UGA School of Music outreach project, four years in the making, sends eight to Kenya

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UGA faculty and students, led by Dr. Skip Taylor (bottom left) and Dr. Pete Jutras (third row, third from left), share a photo with faculty and staff of Potters House Elementary School in Kenya.

Many of UGA’s 35,000 students traveled somewhere over spring break, but most didn’t leave the country. Fewer still crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Only six flew to Nairobi, then took a seven-hour van ride to Eldoret, Kenya, to teach music. 

A group of eight from the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music’s music education and piano performance areas are in Africa from March 10-21, setting up distance learning and orchestra programs for a fledgling music department in western Kenya.

The seeds of this project were planted almost four years ago, when Benita Gladney, a graduate student of Skip Taylor, current chair of the School of Music’s music education area, and Mary Leglar, then music education chair, began a project that would send used instruments to Moi Girls’ School, a public boarding school in Eldoret. 

The music students and teacher in Kenya, grateful for the donation, began to save money to make a trip to Athens to meet their UGA benefactors. So, a year after the relationship was struck, the Moi Girls’ School and Hugh Hodgson School of Music met face-to-face.

During their visit, the teacher who had traveled with the girls approached Pete Jutras, associate professor of piano at the School of Music, about a problem they had back home: the students wanted to learn piano, but had no piano teacher. 

This spurred Jutras to think about how online teaching was growing and how his piano students needed teaching experience. He proposed a system in which Jutras’ piano students in Athens could teach students in Kenya. 

A year later, Jutras was on a flight to Nairobi with a laptop, a webcam and a disassembled digital keyboard. His visit to the school in Eldoret proved to be as enlightening and inspiring as it was beneficial.

“We think we have trouble justifying music in the schools here, but it’s a lot worse there,” said Jutras. “I was told they’re one of the few schools left in Kenya that has any music program at all.”

Music falls by the wayside at the school for practical reasons. The students take music as an elective, but other available electives include business, computers and foreign language—skills to make someone employable. According to UNICEF, over 45 percent of Kenya’s population lives beneath the poverty line, so it’s understandable the students would feel pressure to eschew the arts for greater earning potential.

But since UGA got involved, hundreds of students now try to become a part of the program. Jutras’ piano students stay busy, giving Skype lessons twice a week every week since fall 2015.

As the students in Eldoret were getting their first lessons, Jutras’ program caught Skip Taylor’s attention. Taylor is involved with numerous music outreach programs: from a long-standing program with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clarke County to the creation of a youth orchestra at Almaty International School in Kazakhstan last year.

Taylor’s students play a major part in his outreach, getting the pre-service teaching experience that Taylor feels is lacking in most music education programs.

“Students basically do a 10-week practicum and maybe teach two lessons and then they go student teach,” said Taylor. “If we did this with the medical field, we’d be in a lot of trouble. The lack of regular pre-service teaching may be why 47 percent of young teachers quite before five years in the field.”

So, with the success of Jutras’ original program and Taylor’s interest, it was decided that Jutras would return to Eldoret with several piano graduate students—Yoonsook Song, Benjamin Turk and Crystal Wu—to enhance the program, and Taylor and three of his music education graduate students—Danny Bermel, Damon Postle and Ben Torres—would aid them in that effort.

Taylor’s part of this program involves something similar to what he and his students did in Kazakhstan: plant and nurture the seed for an orchestra program.

“We’ve put these instruments in their hands so that they have the opportunity to slowly build an orchestra at the school,” said Taylor. 

While Taylor has the reasonable expectation of incremental progress, the reaction of the Kenyan students made that expectation seem perhaps too modest.

“I have never seen a group of children so eager to learn,” said Bermel. “We rehearsed for over two hours without a single incident. On breaks, the students did not rest, they practiced.”

“The girls have so much excitement to learn to play music,” said Turk. “They would rather skip their dinner and continue the lesson.”

A project of this size doesn’t succeed without outside support, and this project had that in spades. Beginning with guidance, both figurative and literal, from Dr. Jean Ngoya Kidula, professor of music at the School of Music and a Kenyan native, people and businesses far and wide have helped the project.

The group took a slew of instruments to leave with the students, including one digital piano donated by the North Dekalb Music Teachers Association, two digital pianos donated by Yamaha, violins, strings and string accessories from Ronald Sachs Violins of Lilburn, Ga., and numerous instruments from community donors.

The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada donated a box of sheet music to the project so that the Kenyan students and UGA student teachers will be working from the same materials, Chick Piano of Athens gave the project rosin, strings, valve oil and reeds and Stripling’s General Store in Bogart, Ga., even donated shirts for the students as well as packing materials to ensure safe transport of the instruments.

So, for Taylor and Jutras, this opportunity with Moi Girls’ School is not just an opportunity to give to the people of an impoverished country, not just a chance to support the arts in a place where demand is high and resources are low, not just a resource to make their students better teachers, but a unique, unprecedented combination of the three.

“This is providing my students opportunities to instruct students they otherwise would never meet or interact with,” said Taylor. “And after the first day of teaching, our UGA graduate students were so excited at the progress the students made over the period of one day, they can not wait to get in class tomorrow.”

“It would be great to expand our online teaching and have UGA be a place where you can really get experience teaching online and doing some cutting edge stuff,” said Jutras. “We’re looking at what the future of music teaching may be and we’re preparing our students for that.”

To Jutras and Taylor, this is a project that doesn’t end when they fly home on the 21st. 

“If we do this right over the next few years, we’ll have a pre-service teaching setup that no one else in the country has, from what I’ve seen,” said Taylor.

“It’s very clear to me that this is only going to work if there’s regular face-to-face interaction,” said Jutras. “Maybe not every year, maybe once every two years or something, but I think the students need to see who we are.”

The hope is that attention from industry leaders like Yamaha and networks of music professionals will lead to finding more supporters to sustain and expand this ambitious program, but everyone involved is committed to seeing it through, whatever the cost.

“My doctoral students have been volunteering their time to teach the Skype lessons, they paid their own way to go to Kenya, and I’m leaving a laptop computer here for the school which I wrote the check for myself,” said Jutras. “And we’re happy to do it.”

And being face-to-face with these enthusiastic students in a vibrant, welcoming environment, the group has never been more willing to give of themselves.

“One of the best moments was on my first day on campus at the Moi Girls’ School in Eldoret,” said Crystal Wu. “As we toured the facility, my students would spot me and run up to hug me as if we’re old friends. It was the first time we’ve met in person since I started teaching them.”

“I’m not sure when I’ll be physically back here again, but maybe I’m bringing home a bit of Kenya with me,” said Postle.

“Yesterday, I met a man named Simon who gave me a tour of the school,” said Torres. “After the tour, we asked him to sing us one of his native songs. His initial hesitance was short-lived, and he burst into a charismatic performance. 

“The way he sang, his excitement, his musicality, his evocative performance—I couldn’t believe it. If you were to ask Simon if he was a musician, he would have said ‘Of course not.’ But in that moment, he absolutely was a musician, and a very good one. 

“The music here lives in people.”