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.

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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.”

E

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.”

Rolf Gjel­sten, a cel­list with the New Zealand String Quar­tet, helps coach the kids at St Michael’s School in Taita, Lower Hutt.

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