It started with a simple question.
On an otherwise normal fall day a few years ago, I was introduced to Bilha Ayieko, a music teacher from Kenya who was visiting the University of Georgia.1 Bilha came into my office and provided a little background about her music program at an Moi Girls' School, an all-girls' high school.2 She was a vocalist by training, but some of her students were interested in studying piano. The simple question: "What books and materials could I use to help them?"
I may have given her a couple of ideas—to be honest, I don't remember what I said. I do remember the thoughts that followed that meeting. Distance teaching was emerging in our field, and I knew some teachers who were getting involved. Wouldn't it be great if our graduate students could gain experience in distance teaching? Instead of providing books and music to this school, perhaps we could provide real instruction. This was the start of a relationship that has been enriching beyond words.
After many failed attempts at fundraising, I decided to launch a "pilot" program, scraping together enough for a plane ticket, an electronic keyboard, and a laptop. I embarked on a twenty-four-hour trip that took me from Atlanta to Boston, Amsterdam, and ultimately Nairobi. The next day a six-hour drive delivered me to Eldoret, Kenya, the home of Moi Girls' School.
Upon arrival at the music room, I was greeted with a joyous choral rendition of "Welcome to the Family," sung by one of the music classes of about 25 girls. It was truly a wonderful welcome, and a moment I will never forget.
The rest of that week was a whirlwind of setting up the keyboard and laptop, testing the internet connection at the University of Georgia, and teaching various lessons and classes. The work was energizing and satisfying; the girls were inspiring students who were eager to absorb as much as they could. I learned far more from them than I could possibly teach in return.
After returning to Georgia, we set up a regular program of weekly Skype lessons, taught by three of our doctoral students. On some days there was no power or internet, but other days allowed for sharing and learning. The program was small, but it was having some success. News of the program spread, and I was able to get some generous donations from local music teachers, local business, and the Yamaha Corporation to help support the project.
With the program gaining traction, I was able to return a year later with the three doctoral-student teachers, three more digital keyboards to set up a small piano lab, and another laptop. Three graduate students, and Dr. Skip Taylor from our music education area, came along to assist with the school's band program and establish a beginning string orchestra. During the second visit, we taught lessons, performed, visited other schools and universities, and worked on instrument maintenance and repair. As with the first trip, we learned far more than we could have ever imagined, and the experience has had a profound and humbling effect on our lives. I'll briefly share some of these lessons below.
We heard wonderful singing throughout our travels, and it was clearly a rich part of the culture. One day we were speaking about cultural heritage with Simon Wafula, a math teacher at the school. As he described his ancestral tribe, we asked him if he could sing a traditional song. "No, no," replied Simon. "I am not a musician like these girls. I don't have any training." After some cajoling, we convinced him to sing for us. Simon then treated us to a spirited performance of a celebratory song, performing with driving rhythm, clear and varied inflections, a wide range of dynamics, and clear attention to phrasing. For a "non-musician," he clearly had a wonderful sense of music.
Throughout the trip, we found singing to be more prevalent and enthusiastic among the Kenyan people than it is in today's American culture. And this singing has a clear benefit to the music students; they all had well-developed ears that aided their progress in beginning lessons. This made us all wish that singing could be more common here at home, and we all resolved to encourage our students to sing more.
Performances don't have to be perfect
Graduate music majors in the U.S. tend to perform in a lot of high-pressure situations. Juries, degree recitals, auditions, and competitions all demand that we play our very best. In Kenya, our students were often faced with less-than-ideal performing conditions. When you're used to performing your piece on a Steinway D in an acoustically designed recital hall, it is a bit of a shock to play the same piece on a digital keyboard outside, sitting on stacked plastic chairs, with the wind blowing your music all around.
In such a setting, mistakes might happen more often than we would like. Phrasing and dynamics might be constrained by the limitations of the instrument. It might be hard to hear detail in a windy, outside environment. When our students performed in a way that they would consider less-than-perfect, the Kenyan audiences screamed as if they were hearing the world's biggest pop star in concert. It was a wonderful reminder that we can (and should) share music with others whenever possible, and that a meaningful musical performance consists of much more than playing all the right notes.
Enjoy photos from the trip to Kenya
Music is joyful
We saw many impromptu performances, and every one of them was accompanied with smiling, laughing, and a clear love for sharing music. When asking some of the girls about our own performances, some of them wondered if we actually enjoyed our playing. They noticed that we looked very serious all the time. This simple observation struck us like a glass of cold water in the face. Are we too serious and have we taken the fun out of music? Why shouldn't performing be a joyous activity?
Music connects people
Sharing a common language (English in this case) makes communication easy in Kenya, but there are very big cultural differences. We continually found that music was a wonderful way to connect our two worlds and find common ground. Dr. Taylor and his students played some bluegrass music for the students. After one of these performances, a Kenyan girl came up and asked them if they knew a Dolly Parton tune ("Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man"). They did know the tune, which happened to be one that the girl sang with her family.
The next day, this girl performed the tune on stage with the bluegrass band, creating a wonderful moment that none of them will ever forget. People from half a world away and very different backgrounds were able to connect instantly and share an experience through music.
Moving out of the bubble
Piano teaching can be an isolated profession, and it can be easy to get caught up in routines and traditions. For all of us, this experience was a wonderful reminder of the fact that there is a big musical world out there, often with different ideas and approaches. It was refreshing to see such enthusiasm and joy expressed in music making, and it was humbling to be reminded that we could do better (at times) in allowing our students to experience such joy and enthusiasm. I will always treasure these lessons, and I'm eager to learn more. The world loves music, and it is amazing to live in a time that allows people anywhere in the world to share music and music teaching.
1Several years ago, UGA professors Mitos Andaya and Jean Kidula, along with graduate student Benita Gladney, established a formal relationship between UGA and Moi Girls' school. This began with the donation of used instruments so Moi Girls' could start a band program.
2Moi Girls' is a National School of Kenya; it is a boarding school, but entry is earned through academic merit, not socio-economic status. As a national school, each class is comprised of girls from across Kenya. Music is offered as an elective subject, and girls who choose this elective participate in four years of study with requisite exams covering music theory, music history, and performance in both Western and African traditions.