What we can learn from music education in Kenya

Posted: July 11, 2011 in Miscellaneous
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At a time when so much in British music education seems to be under threat, I would like to briefly turn the spotlight away from the plight of music teachers in this country and on to a place where music education has its own share of problems: Kenya.

Music education in Kenya has been close to my heart ever since I spent 18 months as a volunteer music teacher at Starehe Boys’ Centre, a secondary school in Nairobi, on a placement sponsored by the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust. My brief was to deliver piano and woodwind tuition and to run extra-curricular activities including instrumental ensembles and a music theatre production. Classroom music, the choir and a much-admired marching band were already being taken care of by the school’s permanent music staff.

It’s fair to say that Starehe Boys’ Centre is no ordinary Kenyan secondary school. Set up in 1959 as a home for a handful of destitute boys, the school has grown over the years and now provides secondary education for over 900 young men with exam results that regularly top the league tables. Seventy per cent of the school’s students are given sponsored places and competition for these is fierce: every year there are over 20,000 applications for just 200 places, with selection dependent on both financial need and academic ability.

The school has been something of a cause célèbre in the British media. It was the subject of the Daily Telegraph’s Christmas Appeal in 2009, and has benefited from an unrivalled level of support from the international community. So while its achievements have undoubtedly been remarkable, the school enjoys the kind of resources that are seldom seen in other Kenyan schools. But in other ways, the school is fairly typical of an education system in which creativity is driven to the margins at the expense of the relentless pursuit of academic achievement.

Of course, there is good reason for this. Sadly, it is as true as ever that one of the priorities of Kenyan life, at least for many people, is simply to get by. With no welfare state or public health system to speak of, those who do get the chance to attend secondary school are usually under enormous pressure from relatives back home to secure themselves a well-paid position in order to make their expensive educations pay. For this reason, few Kenyan high school graduates announce that they are to pursue careers as artists. And yet Kenyan culture is bursting with suppressed creativity. You need look no further than the highly decorated public transport vehicles (matatus), painted every colour under the sun and given names such as ‘Drive it like you stole it’, to realise how much creative energy lies dormant in the society.

Music in the Kenyan system in fact fares better than the other arts. Visual art, for example, has virtually no presence at all. One of the reasons for music’s relative good fortune is that Kenya is four-fifths a Christian nation, with a healthy appetite for sacred but energetic choral music. Most schools run a choir from this starting point, allowing imaginative teachers to branch out and explore secular and traditional Kenyan songs alongside sacred repertoire.

But apart from choirs, music in Kenyan schools is not particularly encouraged. It is the only arts subject on the curriculum at Starehe Boys’ Centre – taught in a spacious, donor-built music centre to boot – but, for some reason, uptake is restricted to 15 students annually. This means that, at the beginning of each school year, the 50 or so new arrivals who are interested in taking music are forced to participate in a round of ear tests and other musical challenges in order to whittle them down to a class of just 15.

To an outsider like me, the ear-testing process was more than a little comic. Professional piano tuners are thin on the ground in Kenya, and, quite honestly, most music teachers I know would have struggled to sing any note played on the bashed-up old Broadwood that graced the music centre’s main teaching room – let alone a group of boys who had probably never seen or heard a piano before in their lives. It seemed a strange way to launch these children’s musical careers, but the teachers were required to get the numbers down to 15, and so had no choice but to reject dozens of enthusiastic students.

Once selected, the lucky 15 were launched into a curriculum that appeared not to have changed much since the British left it behind in the 1960s. It seemed mainly to involve learning the rules and regulations of western music through good old-fashioned chalk and talk, with a few mentions of traditional Kenyan music thrown in for good measure. Actual music was rarely a part of the classroom experience.

I soon saw, however, that the teachers were not to blame for this state of affairs. For one thing, a culture of over-serious, academic study pervaded the school, influencing teachers of all subjects. Secondly, the teachers had not really been exposed to the kind of training that might have encouraged them to consider other, more engaging approaches. And thirdly, it wasn’t as if they were deliberately shutting out practical music: after all, they had been open enough to invite a volunteer teacher into the department to provide instrumental tuition.

So, entrusted with a key to a small dark room in which lived the school’s only properly functioning piano, I began teaching piano lessons, and woodwind lessons too, once I managed to get some woodwind instruments donated. I had a degree of success, especially with some of the small ensembles I formed, but as time passed I realised that the heart of the school’s music-making was always going to be found in choir rehearsals. Here, away from the dry formality of the classroom, teaching was much more engaging and numbers were huge; boys were often turned away simply because there was no more space in the rehearsal room.

I came to see that the choir, and to a lesser extent my instrumental teaching, were successful because they offered a rare channel for creative expression in an educational environment that offered plenty of nourishment for the head but not nearly enough for the heart. Good Kenyan music teachers know that they have a vital job in this regard: they realise that it falls to them to facilitate the holistic, spiritual sort of learning that young people intuitively crave, and which is unlikely to be found in other subject areas, at least in Kenya.

So what does this mean for music education in the UK? Well, it is an important reminder that there are things about music which are unique – and that music teachers are at the front line when it comes to defending these things and their educational applications.

There have been many arguments recently in the campaign to protect music education. Among them are claims that music improves children’s literacy and numeracy, and that the academic study of music is as rigorous and important as any other academic subject studied in schools. But if we’re honest, children’s literacy and numeracy would probably improve if they were actively engaged with any creative subject, and you can write a rigorous essay about almost anything. But only through the study of music – which must be purely for its own sake – can you access, understand, feel and appreciate the unique magic at work inside a piece of Rachmaninoff, Stevie Wonder or Eric Wainaina (an excellent Kenyan musician – look him up!). This is why all children should have the opportunity to learn music at school, and it is the lesson we can learn afresh from the experiences of music teachers in Kenya.

This post also appears as the current Editorial on teachingmusic.org.uk

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Comments
  1. TK Goforth says:

    Wonderful post — how I would LONG to be back in Kenya working with those people! I was there in the ’80’s with a group of Continental Singers, and they accepted us with open arms. What an exciting experience you must have had working with the children for 18 months! I must do more research on this school. Thank you for the insights! God bless!

  2. Mr. Musembi says:

    As a music teacher, I’d like to recognise this effort. Much needs to be done to kenyan schools to change their attitude towards music as a subject.

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