Introducing students to the joy of helping others can be extremely rewarding for all involved. Giving students a better perspective on global issues like poverty, and first-hand experience on how music can connect us all, may be every bit as life changing as teaching them to make music. This is the story of two programs; the White Oak High School (WOHS) Band and the Cheery Children Education Center (CCEC).
In the spring of 2017 our high school music program began performing Skype Concerts with our local elementary schools. It was great to way to reach out to area schools without requiring either group to travel. After each performance I would share photos of the concert on Twitter.
One day a Skype representative replied with questions about the concerts. They suggested I share my experiences via #Skypeintheclassoom and pointed me toward the Microsoft for Education Website. After searching for connections in the “Skype in the Classroom section,” I discovered the Cheery Education Centre in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
On June 2, 2017 the WOHS Symphonic Band performed a Skype Concert with students from the CCEC. During that session we realized that they had no music classes nor any instruments. Following that realization, the Cheery Music Project was born.
About the Cheery Centre and the Kibera Slum
In order to fully understand how we might best help, we needed to first learn more about the CCEC. This is from their website:
“The CCEC was founded in 2009 and is situated in the heart of the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera houses almost 1 million people, making it the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. The sole purpose of the centre is to serve children from vulnerable families in Kenya especially those living in harsh conditions in the Kibera slum. The Cheery Children Education Centre serves the forgotten, orphaned, abused, abandoned and hungry children, and is a place where character is nurtured and hope is given to the hopeless.”
The conditions that these children live in are saddening. They live in 12×12-foot shacks, often with eight or more people. Few have electricity. Disease is rampant. In place of toilet facilities are latrines (holes in the ground) that are typically shared among 50 shacks.
Despite these harsh conditions, the children at Cheery are resilient, constantly adapting with an attitude of hope. They play, they smile, and they laugh.
How do you start a music program – in such an environment – from 7,600 miles away? We knew we needed a plan to organize the process, so I created these three phases:
- Provide recorders, improve the school’s WIFI capabilities, then have students from the WOHS Band teach music reading and recorder lessons via Skype
- Establish an instrumental ensemble using Nuvo instruments, Ptrumpets, and Pbones
- Provide the Cheery students with student instruments and help them form their first concert band
In order to fund the project we established a gofundme page. We set up a separate checking account for the project via the White Oak Band Boosters. By promoting the project on social media and a WOHS Band Alumni website we are able to get donations quickly.
We knew we wanted to update the CCEC’s Internet infrastructure to provide better connections for our Skype lessons. After some research by Jairus Makambi (the school’s founder and director), we purchased a WIFI plan that would give the school unlimited broadband high-speed internet via a wireless modem.
I asked our regional Conn-Selmer representative if they might help with the project. Both he (and Conn-Selmer) graciously jumped on board and within weeks we had 100 recorders. However, we soon learned that getting things to Kenya was going to be part of the challenge; shipping the 28-pound box to the school cost $650 and took almost 8 weeks to arrive.
After this experience I discovered a Kenyan website from which we could order and ship recorder books inexpensively. This would prove to be very useful despite having a very limited musical inventory.
By the start of our 2017-2018 school year we had started the Skype music lessons. Thanks to a volunteer from the UK, who had heard about our project and brought some recorders to Cheery, we were able to begin recorder lesson before our big box of recorders arrived.
Our plan was for two or three WOHS band students to teach two Cheery students, then these Cheery students would teach other students. Lessons were taught at 6 am EST, or 1 pm in Nairobi. This was the best time for the Cheery students as it followed their lunch break and was early enough so that WOHS students would not have any class conflicts. The first lessons focused on how to read note names in treble clef and then learning three notes on the recorder. See one such lesson in action.
We quickly realized that the Cheery Students were eager to learn and picked up on things fast! We started to do screen share on Skype to enable them to see more instructional materials. Here is a short clip of a note reading game from one student’s third lesson. As you can see, these students demonstrate a very high retention level.
