South Africa 2011

I am now done with my three week trip to South Africa. My participation in the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF) is now complete and I am getting closer to the pure vacation portion of my summer. Many many thanks go out to the organizers and supporters of SICMF. I had a truly remarkable experience, and I look forward to returning as often as they will have me. Looking back on these past few weeks, I could find tons of interesting things to expand upon... great concerts, new friends, amazing views from Cape Point and Table Mountain, safari experiences at Aquila game reserve and Kruger National Park (and maybe I will expand on those later because they are all AWESOME)... but something on my mind has been far more inspirational and enlightening than all of those things combined.

While working at SICMF, I came into contact with students of many different backgrounds, ages and ability levels. The first day of the festival began with auditions for ensemble placement in one of the two festival orchestras. Rik Ghesquiere, Belgian trumpeter and conductor, and I listened to the trumpet and trombone auditions. By American or European conservatory standards, the requirements were very standard. Students were required to play a portion of a solo piece and selections from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and Nutcracker Suite, two of the pieces to be performed by the festival orchestras. As usual, the students performed with varying degrees of refinement and competence. Rik and I were informed that a group of Nigerian students would be arriving a little late but would need to be auditioned. Soon afterwards, a Nigerian trumpeter and euphonium player arrived for their auditions. They had significant difficulty getting through the assigned excerpts, and we had concerns that we would be unable to place them in an ensemble for fear that their deficiencies would hold back even the weaker players at the festival.

Later that day, the Nigerian trumpet player asked Rik if he would be willing to help him work on the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, which he would be playing the next day in a student concert, accompanied by a chamber orchestra of his thirteen friends from Nigeria. Rik agreed to help him, but as you might imagine, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about a student who struggles to play four bars of The Nutcracker Suite standing in front of an orchestra to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Well, the skepticism was soon hushed when the young man showed up to his coaching and showed that he could play the piece. I attended the performance the next day and was incredibly moved. If I were to measure his performance in purely technical terms, there was a lot left to be desired. However, if I were to measure it in terms of integrity, commitment to excellence and a pure passion for making music, I'm not sure there's anything I've ever witnessed that can compete with it! Here was a student who has probably never received a proper trumpet lesson, never heard a professional classical musician live, never had a high quality instrument, never this, never that.... the list of disadvantages too long to continue mentioning... Here he is, playing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with orchestra, from memory, and all things considered, doing a pretty damn good job. His friends are playing too, and they are moving their bows together and nodding their heads excitedly along with the music in the same manner a seasoned professional would. It was immediately clear that this is not a case of lacking talent or desire, simply a shortage of proper teaching and equipment. With proper instruction, these guys would be spectacular by any standard. I can't imagine doing anything near the level of what they did with the resources that they have.

It seems that often times there is a direct relationship between the desire to learn and the lack of an opportunity to do so. I have found in many instances that the people who desperately desire to improve themselves are the ones who lack privilege, while the ones who are given every opportunity in the world are often complacent and take for granted how lucky they are to be born into advantageous circumstances. I suppose there's no real new information there, but my recent experiences provided further clarity on the subject. For the most part it was easy to tell which students came from money and which ones didn't.

SICMF had faculty concerts every evening, and I have to say that the performances were all of a very high professional level and worthy of being attended. The general public of Stellenbosch was very enthusiastic about the performances, and other faculty members attended regularly even on evenings when they were not performing. I noticed that attendance by the majority of students was up and down depending on the repertoire being performed or whether or not their teacher was playing that night. The one constant was that the Nigerian students attended every concert and were enthused about them all. I talked to the students all the time. Some of the conversations with a more privileged student would go something like this...

Me: Hey! You coming to the concert tonight?
Student: Maybe. I'm a little tired and people are talking about going out tonight. I may take a nap first and see how I feel.

Conversation with the Nigerian student would go something like this....

Me: Hey! You coming to the concert tonight?
Student: Of course! I go to every concert and masterclass. Why would I not go to the concert? That's what we came for!

