String Teaching in South Africa - The Projects That Are Bringing Hope to Townships

Groundbreaking stringed instrument schemes in the townships of South Africa are giving underprivileged children hope for much brighter futures. Brenda Brenner explains how they work and why they are succeeding. more...


South African woman challenges belief that the violin is only for the wealthy

A South African music teacher is teaching children in three Cape Town townships the violin as an escape from their daily lives and a possible ticket to a better future.

By Ian Evans, Correspondent | APRIL 22, 2011

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It’s an unlikely instrument in the fight against poverty and violence: the violin. But for some children in three Cape Town townships, it offers an escape from their tough, daily lives and the prospect of a career in music.

For the past two years, music teacher Maria Botha has been teaching the instrument to schoolchildren in three townships – Guguletu, Nyanga, and Langa. Backed by the city council and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, Ms. Botha has had to fight resistance from parents and social stereotypes that classical instruments are generally for wealthier white children.

“It was hard initially to get parents to support what we were doing and encourage their children,” Botha says. “A lot of parents want their kids to earn money from small jobs or begging, and they couldn’t see the benefits of learning the violin” at first.

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PHOTOS OF THE DAY Photos of the day 02/08 The Masidlale Music Project teaches about 120 pupils ages 5 to 12. Botha trained in Lyon, France, where she followed the Suzuki method of learning. She employs the same method in the township schools.

“It doesn’t really matter what instrument they learn. What is important is to learn the self-discipline and love for an instrument... Because of historical reasons, there aren’t enough black [classical] musicians, so we hope this will start to change that.”


by Thebe Mabanga, APRIL 02, 2012, 11:17


Gives violin lessons to children from Nyanga and Gugulethu. Uses a Japanese cognitive and therapeutic method. Started playing the violin at the age of seven. Has worked as a wine route tour guide in France

Maria de Girardier Botha is blessed with a range of qualities that help her to connect with the primary school children in her violin lessons. The classes form part of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra's (CPO) outreach programme.

Apart from her skill with the instrument, she has a petite frame and a playful facial expression, along with a French accent the children just love.

The accent was acquired during her time in France, where she lived for 23 years until late 2006, when she returned to SA to settle in Cape Town.

She uses the Suzuki teaching method developed in Japan. It makes use of the therapeutic aspect of classical music and involves an instrument technique that develops a child's cognitive learning abilities, mental alertness and emotional balance.

"Even if the children do not become great violinists, they develop in other ways," she said of the slightly nervous but highly enthusiastic bunch that attended an introductory class last week.

De Girardier Botha was born and raised in Pretoria. She says she "fell in love" with the violin at the age of four and started playing at seven, along with both parents and five siblings. In 1983, she left the country to study the violin in Paris and started her odyssey, during which she performed first in an orchestra and later as a soloist. She also conducted wine tours in France.

After 10 years in Paris, she spent 13 in Burgundy. She first got an opportunity to teach violin in SA while still based in France, when a music school in Lyon ran classes for violin teachers in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

"Not everyone who can play the violin can teach it," she says.

On her return to SA, could she not have offered wine tours in the Cape winelands? "I know only the French wines," she says.

She holds classes for pupils in the first four grades at Hlengisa Primary School in Nyanga, the township outside Cape Town, for about 25 hours a week. From September to next year the strings programme will be held at another school in Gugulethu. Her programme runs alongside the wind and brass programmes being taught in Wynberg, Cape Town.

The three centres form part of the CPO's development programme, which has just received funding of R21m from the national lottery for the next three years. The programme includes weekly classes for children from surrounding areas. These have been running in the Cape Town city centre for the past five years.

Assisting De Girardier Botha are two trainee teachers, Thembisa Ntshongonsthi and Noluvuyo Ntetha, who are from Khayelitsha and are members of the CPO youth orchestra.

Students who come through the programmes can ultimately audition to play in the youth orchestra, which has performed alongside the CPO at its summer festival.

The programme also sponsors about seven music students to the tune of R30000/year each and it funds attendance at courses like the Stellenbosch chamber music festival, which has international conductors.

Judging by the response, De Girardier is doing an excellent job in instilling a love of the violin in underpriveleged children.


May 30th 2011, 00:00

The wind whips up dust circles on the streets of Nyanga, Cape Town’s oldest township and home to over 10 000 people. People mill and congregate on the streets: a man holds a woman’s hand; a mother walks behind her three children wearing brightly coloured woollen caps; street vendors cook skewers of cow’s intestines braaied over fires in tin drums. Goats saunter down the street. The surprising sound of a bow being scraped slowly across a violin string accompanies this scene like a musical score to a movie. Follow the sound of Mozart’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, played with a beginner’s halting uncertainty, and you arrive at Hlengisa Primary School. Peer inside the window and see a group of six kids, violins tucked neatly under their chins.