Phase Two and the Role of SmartMusic
To help us move to phase two, our friends at Conn-Selmer kindly allowed us to purchase six Ptrumpets and six Ptrombones at a reduced cost. Again the expense to ship them was going to be very high. So much so that it would be cheaper for two of us to fly to Cheery as even with the airfare and accommodations, we would save money.
The fact that Kenya does not observe daylight savings time produced another unexpected obstacle. When the time change required our lessons to be taught at 5 AM, this was too early for WOHS students to come into school, so I taught these lessons from my house.
One of the instructional strategies I used was screen-sharing SmartMusic (even though it wasn’t created to be used in this manner). Although there was a slight delay, SmartMusic let me post music faster and use the accompaniment tracks to give students a sense of ensemble. Because SmartMusic had both the recorder book and beginning band method book we planned to use, I was able to use it to teach both instruments. See SmartMusic in use.
Vaughn Ambrose is the director of jazz at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes Upper School in Alexandria, VA. A former student of mine, Vaughn has also raised money for our project. While visiting him, I had him join me in a Skype lesson with Cheery students.
Vaughn was also impressed with how quickly these students were learning and recognized a need that he could fill. He and his wife donated a 43-inch flat screen TV to the school. We were able to purchase the TV via a local Kenyan website so that we could avoid the shipping and have the power cable ready for Kenyan voltages.
To complete phase two, another former student of mine and I traveled to the Cheery Education Centre at the end of March 2018. We brought four full suitcases of equipment and supplies. This included many Nuvo instruments: 4 Toots, 4 Doods, 4 Jsaxes, 2 Nuvo Student Flutes and 2 Nuvo Clarineros. We also brought 2 beginner percussion kits, 4 wire music stands, method books, music posters, jump ropes, and toothbrushes.
Dell donated a laptop to upgrade the school’s Skype capabilities. My school also sent several books for the students to read. One last minute addition, a small weather station kit, provided additional insight to one of the other areas of need in the school: they had no science equipment.
It was remarkable to see, first hand, how these students lived and how this school was a true blessing in their lives. After passing out the instruments and letting the students see the things we brought, we hooked up the flat screen TV to the new computer. This was a game changer as the students no longer had to be huddled around a laptop. It made it possible for many more students to participate simultaneously.
This photo illustrates the difference between the laptop and new TV:
During our stay were invited to go into nearly every class to teach students how to read music and to encourage them to play a few notes on the recorders.
One of the questions we had before our arrival was whether or not students would practice outside of class. We soon learned that not only do they practice but they have student leaders. After teaching a fifth-grade class how to read music we walked into the computer room and saw Clinton, a fellow Cheery student, leading his classmates in an exercise in SmartMusic. I had shown him how to get to the SmartMusic website and login only once. Seeing him help teach his peers was a huge moment; we knew we were planting seeds.
We had a chance to visit four children’s homes during our visit. I was very impressed with their resilient attitudes and happy hearts. It made me even more committed to the project and looking forward to phase three.
The visit culminated with a Skype concert for my WOHS students, bringing the project full circle. Setting up for the concert in the space next to the water tower, with all the Cherry students surrounding the Cheery Music Group, was a surreal experience. Seeing my WOHS students on the computer watching the performance was a moving emotional moment. The concert was also shown on Facebook Live. One person commented it was the best performance of “Hot Cross Buns” ever.
If there is one thing I have learned from this experience is that you should never underestimate the potential of any child. Some might look at the circumstances these children are in and assume they are limited in ability. The truth is quite different. The work ethic – and hope for the future – these students demonstrated was nothing short of inspirational. They are very focused on working to get their education and to break the cycle of poverty. This cannot happen without the help of many. If you’d like to help, please consider supporting the Cheery Education Centre or the Cheery Music Project.
In closing I’d like to reiterate how everyone involved in this project benefited. I encourage other educators to find opportunities to teach their students to meet people whose lives are very different from our own and to experience what it feels like to help others.