From Notre Dame Polyphony to Umthi

Beginning:  12:39 p.m. on Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Listening to:  Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Missarum liber primus (2003) by Coro polifonico dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Reading:  Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston and The Faculty Lounges by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Rereading:  Composers at Work:  The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600 by Jessie Ann Owens and Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Dear Internet:

Teaching in South Africa was eye-opening from the start seems a glib statement when I recall the mental obstacle course that comprised my first weeks.  The time presented so many episodes calling for problem solving beyond what I thought I possessed; but working through each issue toward a solution honed my self-control and granted me numerous other personal skills required to lead.

When hired as KMA’s new Recorder Specialist teacher, the Music Academy founder encouraged me to bring my particular musical background into lessons and workshops.  We agreed that this would benefit students by exposing them to new repertoire, such as a type of composition from 11th- and 12th-century Paris called Notre Dame Polyphony, and introducing to them a style of playing they’d never heard before.  Following through on this proved trickier than anticipated.  In fact, it was more effective to modify my teaching to existing levels of proficiency from the start.  I also made many conscious attempts over time to bridge the gap between the previous Recorder Specialist teacher’s instruction and my own.  This was achieved in part by supplementing our UNISA (University of South Africa) music syllabus with additional repertoire I’d brought and talking about technique in ways my students would understand.

Learning my students’ language was a lengthy process of trial and error.   For one thing, English is the second language for the majority at KMA.  It was important to remain cognizant of this while building up a repertoire of instructive phrases I could reasonably use that Xhosa children and teenagers would understand.  In working with students one-on-one during music lessons, I also had to be careful that the tone and pace of how I spoke didn’t come across as too critical.  Many dedicated students, for example, came to their lessons nervous or addled after school.  As teacher, I had the ability to speak to them in ways that would either exacerbate their stress or assuage their fears and allow them to focus.

Each young person was different, although their distinct culture and its contrast to mine became clear, curiously, as we became more comfortable working with one another.  At the start of my teaching, I see that I related to students within my own cultural framework and history, recalling persons most like them from my past in order to get along, and thinking:  “Oh, they’re just like me.  Aren’t we all connected in the great circle of life?”  But it was all too easy as a well-meaning, First World outsider to compassionately cast these unfamiliar individuals in my mold.  To maintain proper distance and perspective initially, it was important to keep in mind that my Xhosa students didn’t know me from Eve.  Some, because of their connection with the previous teacher, weren’t necessarily prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt; others were more receptive.  Likewise, I barely knew them:  what they brought into their lessons I could work with, but apart from that their day-to-day lives were remote and mysterious.

I won’t easily forget the day I thought to introduce sputato tonguing in one ensemble piece by comparing it with the aspirated “t” in the word “umthi.”  Umthi means “tree” in Xhosa and is pronounced not with the “th” in “thousand” or “thankful,” but rather a hard, aspirated alveolar tap more like “taste” and “testosterone.”  I picked up the word from Musa, second grade girl at Hamburg Primary School who liked to teach me words in Xhosa and subsequently began recorder lessons during my nine months teaching.  In making a connection between her language and mine, I was able to win over a few resistant students, namely a 10th grader named Khanyi, who cried “we want umthi!” when my manager suggested an alternative piece.  And they all got it, the articulation:  a beautiful, small victory won.

Trailing off for now,


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