It seems as if many centuries and cultures congregate in this small space. Not only are the children learning violin, but they are being taught the instrument through the revolutionary Suzuki method, developed by the Japanese master who has gained worldwide acclaim for his innovative teaching methods. South Africa has only a handful of violinists who have undergone the rigorous three-year training to qualify as Suzuki teachers. Among them is Maria Bothes, who returned to South Africa after spending 23 years at one of Europe’s foremost training centres. Now, she’s employed by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra as project manager for the Masidlale (let us play) outreach programme that provides violin lessons to 80 children in Nyanga and Gugelethu townships.

Initially, Maria had to be careful not to tread on the local school teachers’ toes. Not all of them saw the value of missing ‘proper’ lessons to fiddle about with an instrument. But despite some misgivings, they sacrificed their staffroom to create space for the children to practise. Although having people wander in and out to make coffee is occasionally disturbing, Maria welcomes the exposure as it has allowed the teachers to witness the children’s efforts and created a family atmosphere. The Suzuki method develops children’s musicality through listening and feeling rather than engaging the intellect and teaching students to read music.

As Maria says: “You go to notes, you go to the head.” Suzuki teachers believe the instrument must become part of the student’s body. Maria claims that people taught with rigid classical methods don’t “feel the vibration of the violin going into their soul.” The souls of Maria’s student shine through the smiles that split their faces as they learn the rhythm of a piece of music by miming songololos. Their pleasure fills the staffroom. As we accompany the kids back to their classroom, Maria is everywhere greeted with cries of “Violin, violin!” One young boy hops in front of her, dramatically waving his arms back and forth, drawing an imaginary bow. “All the kids want to play music,” says Maria.

The violin can offer a passport out of the township. Louis Heyneman, CEO of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Predicts that a future generation of CPO musicians will come from the townships. He believes that many of these kids have an innate musicality. In addition, some have the hunger derived from not being born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Take the boy who doesn’t have a fouth finger, essential for playing the violin. He was so keen to play that Maria at first didn’t have the heart to turn him away. When she eventually had to tell him htat it would never be possible for her to teach him properly, undaunted he demonstrated that he could just manage to reach the string with the tiny stump of his finger. While the possibility of a career as a professional musician is lucrative, Maria stresses that whatever the outcome, the process of learning to play the violin is worthwhile in itself.

The lessons teach children, often traumatised by hardship and hunger, many valuable skills, including focus and co-ordination. Perhaps most important is the self-esteem that they gain from mastering a difficult task. According to Maria, learning the violin can even, almost magically, instill an etchical disposition. She believes that “no violinist can be a bad person; the violin creates goodness in you.” Each centre has 20 violins that each cost R1500 and their safety is a concern. Already, in the year since Maria started giving lessons, the school has lost their computers in two burglaries. Each time Maria was relieved to find the violins untouched and safely locked away in a storage cupboard where they are packed between bags of rice and mealie meal.

Ten-year-old Sandiswe is one of Maria’s most dedicated and promising students. When she first saw a violin, she was immediately fascinated and vowed that one day she would play in a concert on a stage. Currently, Sandiswe plays three times a week. To progress further she must work on her technique daily. There are plans to buy another 20 violins, some of which can be taken home to practice, but this raises a lot of dilemmas; would Sandiswe be safe walking home with the violin or would it perhaps make her vulnerable to attack?

Sandiswe lives with her grandmother, Momawelo, in a brick home, cold and damp but neat as a pin. Maria goes to meet Momawelo at her home to discuss the possibility of Sandiswe taking a violin home. “The violin will be safe,” Momawelo assures Maria. She will store it on top of the wardrobe and Sandiswe’s sister will accompany her from school. Momawelo welcomes the opportunity for Sandiswe to develop her talent but admits that the violin is not a sound she’s used to. “Oh my God!” she exclaims, covering her ears at the prospect of Sandiswe rehearsing scales every night. But while lerning the violin is a screechy process, I can imagine a time when Sandiswe has mastered the violin, and her music wafts through the township. Maria believes that already the violins are bringing healing to the community:

“What makes me think that love is hanging over the school, the kids, the staff, and sometimes the shacks outside? I guess it can’t be explained rationally, but it seems to me that the overwhelming power of the energy that each child releases through the ringing notes of their melodies gently strokes the heart of the whole neighbourhood. DK

Spirited strings!

