!

In the same week as the provincials we staged Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to general acclaim as the first event in the 50th anniversary celebrations of Starehe Boys’ Centre. A lack of spoons for the girls to eat their dinner with held up Saturday night’s performance by at least half an hour and there was general panic when the golden chalice was discovered in the sound box 30 seconds before it was needed (the students improvised and Benjamin was arrested for stealing a plastic tea-cup!). But, as with everything at Starehe, it was fantastic and such amazing good fun! I doubt that ever again I will work with such dedicated, hard-working, enthusiastic, motivated, intelligent and talented young people. When you consider their backgrounds, that these young people achieve so much musically in such a short period of time is extraordinary.

As well as working at SGC, I became heavily involved with the Nairobi Orchestra playing various brass instruments (I have had to make a promise that I will never play French Horn in public again), conducting for two concerts and playing the Tuba Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams in March 2010; a Kenyan, if not an African premiere. Dinner and a couple of cold Tuskers afterwards was always pleasant and the friendships made will last a lifetime. Teaching piano and brass at the Conservatoire on a Saturday was a welcome extra source of income especially when running, or more often fixing, a car.

Being a tutor with the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of Kenya was a unique experience. Our first gig was at the signing of Kenya’s new constitution. We marched on, me at the front of the line, television cameras in front of us, Kenya and African dignitaries to our right and up to 1 million people on the bank to our left, turned, played La Rejouissance, picked up the music stands and marched off again. Totally surreal but amazing to be playing in front of so many people. At our next gig, a lunch at Statehouse, to appease the whims of the President’s wife, the tutors got together and from a piano score, two trumpets, two clarinets, a flute, a tuba, a drumkit and a singer performed I got Rhythm. Perhaps the greatest lesson Kenya taught me is to be totally prepared for the unexpected and to improvise, improvise, improvise. On leaving Kenya I moved to South Africa and am setting up a music department at girls’ school in Johannesburg. The lessons and experiences discovered in Kenya have been and will remain invaluable.

There is plenty of time to get away and I had trips to Tsavo East, Meru, the Masaai Mara, Shimba Hills, Kakamega Forest, Lake Victoria, Lake Nakuru, Lake Baringo, Lake Bogoria, Mombasa, Lamu and Watamu. Each has its own special memories but breaking down in the Masaai Mara (engine overheated, warped cylinder-head, oil leak, water everywhere etc. (Tip: If you buy a car, get a good mechanic!)) will remain with me the longest. In December 2010, just a week before I left Kenya, I climbed the 4,995 metres of Lenana Peak on Mt. Kenya. Standing, looking down, at the country I had come to love was definitely the best way to finish two magnificent years at Starehe Girls’ Centre. My thanks once again to the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust for making it possible. May God bless and protect them and all future students and volunteers of Starehe.

 

Rob Stewardson

 

26 August 2012

Jun 282012
 

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Georgina Hardiman tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.

It’s hard to summarise two fantastic years when there are so many stories to tell. From arriving in Nairobi in December 2009 to saying farewell to my students in November 2011, my time in Kenya has been one unforgettable experience.

Back in June 2009 I was 1 month away from graduation and still unsure what to do next. I was interested in teaching but I didn’t feel ready to pursue a teaching degree straight away. It was then that I read the advert for the music volunteer position at Starehe Boys’ Centre which seemed too good to be true. It offered the chance for me to use the musical skills covered in my degree, gain teaching experience and to travel and live in another part of the world. This opportunity couldn’t be missed!

I had a few months to prepare myself, speak to ex-volunteers and to collect teaching resources. However, nothing can really prepare you to stand in front of 900 teenage boys and 100 staff members on your first day! Looking back, being thrown in at the deep end like this was the best thing for me and prepared me for what lay ahead. Living in a different country and dealing with the hectic city of Nairobi was a huge culture shock to me, but the welcoming staff and students quickly helped me settle into my new life. Before I knew it I felt comfortable in the school and city and developed a good routine.

As a music volunteer I was in charge of piano and violin lessons (teaching 40 individual lessons a week), classes on western music theory/history, training the choir for the annual Kenya Music Festival as well as organising and running musical events in the school. I also managed to host ‘Music Club’ weekly, school recitals and enter 22 students for international music exams (ABRSM). To witness students gaining their Grade 5 piano certificate after only one year of tuition proved to me just how enthusiastic and determined these young Kenyans are. My own skills were put to the test when I was asked to write a sacred composition for the Starehe Boys’ choir to sing in the Kenya Music Festival provincials 2011. I was thrilled when the judges announced that my composition had achieved first place. This provided me with valuable experience for writing choral music. My conducting ability was also tested when I had to publicly conduct the musical band (July 2011) and then a group of Starehe students in front of Prince Edward (September 2011). This is an area of music I have never attempted before and now I feel I have the confidence to use it in the future.

