Published: | South Africa

Changing Lives Through Music

Nirvani Pillay, TC's editor in South Africa, shares her musical journey and the power it has to change lives and uplift spirits.

Sometimes the universe takes our dreams and puts them at the back of the queue where we almost forget that they ever lived. I had this interest to be a music therapist and that did not happen as my life took some distracting twists and turns. Twenty years later, after not playing any instrument since school, I decided to take up the violin and it quite literally has changed my world. I connected with the most amazing teacher, 83-year-old Marena van Hemert, and together we have embarked on a little musical journey to change the world around us through music.

South Africa is a complex society. There are many vulnerable children who have been placed into children’s homes due to various factors such as abandonment, abuse, orphaned or HIV. The stress it places on the social system is so great that it sometimes implodes but then there are some individuals who have dedicated their lives to the welfare of vulnerable children. Two sisters in Johannesburg set up a home that now houses around 90 children from newborn to early adulthood. My violin teacher and I connected with them and we now teach music to some of the children. Marena teaches violin and I teach recorder and music theory.

Only 5% of the world’s population has music literacy. The thing about music is that the brain never forgets. In twenty whole years I never read music and so was nervous when I first picked up that violin in an attempt to start from the bottom. It took my brain around half an hour to start reading music again and I needed time to get over the power of muscle memory. It is similar to the unconscious ability to drive a car, except this time it is about quarter notes, staccatos, rests and pauses...and now about passing it on.

The most amazing part of this journey which is around six months old is to see the children I work with actually read music, play the notes perfectly, keep time and correct themselves if they feel they are not playing the correct notes. The recorder is such a versatile instrument. It can help someone progress into various other instruments and is a great one to start a musical journey on. The children from any home, and this one, in particular, get quite a rough start to life. They do not have many opportunities to develop themselves like middle-class societies through ballet classes and music lessons after school. They have virtually no exposure to the arts but once exposed they have the most incredible interest. They light up when we talk about the Baroque period and composers of the Romantic period, and how classical music unconsciously translates into their daily experiences in cartoons and movies.

There have been some highs and lows for me over the past few months. In the beginning, I struggled with the intensity of working with children who have had bad things happen to them. I would come home and cry myself to sleep and wonder at the unfairness of life. Then I got to know these little personalities and every week I visit them with my blackboard and music sheets I get a renewed sense of hope. They look forward to my classes, sometimes dashing in at a mad speed. I go on Saturdays for a few hours and have around 13 students.

On reflection, I am so glad to have invested myself in music lessons even when I did not think it was possible, and then to have the privilege of passing on this gift to children where it is making a difference to their life experiences. I treasure the inspiration I get from them every day to wake up and face this big bad world despite all that it throws at them and I am honoured that they bounce into my class with smiles. I receive so much from them and I can only hope that this little effort makes a difference. And I hope that when these children are finally in that adult space they can reflect on this and make choices leading them closer towards fulfilling their artistic dreams.

Anyone who wants to sponsor a violin or music stands, or learn more about how they can help can reach me by messaging me through my TC profile:  Nirvani Pillay on TC

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