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)