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Sunday, February 15, 2015


Durban Music School - making a difference through music. (Classical Notes by William Charlton-Perkins published courtesy of The Mercury)

Ten years ago, while reading about the meteoric rise to fame of the young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, I chanced upon reference to the internationally renowned music education programme known as El Sistema, through which the young maestro had been nurtured.

I carried a report in this column about this astonishingly successful endeavour which had produced multiple youth orchestras in Venezuela, and more than 90 symphony orchestras, through giving a sense of self-worth and purpose to thousands of impoverished inner-city street children who had found their identity by being taught to read and play music together.

A current website introduces El Sistema as “a tested model of how a music program can both create great musicians and dramatically change the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of a nation’s neediest kids”. Readers can learn just how incredibly far-reaching and effective the programme is by visiting

Since my story appeared, this miraculous model, which also carries immensely powerful audience development side-effects for the arts, has been adopted by many countries around the globe. But, sadly, this has not yet happened in any significant way here - despite attempts to persuade decision-makers in our local music sector to pull together and exhort government to back the system.

Our own socially-driven music education initiatives continue to be run as isolated projects, however big or small each may be. In this region, the leader in the field remains our valiant Durban Music School (DMS).

Housed in a heritage building dating from back to the 1860s, it is situated at 21 Diakonia Avenue. Along with the Diakonia Centre and the Refugee Information Centre across the street, DMS stands as an oasis of sanctity in Durban’s notoriously poverty-stricken, crime-riddled, inner-city zone known as Albert Park.

For the past two years, DMS has benefited from the tireless leadership of eThekwini Living Legend, Kim Matthews, who has been its chief executive officer since the death of its founder, Werner Dannewitz. With 36 part-time paid music teachers on board, the school offers music tuition to learners ranging from three-year-olds to senior citizens. The school’s curriculum offers weekly lessons in piano, keyboard, guitar, and all orchestral instruments except the harp. There are approximately 500 learners of which 420 are on full music bursary. Learners are required to take accredited music exams each year, either through Royal Schools or Trinity College.

DMS’s main mission is to equip its pupils with the skills to sing or to play an instrument with professional proficiency (past members include the noted South African trumpeter Michael Magner, now a member of the Johannesburg Philharmonic, Maxine Matthews, one of South Africa’s top saxophonists and trombonist Ross Butcher, a respected orchestral musician in Switzerland).

Structured as a Section 21 Company, DMS benefits from the guidance of a seven-member Board, with KZN Philharmonic’s Bongani Tembe serving as its chairman. The school has 22 studios which are available for practice purposes, as well as a recently-built R13 million performance venue, funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and designed by architect, Paul Mikula.

Famed musical entities affiliated with DMS include the KZN Youth Orchestra and the KZN Youth Wind Band, which accredited itself with honour in China last year, and is set to perform at an international music festival in Vienna in July.

DMS also runs several community outreach programmes. Its teachers work at the Open Air School in Glenwood four days a week, including its junior school, embracing some 100 children individually and as members of ensembles and choirs.

A further DMS development programme happens in Umlazi where five teachers work with some 50 children. This project, run in partnership with the Durban-based charity, Little Wings Foundation, sees the training of a 10-member band of 8 to 12-year old children. These children have been invited to perform at the prestigious Festival of Life in Las Vegas in October this year - alongside luminaries such as Kanye West and Lionel Ritchie. A fund-raising drive is underway in support of this ground-breaking venture.

Another development initiative run by Matthews under the aegis DMS is conducted in partnership with the Paw Paw Foundation, of which she is also CEO. This includes hosting 15 rural learners from Inchanga for weekly lessons at the school. Each child is given a hot meal before returning home.

Yet another out-of-town programme takes place at Ntuzuma where learners from the Bonisinani Primary School, aged between six and 12 years, are making significant headway with their Royal Schools music exams.

And back on home turf, a programme close to Kim Matthews’ heart sees her opening DMS up to some 40 little children from the immediate neighbourhood to receive hip hop lessons, as a safe-haven project run in partnership with the nearby YMCA. - William Charlton-Perkins