June 24th 2011, 00:00

An intriguing life lived too intense and intimate for selfies – Maria de Girardier Botha is captured playing her violin on the beach, black hair whipping in the wind and her feet planted in the waves. Shot by French photographer Daniel Thierry, the image gets chosen as ‘picture of the year’ in France in 1998.
Fast forward, the violinist is seen jogging on the Promenade this morning. “It’s an addiction,” she says, “I always tell myself, ‘No, you have to do admin’, but before I can catch my breath, I’ve got my tekkies on. I’m out of the door, running like the wind. I have too much energy! In Paris, running over the bridges, I could see everything.” In an hour’s time, you’ll catch her at Holy Cross RC Primary School in Woodstock, teaching kids from age four upwards and all walks of life to play the violin. Now settling in front of a fireside at The Mount Nelson, Maria’s hands fly like birds as she shares anecdotes about a bitter-sweet life.

Girl in gay Paris

“It wasn’t done in my time,” she reminisces, “a young girl from a conservative family getting on a plane and flying with her violin across the ocean. Working from age 14 and choosing between a Morris and a 24-hours flight – ‘Poof’ I was gone!” I didn’t know a soul, wasn’t scared but excited.” The erstwhile ‘caged bird’ lost herself in the Parisian crowd. Settling in a roof flat, eating unsold market food, soon she was selling chickens, learning to speak French from stall owners. She worked in an upmarket boutique, “but felt weighted down with possessions” and so began her career as street musician. Unusual as a woman performing solo, Maria became a tourist and media attraction. She followed the sound of the strings before settling in Dijon. Love will shear your wings as will two boys called Rudolph and Ruben, following her marriage to Henri-Pierre de Girardier. After two decades of settling down to raising the boys as single mom in Dijon after her divorce, Maria’s fledglings yearned for their mother’s birth country. Both now students, at UCT and Stellenbosch, the brilliant engineering students thrive, but for Maria “everything was foreign in a beautiful City where no one seemed in need of new friends”.

Suzuki stepping strings

In 2009, in search of a project leader for their Masidlale Music Project outreach programme, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra was pointed to “that girl who lives down the street”. Finally Maria felt at home teaching violin in Nyanga, Gugulethu and Langa. The flint sparked back in Lyon, “noticing happy kids walking in and out with their violins”, when she went for lessons with Christophe Bossuat, president of the international Suzuki Music Institute. Memories flooded back of being taught the same method at age six by Alan Solomon. At Bossuat’s behest, steadfastly refusing at first (“What could be more boring?”), Maria qualified as violin teacher. Following Suzuki’s method, based on his observations about learning languages naturally before being taught to read, she started teaching kids, to listen and play by ear. With no aptitude tests taken, and no music theory or note reading at first, kids learn to play pieces purely by memory. Mistakes allowed, with no competitiveness, they perform solo or in groups. As their confidence and skills grow, “the young musicians feel the power of what they can gift themselves and others.

New directions

Today Maria’s own non-profit Muzukidz project (at Holy Cross) and also the Musiquelaine project (at Good Hope Seminary Primary in Vredehoek) each sponsors 40 pre-school township kids at the two schools with violin tuition by Maria. Her private and underprivileged learners (many enrolled by mothers who are cleaners by day in the City) perform together. Parents from different walks of life meet and reach-out to one another. Who better than Maria to teach others that it’s not about Western but the beauty of all music? “When I arrived here, only one musical school was slightly interested; the Suzuki method misunderstood. De Girardier being a wine family, Maria did wine tours, met the Shamwari group in Burgundy and got offered a job in the local wine tourism, “which led to more important connections”. “Lately my challenge is that I want to run ahead, to tap into the amazing potential of each child, at the optimum time. Each one is different. I won’t be able to do this if I can’t fly with a child. I’m a clown in class. That’s why I run. I have to be fit to do this job! Many may never become musicians, but their new skills spill over in subjects like science and maths. I lay awake at night in an overwhelming but unrealistic frame of mind.” Maria often goes back to France, “to play for events in Burgundy castles. I like to perform and when I don’t play my violin, I begin to feel empty. Dijon always motivates me. I realised all the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and playing my own music led to this, as if a universe laid out a plan for me. “Looking back I’d tell that young girl, irrespective of many harsh times ahead of her, if not for the decision she’d made I’d never have belonged anywhere. She allowed me to connect, but also to be free.”