An Adventure at Sistema Aotearoa

While stories filter in from around the world through Euan Murdoch we’ve been having some exciting experiences on our own shores. Chamber Music New Zealand’s Operations Coordinator, Jessica Lightfoot, shares her latest musical adventure…


I spent last week undertaking professional development at Sistema Aotearoa, a music and social development programme based in Otara, South Auckland. Sistema Aotearoa is a partnership between the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and has been running since 2011. Thanks to the links between Chamber Music New Zealand and Sistema – our Auckland Concert Manager, Ros Giffney, is the Programme Facilitator, and CEO Euan Murdoch is on the Steering Group – I was able to work as a tutor at Sistema’s April school holiday course. And what an experience it was!

My week began on Saturday 27 April as Ros, some of the other tutors and I accompanied a group of eager Sistema students and their families to an APO 4 Kids performance at the Auckland Town Hall. The concert, entitled A Day with Teddy, involved the kids (and parents) singing along to well-known songs, learning about the different instruments in the orchestra and even conducting! It was the first time many of the children had seen a live orchestra and they were enchanted to see where their violin playing could possibly take them in the future.

Making cardboard violins

Making cardboard violins

After a training day on Sunday, where I met the 20 or so other tutors and Programme Director Dr Joe Harrop (“Dr Joe” to everyone), we were off on Monday morning with a roar. Arriving just after 8am each day, the tutors set to work preparing snacks for the 200 kids expected, tuning umpteen violins and setting up each area of our headquarters (the Otara Music Arts Centre) ready for lessons. As the 90 or so 6-year-old beginners from the 2013 intake streamed in, they listened to live music played on the violin, viola, cello or double bass by one of the tutors. Then they split into groups to learn the basics of solfege, music theory, the songs they will soon learn to play and creating their own cardboard violins, which they will use until they are ready for the real thing. These newbies were adorable and keen, and quickly picked up everything that was taught to them. By the end of the week they were singing “Twinkle Twinkle” with solfege hand signals, clapping and reading a variety of rhythms, understanding the basics of music theory and naming the different parts of their instrument. I can’t wait to hear how they get along as they continue with lessons at school this term.

After a quick break we welcomed the Kupe orchestra, made up of students who began at Sistema in 2012. Along with several other tutors, I worked as a “sweeper” for the week, floating around the group quietly making corrections and helping to emphasise what was being taught by the leader of each session. The orchestral groups worked in two sessions, firstly in a bigger orchestra, then in smaller “intensives” of 3-5 children where extra help could be given. I’m a violinist by trade, but spent some of the week working in intensives with the cello students. Now I feel like I could give a pretty good rendition of “Row, Row, Row your Boat” or “Are you Sleeping” if pushed, with the correct cello fingering! The Iriaka orchestra (2011 and 2012 Sistema students) and the Tupaia orchestra (2011 students) took part in similar activities for the rest of each day, which seemed to go by in a flash of rehearsals and intensives. Throughout the week there was also a strong emphasis placed on good behaviour and manners, especially at snack time. All the children behaved very well and it was a pleasure getting to know them a little during the break times.

A cellist in the Iriaka Orchestra rehearses

A cellist in the Iriaka Orchestra rehearses

A highlight of the week for the Tupaia orchestra students was the opportunity to perform with New Zealand boy band Titanium at the opening of NZ Music Month at the Auckland Central Library. Along with a kids’ ukulele group and choir, their performance of Titanium’s song “Come on Home” was a great success and even featured on the TV news that night. It was a great reward for all the hard work they put in to learning the music.

(Click the image below to watch the TV3 video on their website)

videoSistema and titanium

Another highlight of the week for tutors was the chance to attend the APO’s concert on Thursday evening as VIP guests. Despite the fatigue of the week setting in, we enjoyed the chance to let our minds and bodies relax as we listened to Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta, Strauss’ Four Last Songs (performed by the phenomenal Measha Brueggergosman), and my personal favourite of the evening, Schubert’s Symphony No 9, ‘The Great’.

All too soon it was Friday – concert day! We played host to many proud family members who came to see the progress their children had made. The beginners took their cardboard violins home for the first time and the Kupe, Iriaka and Tupaia orchestras did their families proud as they performed the tunes that they had worked hard to master all week. There was an encore rendition of “Come on Home”, with tutors joining in on ukulele, accordion, piano and violin, which left me and many others in the audience with tears in our eyes! I was overwhelmed with pride at what these kids could do in two short years of music learning.

L to R: Dr Joe Harrop, Jessica Lightfoot and Ros Giffney

L to R: Dr Joe Harrop, Jessica Lightfoot and Ros Giffney

The week flew by in a flurry of activities, music learning, singing and playing. I am so grateful to Chamber Music New Zealand, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Sistema Aotearoa for the opportunity to experience this life-changing programme and see how it all works in detail. Special thanks must also go to Dr Joe Harrop, whose endless enthusiasm for every aspect of the programme was infectious, and to Ros Giffney and Joanne Hedge (the newly appointed Senior Tutor at Sistema), whose hard work behind the scenes ensured that every day ran smoothly. I have so much respect for the Sistema Aotearoa programme and all the good work it is doing with the community of Otara.

– Jessica, 08.05.13

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