Georgina and the students with newly donated instruments

One of the main highlights of my time as a volunteer was directing The Lion King musical with Jamie Munn. It was a tough job auditioning and casting 60 students, organising scripts, scores, costumes, rehearsals and an 8-piece band on top of daily duties, especially in a time of the music festival and mock exams. Weekends were taken and weekdays ended at 11pm (if you were lucky!). Through the hard work and extra practice put in by the students we managed to achieve 4 sold-out performances. One audience member even deemed our rendition as “Better than the London West End!”. I felt so proud of each and every student and at this point I realised this was the career I knew I was meant to pursue.

Outside of school life I was an active member of the Nairobi Music Society Choir, performing 3 times a year. I was also able to work at the Kenya Conservatoire one day a week teaching pupils ranging from 15 – 50 years old to provide me with some additional funding. The music scene in Nairobi is at its peak with regular concerts, operas and theatre productions taking place. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and to perform. One memorable moment for me was when South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo headlined the ‘Classical Fusion Concert’ in Sept 2011 and I joined Nairobi Choir to sing alongside them to an audience of 12,000 people. What a moment to treasure!

Two years in Kenya flew by and before I knew it I was leaving a fantastic place and people who  will always remain close to my heart. As I left in December 2011 I felt ready to apply for a teaching degree and take on the responsiblity that the role of an educator carries. I was then interviewed and accepted by the University of Bristol to start a Secondary Music PGCE starting September 2012. As I wait for my course to begin I have been travelling throughout the world including America, South America, New Zealand and Australia, gaining a few more incredible memories.

Working at Starehe Boys’ Centre with talented and enthusiastic young adults was an honour and I feel that I have learnt as much from the students as they (hopefully) have from me! My experience has enabled me to gain the necessary skills needed to be a successful teacher and gave me a greater sense of confidence. I would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering with MDMT to go out there, get involved and rise to the challenge. It will be the best decision you ever make!

Jun 162012
 

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Jamie Munn tells about life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya.

Working at a school like Starehe Girls’ Centre is difficult to sum up. It comes with a huge range of emotions: pride, excitement, encouragement, frustration and the occasional bout of exasperation. First of all, the setting is quite something. The school compound is located about 10km north of Nairobi’s smoke-filled, dusty and polluted city centre, in what often seems like a haven of fresh air and greenery. The bungalow (normally) reserved for the music volunteer is right at the edge of the grounds and overlooks the nearby forest and fields. There is often nothing better than sitting on the veranda after a long teaching day with a cup of fresh Kenyan coffee or an amazing Kenyan mango and watching the monkeys fight each other in the trees as ibis birds screech, and the occasional Ugandan crane (complete with ridiculous headdress of yellow feathers) or pelican fly overhead towards the school’s lake.

Jamie Munn at Starehe Girls

But there is also plenty of work too. And I mean plenty. At the moment there are 43 music students in the school, and about 35 of them get their individual piano lessons from me once a week. Now that’s a lot of lessons! There is also the bi-annual school musical with Starehe Boys’ Centre, which, as you can imagine, takes up a huge amount of time and energy. We aren’t hosting one this year, but last year we ambitiously produced the Broadway version of The Lion King. The only people organising it were Georgina, the volunteer at Starehe Boys’, and me, so it was hugely tiring, and we often felt that it would never happen. In the end it was hugely successful with many saying it was the best Starehe production they had seen in a very long time. If you pile onto that assisting with the training of the choir, soloists and ensembles for the Provincial and National sections of the Kenya Music Festival, writing a piece for the choir to perform at the festival, organising and training for ABRSM practical and theory exams, taking a few of the classroom music lessons, taking the students on trips to see concerts by the Nairobi Orchestra and visiting musicians and ensembles, organising the termly School Recital, and getting music groups together and rehearsed for frequent visits by donors and supporters, then you might begin to see why that coffee on the veranda might be essential!

There are also plenty of opportunities outside of school to earn a bit of pocket money by teaching and performing. I teach all day on a Saturday at the Kenya Conservatoire, with students ranging from four-year old piano beginners, to coaching operatic sopranos – so it’s varied to say the least! As well as that I have performed in concerts and recitals all over Nairobi and to Nanyuki, Kisumu, Kilifi, Gilgil and even Arusha in Tanzania, and have been the soloist for the last three oratorios performed by the Nairobi Music Society and Orchestra.

Nairobi also has a burgeoning cultural scene, and there are plenty of art exhibitions, concerts, jazz sessions and films (including a new IMAX cinema!) to attend. The Nairobi Music Society organises fairly regular classical concerts (as do the various European cultural centres), and I even took some Italian classes during last year’s ‘quiet’ third term.

