Music's power to change lives

Every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument. Photo: Getty Images
Every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument. Photo: Getty Images
When I was 7 years old, my family bought a tired old piano. I watched as four burly men hauled it up the concrete steps to our farmhouse. Soon, the piano became part of the family.

My father and mother would take turns drawing music from its yellowed keys, and I'd watch enthralled as seemingly incomprehensible black squiggles on a page were translated into beautiful sounds.

I remember sitting at the piano after my father had vacated it, trying to draw the same magic out of the keys. I desperately wanted lessons, but my family couldn't afford them. So I'd sit there, running my fingers up and down the keyboard, pretending.

And then, when I was 11, a kind member of our church congregation paid for me to take piano lessons. Words can't describe how thrilled I was to slowly but surely make sense of music.

I practised every single day, my hands growing tired from running arpeggios up and down the keys. Music brought creativity, determination and great joy to my life. Every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument.

But sadly this is not the case for thousands of children nationwide. The price of lessons - let alone a musical instrument - is often too high for families struggling to make ends meet. In rural communities, it can be hard to find a decent teacher, and then you've got to factor in the cost of transport.

This, coupled with the often elitist nature of classical music, often renders the prospect of learning an instrument such as the violin or the flute wholly alien and unrealistic for many children. But for members of the Virtuoso Strings Orchestra (VSO), classical music is a fun, everyday reality.

In 2012, Dr Elizabeth Sneyd and Craig Utting formed the VSO, a youth orchestra based in Cannons Creek, Porirua. Motivated by a desire to create equal opportunities in music and to make New Zealand's classical music landscape more diverse, the Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust provides free instruments, lessons and transport to more than 100 students.

The VSO, composed of students ranging in age from 8 years to 17 years, will be touring the South Island in July this year. More than 200 students benefit from the trust's music programmes each year. Classes are held after school, and evening orchestra rehearsals several times a week.

''Through providing music tuition and opportunities to engage co-operatively as an orchestra, we equip our students with real skills for life,'' Dr Sneyd said.

''We witness a tremendous boost to participants' confidence and self-belief and together we delight in watching younger members of the orchestra grow into dependable, determined, forward-looking, community-minded, self-assured and hard-working teenagers with bright futures.''

Apart from the sheer joy learning a musical instrument brings, music tuition is accompanied by a number of proven benefits. Playing a musical instrument relieves stress by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure. It also improves a child's social life by helping him or her connect with other people in their group or ensemble.

Leadership skills, discipline and teamwork are also bolstered, as are a child's self-esteem and confidence. Learning the violin or viola requires significant dedication and regular practice. There's also considerable evidence to suggest that participating in music can improve a child's learning ability, memory and brain development. The benefits are endless - need I go on?

One particular star of the VSO is Porirua teen Toloa Faraimo, a virtuoso on the violin. Despite learning the violin for only three years, Toloa has already shot through all the grades and has landed an internship with Orchestra Wellington. In an article with Stuff, the teen said ''I was always fascinated by the violin - how the bow made music from the strings. I see it sometimes as an outlet of my emotions that I don't want to show.''

Equally important is the fact the VSO is tearing apart tired prejudices about classical music's elitism. In this orchestra, we see a combination of talent and radical social action.

These joyous young musicians are reinvigorating classical music, while at the same time developing discipline, creativity, respect, teamwork and personal excellence.

The VSO South Island Tour begins on July 13 in Christchurch, and wraps up at Holy Cross Chapel in Mosgiel on the morning of July 19. On the evening of July 16, there will be a concert at Lake Wanaka Centre, and for all our Arrowtown readers, there will be a concert on the evening of July 17 at the Arrowtown Atheneum.

All concerts are free, family-orientated affairs, full of fun and excellent music from Beethoven to the Beatles, gypsy fiddle tunes to the Elgar Cello Concerto. I wish I wasn't on the other side of the world so I could be there in person, but I'm confident Dunedin will turn out to support these fantastic young musicians.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.


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