The difference between those two conversations made me think quite a bit. It's a classic case of the haves and have nots. I got to thinking about all the students I have already had in my 6 years in New York. They have a teacher who provides them with a standing open invitation for free standing room tickets at the Metropolitan Opera, thought by many to be the world's greatest classical music institution. Many of them come once or twice a school year. Some come a little more. Some come less. They often times think they have better things to do. Too tired. Long week at school. Not a big trombone part. Takes too long to get into the city. You name the excuse, I've heard it. The humorous part of it is, many of the students who are least committed to hearing the music as often as possible are the ones who act confused when they don't progress as quickly as they had hoped. Long story short, I wish I had the resources to personally bring several of the students I met to America and pay for their musical education. They could give some of our guys and gals a crash course on work ethic and commitment. Also, the lack of age and racial diversity in the MET audience would be fixed immediately! If anyone has a wealthy friend looking to do a good deed, let me know... I've got just the person you're looking for, and he won't let you down!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that EVERYONE born into privilege is a lazy bum or that EVERY poor kid has a steely work ethic. I was born into some degree of privilege and I've always prided myself on my work ethic. I've never really concerned myself with where my next meal is coming from or whether or not the lights will come on when I hit the switch. As a result of a good foundation at home regarding the value of hard work, I developed an intense work ethic that has served me well. That, combined with a real love of music and a passion to improve my craft, has led to the opportunity to lead a pretty charmed musical existence.

Growing up in upper middle class America makes it very easy for someone like myself to say, "Yeh. I deserve it. I worked my tail off to get where I am." To a certain extent, perhaps that's true. When I was a student, I practiced when others partied. I missed three Philadelphia Orchestra programs in three years. I practiced like a demon possessed. The sad part is that the successful among us often forget just how lucky we are to have had the opportunity to have our efforts pay off, or how lucky we were to have someone instill in us the values of hard work at an early age. Not everyone is so fortunate. Our former president, George W. Bush, re-popularized the saying "pull yourself up by your bootstraps", a saying that I wouldn't abhor so much were it not so often used in a completely ignorant context. Well, what about the people who don't have straps on their boots, or don't have boots at all, or don't have a paved road to walk down? How do they help themselves?

It pains me to think of all the great world leaders, politicians, scientists, musicians, athletes, artists, etc who were lost in the genocide in Rwanda or who are currently living in a township with no running water or electricity in Cape Town, South Africa, only fifteen minutes down the road from their wealthy countrymen and tourists who are enjoying a week of touring the wine farms. Instead of developing into contributing members of the world who are given a fair shake, they are relegated to begging in the streets or staying indoors for fear of being raped. At a time when gold sells for $1500 an ounce, the second most productive gold mining country in the world has nearly 50% of it's population living in these conditions with an unemployment rate of 40%. What's wrong with this picture?

At any rate, anyone can pontificate about how awful life can be for people in certain parts of the world. There are plenty of neighborhoods in America, the richest country in the world, where people grow up in poverty and never have a real chance. The difference with a place like South Africa is that the poor are much poorer and the percentage of people living in those conditions hits you square in the face no matter how hard you try to look away. Sadly, on a mass scale, there is nothing I can individually do about it. As a musician, I can teach those who desire to learn as much as I possibly can and be generous with my time. I can donate money and food to those in need, perhaps changing their lives for the better in the short term. On a much smaller scale, perhaps at some point I will be blessed with the means by which to sponsor an aspiring musician who otherwise would have never had the chance and watch him/her blossom into a real professional. On a personal level, I can renew my commitment to become the best I am capable of becoming. I can continually remind myself what someone with the disadvantages previously mentioned would do with the opportunities I have been given. It's easier said than done when you have grown accustomed to a certain way of life, but I do intend to try.

I extend a huge thank you to the people of South Africa for giving me such a wonderful experience. I received a full dose of friendship, musicianship, history, nature, good food and good company. The thought provoking and heart warming experiences are far too numerous to mention. To the people of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Soweto, thanks for helping me keep it real. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

For photos from the festival, click here.

1 comment

  • StanC
    Hi Weston Greetings from Mpumalanga, South Africa! I'm the guy that sat next to you on the JFK-JNB flight. Just passing by to say hola! Great to know you had a lovely time in SA and that the Festival was a success. The pics gave me a glimpse! Trust all is well with you. Your site is now on my Fav list so I'll be following you! Blessings, Stan

    Hi Weston

    Greetings from Mpumalanga, South Africa! I'm the guy that sat next to you on the JFK-JNB flight. Just passing by to say hola!

    Great to know you had a lovely time in SA and that the Festival was a success. The pics gave me a glimpse!

    Trust all is well with you. Your site is now on my Fav list so I'll be following you!



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