There are, of course, downsides, but none of them too disheartening. Getting things done through the school administration can be long and tedious and you often feel as if you’re fighting a semi-losing battle. The same applies for work visa and residence permits. Teachers of other subjects can sometimes be dismissive of music lessons and rehearsals. If you don’t have a car (like me), then travelling around, especially at night, can be a bit of an issue, but if you give yourself Health and Safety amnesia then the 4km fast, helmet-less ride on the back of a motorbike (boda-boda) from the school to the main road can be quite exhilarating, and at least the notoriously awful matatus get you to your destination quickly, forgetting the fact that the drivers seem to think they are in a game of Grand Theft Auto. As a white person (mzungu), you inevitably stand out in town, which is often a cue for the cast of ‘The World’s Most Annoying’ people to shout and give (tame) hassle. But if you give as good as you get or ignore them then that’s usually the end of it.

 

All in all it’s a year or two that probably can’t be matched anywhere else. The girls are keen and hard working, the city exhilarating and home to probably the most active music scene in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. Just don’t leave the windows open, or else the monkeys will soon find an alternative home for your food.

Jun 162012
 

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Chris Walters tells his own inspiring story about what prompted him to take on these formidable challenges, life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya and his subsequent career path.

I first stumbled across the advert for the music volunteer job at Starehe Boys’ Centre at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in life. It was five years after I’d graduated and I’d been enjoying working as freelance musician and teacher, but with an increasing feeling that I would run out of steam unless I did something different while I still had the chance. The Starehe job involved moving to Kenya, and as I hadn’t travelled all that much it seemed perfect. And it was to do with music, and all the costs were covered! I felt lucky to have found such a tailor-made opportunity.

The few weeks before I left for Kenya were an anxious time. Looking back at myself I was a bag of nerves, like a different person. One of the things that Starehe gave me was the ability to rise to new challenges with a much greater degree of confidence, but back then the prospect of leaping into the unknown was scary to say the least.

My first few weeks at Starehe were a bit of a blur, but less alien than my worst fears had predicted. The weather was surprisingly British and not too scorching, and people were friendly and welcoming. Even public transport was manageable, if a little unnerving, and trips into the centre of Nairobi were a welcome break from the routine of living and working on campus.

Before long I was meeting people outside the school, and I soon got a job teaching at the Kenya Conservatoire one day a week. One of the perks of being a musician in Kenya is the number of enquiries and requests you receive – I was able to pick and choose a collection of enjoyable gigs ranging from accompanying the Nairobi Music Society choir to teaching diploma students at the conservatoire. Over my time in Kenya there were also wedding gigs at tropical coastal hideaways, a performance with Cape Town Opera outdoors at Hell’s Gate National Park (where we had to fend off curious monkeys) and convivial evening recitals at house parties.

But the school remained my main focus, particularly putting on the musical Oliver – although developing the instrumental tuition was a big priority too. I ended up working most nights until 11pm in the run up to Oliver’s first night, and the show was a huge success, even transferring to a theatre in the centre of Nairobi for an extra week’s run later in the year. Getting involved with set design, marketing, drama direction and crowd control gave me a range of new skills, and I would advise anyone looking to prepare themselves for almost any future profession to put on a school musical.

I ended up staying in Kenya for 18 months, six months longer than I had planned. Deciding to leave at the end of that period was a very painful decision – a number of ex-Starehe volunteers have ended up making lives for themselves in Kenya. But for various reasons I felt I should return to the UK. Fortunately I have been able to return to Kenya no fewer than four times – once on holiday and three times as a coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya.

Just as I was about to move back to the UK, a fellow expat advised me to ‘go back bold’. I laughed at the time, but this is exactly what my experience enabled me to do. When I first got back I returned to work as a player and teacher, but I was soon able to pluck up the courage to pursue writing, something I had always wanted to do but had never known how to get into. I managed to get a job as deputy editor on a trade magazine for music teachers, and I now edit the title and also work as a freelance writer for a range of other magazines, newspapers and websites. I really enjoy this work, which puts me at the heart of the debate about what matters in music education. I still play and teach too, and all in all it’s a pretty happy balance. Would I be doing all this if I hadn’t gone to Kenya? Almost certainly not.

My advice to anyone considering becoming a Starehe music volunteer would be to grab the opportunity with both hands. Your experience will almost certainly be different to mine, but the one thing you will definitely gain is a new perspective on the UK and on life generally, something that for me has been priceless.

May 082012
 

Since MDMT became a registered charity in 2003, it has been superbly served by outstanding music volunteers who have worked at Starehe Boys’ Centre and Starehe Girls’ Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Typically MDMT volunteers are in their mid twenties having graduated with music degrees from UK universities or conservatoires. Here Niamh Molloy tells her own inspiring story about what prompted her to take on these formidable challenges, life in the Centre, in Nairobi and in Kenya and her subsequent career path.

