Orchestra changing the lives of township kids

Every Saturday a group of about 150 children, some as young as eight, descend on Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre in Soweto.

Nkanyezi is an institution for children with disabilities but on Saturdays the Orlando West facility is as a temporary home for aspiring classical music instrumentalists from Eyethu, a project of the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra (JYO).

Their presence can be felt by an orchestral sound that fills up the air across the valley overlooking the main road and railway track.

Their sound is so powerful it can drown out a vuvuzela from the adjacent Orlando Stadium.

It is churned out by different instruments - violin, trombone, French horn and saxophone, among others.

The conductors behind this beauty are a small group of dedicated teachers - 12 in total - and all highly qualified.

Their goal is to unlock the doors of opportunity for the young players from in and around Soweto.

"We have a number of success stories. Most of the students who did teacher training here are playing in the army (SA National Defence Force brass bands) as well as in the police band," says project manager Nomfundo Ngwenya.

"Two students are currently studying towards a music degree at Wits University," she adds.

Ngwenya is also a product of Eyethu, she went through the foundation phase until she became a music teacher in 2006.

Underlying these proud moments are challenges such as not having a permanent address and teachers offering their services without a guarantee of remuneration.

The running of the project has not been smooth as grants from the National Lotteries dried up in 2014.

Eyethu depends on R120 monthly tuition fees - contributed by each student - and parents are also requested to donate reams of paper to make music sheets for lessons.

"It's a very tight time for NPOs [non-profit organisations] and everyone is struggling financially at the moment.

"The teachers here do try under the circumstances because they do it out of love," says Ngwenya.

Nonetheless life goes on for Eyethu, Ngwenya points out, reflecting on the rich history of the project that spans two decades after it was established as a feeder project for JYO in 1998.

The project was initially limited to the northern suburbs - until an invitation was extended to children from the townships.

"Prior to 1998 the department of education used to offer music lessons to schools and when that closed down, Laurie Wapenaar [a music teacher who was in the initial project] decided to take over because they had instruments already, and that's how JYO was started.

"Her [Wapenaar] dream was to have a youth orchestra that involved kids from every sphere of Johannesburg so that it was not an orchestra for white people - and these were kids from Soweto, Alexandra, East Rand and the Vaal," Ngwenya recalls.

Eyethu launched with 20 students from a church band in Mzimhlophe as an "after-school project" in Pimville. It later became a Saturday event.

"These were kids who could play the music but could not read it. They were bused in from Soweto once a week for reading lessons. The project grew bigger and expanded to Alex," says Ngwenya.

While the bigger picture is to play for JYO, students are graded to measure their progress.

"We enter them for ABRSM exams - an association board of royal schools of music from London - this is an international qualification that can take them to the world. Examiners come from different parts of the world."

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