Cellos & cake
For seven years, children in Lower Hutt have been learning joy, aspiration and co-operation through music. Lee-anne Duncan hears the story of Arohanui Strings, a community of mini musicians. But first, afternoon tea.
It’s Arohanui Strings’ anniversary and a massive chocolate cake has brought an extended caesura [pause] to the afternoon’s orchestral practice. “We are 7 years old today!” announces Alison Eldredge, a professional violin and viola player, who is also the group’s founder, director and programme manager.
A spontaneous round of Happy Birthday breaks out, fulfilled by violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Most instruments are not full-sized and virtually none belong to the small fingers that play them.
Eldredge founded Arohanui Strings-sistema Hutt Valley back in August 2010 with no instruments but a big idea – to provide free, quality music education to all children regardless of their financial status.
The American-born, Canadian-raised Suzuki violin teacher had seen the power of classical music for all while playing in orchestras in Mexico.
“The Mexican government funds several professional orchestras,” she says. “It believes classical music should be accessible for regular folks. When we lived in Mexico a ticket to a concert was the equivalent of $5. Amazing.”
While there she learned about El Sistema, founded by José Antonio Abreu in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, in 1975. Abreu believed classical music could be a vehicle for social change. Eldredge agreed. So when she moved to Wellington for her husband to play French horn in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, she decided to create an El Sistema group in her Hutt Valley community.
“I started small, going to St Michael’s School in Taita and asking for access to one class. I had no instruments, so I started my first class of 6-year-olds on singing and clapping, and learning to make a violin bow-hold.”
Seven years on, a lot has changed. Eldredge now has a team of professional teacher-artists who help her take Arohanui Strings’ in-school and satellite programmes to 120-150 children a week at six Lower Hutt schools. Three afternoons a week, 70 children come to St Michael’s to play in Arohanui Strings’ core orchestra programme.
“We get our orchestra kids at the end of the day and they’re tired,” says Eldredge. “So the first thing we do is feed them, thanks to Kaibosh and Good Bitches Baking. A lot of really good social stuff happens around the food.”
And while the group started with nothing, now these children have access to 90 violins, 10 violas, nine cellos and four double basses, all donated or bought with donated funds.
El Sistema isn’t about plucking out the talented few. Arohanui Strings’ orchestras are open to anyone who wants to play, while donations provide individual lesson scholarships for some particularly motivated students.
Eldredge says parents and teachers recognise the impact of what the kids are learning. “For our in-school programme, teachers report the kids are more focused and ready to work after their music class. One teacher even told us attendance seemed to be better on ‘‘violin days’’.
“Learning music is so good for kids’ general learning. And there’s evidence those with ADHD have impaired rhythmic processing so our rhythmic exercises can help. Also, children with eye-tracking problems benefit from reading music, following along in time with others.”
erforming “side-by-side” with professional orchestras is an El Sistema staple. “Many children are isolated in their neighbourhoods so playing with orchestras means they suddenly get it. They understand, ‘Oh, if I practise I could actually play that.’ They’re delighted.”
The audience is also thrilled to see the children lined up across the stage, some bowing away on the tiniest of violins. But they’re up there playing – with professionals.
And don’t think it’s all simple tunes. Classics such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy are firmly in Arohanui Strings’ repertoire.
Sitting comfortably in the orchestra’s first chair for Orchestra Wellington’s 2016 performance was violinist Barbara Asara. She’s now in Year 12 at Sacred Heart in Lower Hutt, but still plays in the after-school orchestra.
“The violin is beautiful, it’s soft and it’s calming,” she says. “Music is such a big part of my life and I can’t live away from it. I wouldn’t be playing if I hadn’t been part of Arohanui Strings. Alison is so inspiring and wants kids to learn. She’s done a lot for me since I was little. I want to be a music teacher so I can inspire children and put a smile on their faces. Music is definitely in my future.”
Also now seeing a future with music is double bass player Joseph Falaniko, who is in Year 5 at St Michael’s School. “I started because it looked like fun and I wanted to try a new thing. I’ve played violin and moved into cello and then onto bass,” he says.
“I really like the double bass because it attracts attention and it’s really low. The teacher’s like, ‘Great job’, and I feel so proud. I’ve stayed because I like learning new songs and showing them to my family. They think I’m really good. My dream is to be a police officer, or a rugby player, or in Orchestra Wellington.” Thanks to Arohanui Strings, Joseph has the chance to be all three.
Cake eaten and fingers cleaned, the orchestra is back into rehearsal. “This is your A,” says Eldredge, playing her own violin then leaning in to hear whose instrument needs fine-tuning. Then they’re off, practising Coldplay’s Vida la Viva, some playing the melody, others bowing the rhythm.
Eldredge has put in a lot of hard work getting to this seventh anniversary, a lot of it unpaid. It’s only in the past three years she’s been fully compensated; her first three were completely voluntary. But she’s determined to always be there for her kids.
“Many of these children overcome significant obstacles just to be in this room, so I try to be their ‘you can count on me’ person. Each day I’ll make a point of meeting each child’s eyes – their eyes tell you so much – and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ I know coming here makes a big difference to these kids.”