It was July 2006, I was living in London, about to embark on a life as a freelance musician and I was not happy. I was frustrated with work, and although I was surrounded by friends, I was frequently lonely – London can be like that sometimes.

I decided I needed to go travelling, and initially made plans to go to Australia for 6 months. Fortunately, my course was altered by a chance meeting with a friend from youth orchestra – Chris Walters was a fellow freelance musician and had found an opportunity to work in a school in Nairobi for a year. He told me of his plans and it struck a chord: I wanted to do that too. My parents had lived in Zambia in the early 70’s, teaching in a missionary school, my older sister had worked as a pharmacist in Tanzania when she finished college, I realised that a year in Kenya would be a chance to figure out what kind of person I was, a real life experience and an opportunity to see one of the most beautiful places in the world.

So although it was a volunteer scheme, I went for quite selfish reasons – I knew I would come out better on the other side!

Chris was assigned to Starehe Boys’ Centre, a huge campus in the middle of Nairobi that has been educating underprivileged but highly-intelligent Kenyans for decades. The Starehe Girls’ Centre had opened in 2004, out in the Nairobi countryside, surrounded by coffee plantations and banana groves. I was to be their first music volunteer and I started in January 2007.

Chris and I flew out to Nairobi together – I remember the flight clearly because there was a woman on board who was being deported from the U.K., and she wailed solidly for about 2hours much to the annoyance of all the other passengers. The craziness of the situation was not lost on us – we were volunteering to go to Africa, all eager and enthusiastic and full of ideas, it was clear she wasn’t so keen to be going the same direction.

On arrival at the girls’ centre I was delighted to find that my living quarters were much better than anticipated – I had been promised a room with basic facilities – a gas stove and running water, in reality I had a lovely two bedroom apartment in a newly built dormitory block with a kitchen that even included a microwave!

The students were incredibly welcoming. I was primarily there to teach piano to the music students, but I quickly learned that there was a role for me as ‘big sister’ and I often had girls come to my rooms just looking to chat about life and their future. I loved this.

I also got on very well with the office staff and made myself useful when necessary, especially during exam-time when all of the teachers suddenly needed their test papers typed up and formatted.

The music students were brilliant. They have the most impressive oral tradition and are able to memorise tunes almost on sight, but my job was to teach them piano which involves being to read music on sight, a very different skill! Most were starting from scratch, learning the lines and spaces, and I had to be very strict with them because I knew that once they heard the piece through they would have it memorised, and would stop reading! The school piano is an electric keyboard donated by the MDMT, and is a great asset as the tuning doesn’t get affected by the climate, but the monsoon season does bring regular power cuts…

Like I said, I’m a strict teacher and we carried on regardless, with me watching over them as they practiced soundless scales, pouncing on wrong fingering like a hawk. Surprisingly they didn’t complain, and they all progressed hugely in the year. In fact I had a few stand-out pupils who were good enough to compete in the Kenyan Music Festival Schools competition – imagine having your first piano lesson EVER in January and being able to play Fur Elise by Beethoven in July!

I was constantly amazed by them and their determination to succeed – even if there was only piano to practise on and forty girls wanting to practise, they all found time.

When I wasn’t needed in the school, I also found time to get involved in other musical activities in Nairobi. Chris and I were in demand as musicians and were quickly enlisted into the Nairobi Orchestra which rehearsed every week and the Nairobi Conservatoire, where I taught cello for one morning a week. I also joined a running group called the Hash House Harriers, a group of mostly ex-pats and Aid-workers who met every week to run a 6km trail – it turned out to be a great way to get to know Nairobi as we met in a different place every week, and it was certainly a great way to meet people, I’m still in touch with the friends I made through that.

We also had some holiday time, Chris and I took the overnight train to Mombasa (quite an experience), we had a few safari adventures in the Mara and Samburu reserves, and we endured a long bumpy bus-ride over the border to Kampala, Uganda with the Nairobi Conservatoire orchestra.

However most of our free time was taken up (quite gladly) with rehearsals for Oliver! the musical, which was performed by combined forces of Starehe Boys’ and Girls’ centres to huge success.

All in all, the year was incredibly challenging, enjoyable and absolutely unforgettable. I learned to be grateful for what I have, and grateful for what I can do. I would heartily recommend the experience to any musician who feels there’s something missing in their lives after music college, it’s the chance to do something really worthwhile with your talent, to share music with people who are dying to learn and to hopefully come back enriched and inspired. Thank you to the Donaldsons and all at MDMT for this life-changing opportunity.

I came back inspired to play cello and am now happily living in London, with a job in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Life is good!