Beginning: 4:42 p.m. on Saturday, March 28th, 2015
Listening to: Alison Krauss; The Dufay Collective; Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan
Reading: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations by Michael M. Kaiser
Although Texts from Africa and Keiskamma Music Academy haven’t been far from my thoughts, it has been long since the last time I visited another chapter of my work abroad. Instead, I allowed for change to occur, which did; and I have promised to bear its outcome as gracefully as I can. Blogs are personal, revealing platforms; and the self-consciousness this bred wasn’t conducive to detailing recollections or opening up new thoughts. While waiting to hear back from the graduate programs I’d applied to, I weighed new topics such as: Siphesihle Ndogeni, another beloved student with her own difficult story to recount; religion; nature-worship; and the church I attended in the majority of my nine months in the Eastern Cape. These topics and numerous more will be tackled in their time. For now, I’d like to pick apart the very self-consciousness that prevented me from writing these past three months and explore a topic intimately linked: stage fright.
How was stage fright tempered by teachers at Keiskamma Music Academy? How might it have been inherited from us or inadvertently taught? One supposed advantage of bringing seasoned music professionals to educate the music academy was the benefit students received in learning the heart of music performance, of artistry beyond the notes. Young learners were regularly challenged to exceed their level of ability through a graded program of the University of South Africa (UNISA). Their musical training at KMA required them to tackle difficult repertoire for public performance, in some cases regional music competitions. Waiting in the wings were coaches and mentors ready to offer moral support and guidance through these challenges. As far as stage fright was concerned, we teachers had already been through it and survived. The result was a stock of tricks and fool-proof mentalities to bolster confidence and evade anxiety. Introducing these tricks to our students when the need would arise appeared on surface to effectively combat stage fright. But I now wonder whether the culture of music-making we enforced–“high-classical,” individualistic rather than communal, practiced rather than spontaneous–inevitably spread stage fright and similar maladies while simultaneously offering their cure. Sheltered alongside the South Indian Ocean, miles from the nearest concert hall, a class of brash, fearless children was becoming painfully aware of their shortcomings. By inculcating our standards and cultural values, rather than adapting to theirs, were we effectively raising the bar for our students or ultimately doing doing them a disservice?
Part of the briefing I’d received from Music Academy founder Helen Vosloo when I first arrived in South Africa was her observation that students had marked strength in numbers: our twenty-odd high school musicians comprised a daring band of performers, provided they always appeared together. The ensemble had garnered region-wide acclaim for staged music productions in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown, and Johannesburg, winning a grant and Ovation Award from Standard Bank in 2012. A subset of the ensemble had even traveled to Germany for professional performances in 2013. (For an overview of Music Academy accomplishments year by year visit: http://www.keiskamma.org/index.php/music/growth-and-achievements.) The foundation for a strong performing group was embedded in the culture that raised it: Xhosa children advanced in learning environments founded on a symbiosis between individual students within a classroom. Their earliest lessons were learned by rote, with whole classes parroting sums and passages from books recited by a teacher.
As a young musician stage fright was a relentless accompaniment to my musical development. I’d won competitions in junior high and high school; the greater the challenge, the greater my fear and attempts to combat it. The real pressure, however, arose not from prizes gained or lost, but rather my own sense of what others expected of me and an obligation to live up to that conceived ideal. During my prizewinning years, the secret to performing past anxiety was repetitive practice; by committing music to memory and making physical motions automatic, I could ensure that my body would perform wherever my addled mind and heart happened to be.
During my time in South Africa, the KMA collective increased its visibility locally, performing on average once a month for a variety of events. The high school ensemble was and still is the only of its type in the Eastern Cape. (For an example of the KMA sound, see this video of a 2014 performance: https://youtu.be/jjJWu5FACNU). Our administration believed that funding opportunities could be secured by hiring older students out to play for municipal functions, banquets, and similar events. To prepare for these performances, the high school ensemble regularly rehearsed a set of pieces arranged for recorder ensemble with djembe and marimba and was expected to be ready to take the stage at often incredibly short notice. A part of me took issue with this regimen, for one thing, whenever it potentially thwarted learning at the students’ pace. For another, the majority of this set were works that had remained unchanged in the high school group’s repertoire for years, and thus didn’t encourage musical growth. These issues aside, the volume of performances may have aided the group on whole, making for an unusually seasoned and professional ensemble in its formative years.
Later in life, deepening my relationship with music and gaining a greater sense of self, I began to dare to use performance as a vehicle for expression beyond a mere means by which to achieve “perfection.” These days, I imagine the stage as a place where I am, oddly, alone–free to engage with emotion and imagination I would normally keep under wraps. Instrumental performance now features the satisfaction of communicating a wordless narrative, all the more powerful in its secrecy. It took me numerous accidents and failures on stage, as well as facing real-life fears off stage, to reach this point. And for the students in Hamburg who remain with music, I hope their path will be the same.
I recall one particular appearance for the Amathole District Festival in which KMA was one of many performing groups to play for municipal dignitaries on an outdoor stage. Without a set schedule, our students had to wait their turn under the hot sun. When our time came, we scrambled to set up their equipment–marimbas and all–and gave a hurried performance in high wind without amplification. (Strong winds interfere with sound production on the recorder by preventing air from moving over the block. This more often than not renders this instrument silent.) The event turned out to be the group’s worst by far. A number of our kids agreed that it had not been a stellar performance, but soon after any disappointment seemed forgotten. The schedule of KMA performances reminds me of the repetitive practice and benefits I received from that when competing. Moreover, through the series of performances that year, students had developed awareness that a single subpar performance was inconsequential in light of more consistent success.
During the months-long hiatus, apart from debating between new topics, I’ve also reflected on importance of maintaining this blog for its potential to help. If I cease writing and reminiscing about Keiskamma Music Academy, my students lose a voice. And though they may never read this blog, we are all aware that the advocates for this particular music academy throughout our world are very few. An old set of deadlines has given way to the new. Texts from Africa can look forward to more regular posts in future, and the story of Music Academy will continue to be told.
Trailing off for now,