Video: The Soweto Music Centre Filling A Gap for Youth
Located just behind Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, Johannesburg, is a music education and community centre. Run by the South African non-profit organisation MIAGI, standing for ‘Music Is A Great Investment’, the centre was built in 2008 by the late philanthropist Mendel Kaplan, CEO of Cape Gate Holdings. Its purpose: to bring high quality classical, jazz and local music training and opportunities to the neighbourhood’s children and youth. This is something the area sorely needs, as Soweto remains one of the poorest and most dangerous townships in the city.
Social development, creating opportunities for expression and uniting people across borders are at the heart of the Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music, whose neighbour Morris Isaacson High School was at the centre of the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
As well as learning their instrument (there are nine choices, including all classical string instruments, trumpet, pennywhistle, percussion and djembe), the children are taught music theory and participate in the school choir and ensemble each week. There is also a CMCM Early Childhood Development programme reaching out to younger children at four local crèches and two primary schools. Many among the 300-strong student body are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the one on one training, attention, skills development and supportive community can be transformative.
“We have seen from the response from parents and kids that we clearly fill a gap in their education,” said Chris Bishop, school principal and co-principal horn with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
“We know that a lot of them, if they aren’t with us of an afternoon or a weekend, they are playing in the streets, and often there are negative influences they could be adopted by, if they weren’t having the positive influences at the centre,” said Bishop. “I feel we play a key role in their social development and long-term economic potential and discipline. I’m proud that the children that come here are very diligent and committed to the project.”
In 2009 MIAGI received an initial grant for running the school from the Lotto, the South African lottery, followed by support from the EU in 2012 under the Youth Empowerment through Culture and Sport Programme. Since then MIAGI has received further major funding from Lotto, Sida (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. “It’s project-based, so we’re constantly sourcing funds,” said Bishop.
One collaboration which has helped the school achieve impressive results with relatively little funding is with the Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK. Via Skype, its musicians give extra tuition to 24 of the school’s most promising students. They receive an extra half hour of coaching each week in the school’s high-tech media room that MIAGI furnished with support from the Goethe-Institut and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Pretoria. The project is called Arco - ‘Bridging the Divide’.
“The potential is huge,” said Bishop, describing how much faster the children learn with the additional teaching hours, not to speak of the inspiration of being regularly taught by teachers from such a renowned music institution. “I hope we can extend this to all our strings, all our students, and several other institutions around the world.”
The centre hopes to be able to reach out to many more crèche- and primary school children through the Early Childhood Development programme, which offers 4 to 6 year olds basic, playful education in music theory, African song, dance and clapping.
“To my knowledge there’s no other centre like this, with the idea of being able to take a child from four years old through the crèches, to the centre here, and long term to matriculate in music at Morris Isaacson High School, and then should they want to, to study anywhere in the world with our partners,” said Bishop.
“Apart from funding, the only materials we need are students and teachers, so CMCM can be replicated anywhere. Plans are indeed in place for a MIAGI centre based on this one in Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, which will fulfil the same programme of study on the other side of the country.”