Teaching music in Kenya from 8,000 miles away
Distance-learning program uses technology to teach piano in Africa.
Faculty and students at the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music have created a one-of-a-kind distance-learning program, teaching band, orchestra and piano classes to students at the Moi Girls’ High School in Eldoret, Kenya.
With the help of programs like Skype and instruments that connect to the internet, graduate students at the School of Music teach weekly lessons to students 8,000 miles away.
The seeds of the project were planted in 2011, when Jean Kidula, a School of Music professor of ethnomusicology and a Kenya native, began a beginner band program that sent used instruments to Moi Girls’ High 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’ High 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 that increase employability. 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 quit before five years in the field.”
With the professors’ interests aligned, it was decided that Jutras would return to Eldoret with several piano graduate students—Yoonsook Song, Benjamin Turk and Crystal Wu—to enhance the piano program, and Taylor and three of his music education graduate students—Danny Bermel, Damon Postle and Ben Torres—would go as well, to build on the existing band program and establish an orchestra one.
The group had reasonable expectations for the trip: a slow start, gradual acceptance of these new classes, incremental progress. The reactions of the Kenyan students quickly shattered every expectation.
“I have never seen a group of children so eager to learn,” said Bermel. “On the first day, 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.”
“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.”
— Skip Taylor
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, 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, 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’ High 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.”
As technology advances across the globe, this experience will position UGA as a front-runner in this new form of music education.
“I’ve searched everywhere: JSTOR, ProQuest, Google, Skype in the Classroom,” said Damon Postle. “And I haven’t been able to find anything like what we’re doing anywhere else in the world.”
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 left the school a computer which I wrote the check for myself,” said Jutras. “And we’re happy to do it.”
And while the idea of the program is energizing enough, nothing inspires quite like students driven to learn.
“One of the best moments in all of this 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.”
—Clarke Schwabe, School of Music