THOUGH FAINT, the sound was unmistakable, stringed instruments in harmony.
Those instruments were in tiny hands, being strummed and plucked by members of the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica (NYOJ) at a recent practice session. The students are using the orchestra's centre at the St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS).
The NYOJ is a non-profit, non-government organisation engaged in the development of youth orchestras in Jamaica. The NYOJ manages this programme for social change in challenged communities in collaboration with the Organisation of American States.
Jamaicans do love their music but why classical? Well, it's not so much about Beethoven and company.
"We're teaching music in a structured way ... and 'classical' more refers to the methodology that we're using. The types of music that are played are music from all genres and all periods," explained Dr Nigel Clarke, chairman of the NYOJ.
So the children learn to read notes and scales. "We have the full range of string instruments. Our other centre (at Kingston College) has wind instruments, brass instruments and percussion. It's a full suite." Today, students from STATHS, St Alban's Primary School and Denham Town High School are taking lessons, patiently led by Darren Young.
Develop logical thinking
"Music is highly structured and learning music helps to focus the mind and helps the mind to develop logical thinking. Playing in an orchestra requires mastery of an individual instrument, but at the same time to be able to work in a team to ensure harmony," Clarke explained. "There's a coordination required to make the music sound good. It requires a certain social attitude; punctuality, timeliness, determination. and those we find are some of the primary targets of a programme such as this," the chairman said. But the students don't or better yet, can't always attend. The reasons for absenteeism vary. It's hard for some of these children to even come to school much less to participate in an extra-curricular activity, and, of course, there are the occasional violent flare-ups. Dr Clarke noted that during the last incident, students missed four days of school.
"Any time you hear about the upsurge in violence, it affects real people and real lives, and in particular, it affects children. We can't all live in Jamaica and pretend as if these are just statistics. It affects real people who are no different from you and me," he said. While he always drops by, last week they had visitors. The National Commercial Bank (NCB) Foundation Chair Thalia Lyn was on hand to present J$350,000 in much-needed funds.
Thankful for NCB's intervention, Dr Clarke noted to The Gleaner the orchestra always needs more. Apart from donations of equipment, the NYOJ has to buy some instruments and pay the tutors a stipend. He feels potential donors just need to see the successes to be convinced it's a worthwhile venture. "They will see the fruits over time. A lot of our support has come because people have heard of what we're doing and seen it and come on board. We are confident that if we approach certain sponsors they will respond positively."
Helena de la Hoz, one of the instructors, studied the violin for nearly 10 years and said music was "a different way to express yourself, let music guide your feelings and your thoughts". She felt music training made her a better student at everything else.
"It teaches different skills like you develop discipline and you need to be respectful. Within the orchestra, you learn to work with your partner ... to make sure everything sounds good." She lamented the impact of outside influences on the programme.
"They (the students) are very talented, but we face this issue that it's difficult for them to keep coming. Sometimes we have to start all over again. But they are very receptive and especially with my accent, you may think it's a little difficult, but no. As music is one language, it's easy to communicate. Once they let you in, we can do great things."
We asked Dr Clarke whether he is thinking of establishing centres islandwide, but he stressed a more measured approach.
"We are always looking at new opportunities, but we depend on support. And not only support from corporate entities, but also communities and so we tend to go places where there is strong community support and strong school systems. We have a few places in mind."