The members of Vanuatu’s first youth orchestra are not like the children who usually learn classical instruments.
The orchestra’s conductor, Australian Barbara Idieder, sometimes notices her students return to rehearsals with wax drippings on their instruments.
“Then I know, okay, that kid has got a candle at home. Like they don’t have electricity,” she said.
The Ensemble Nabanga for disadvantaged youths has just completed the trip of a lifetime touring in Queensland.
On their arrival in Brisbane, students like Kaina Delrieu were blown away by what they saw.
“I was, like, surprised when I came here. I’ve discovered new things that I never, ever have seen,” she said.
Their action-packed scheduled included a trip west to Toowoomba where the group of 10 students received a workshop with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO), one of Australia’s leading orchestras, at the Empire Theatre.
The trip had been years in the making and the significance of this opportunity was not lost Ms Idieder, nor her students.
“We’re going to play for the musicians and get some lessons, which is nuts, it’s just crazy,” she said.
Kaina, who plays the cello, was ready to show the QSO how dedicated she was to mastering her instrument.
“I’m really excited to learn from those professionals and show them how much I was practising,” she said.
Later in the evening, the group were in the audience at a QSO concert at the Empire Theatre when the conductor asked them to stand and receive a round of applause from the crowd.
Flying the flag for the Pacific
The ensemble also hosted a special performance for Pacific seasonal workers at Town Hall in Toowoomba.
Connecting with homesick seasonal workers was important for Ms Idieder.
“I really want for ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers here, and other Pacific Islander workers here in Australia, to see us representing Vanuatu, representing the Pacific, and flying the flag a little bit,” she said.
The seasonal workers wore traditional dress for the occasion and sang along when the orchestra played the Vanuatu national anthem.
Ni-Vanuatu seasonal worker Samangha Kalang said she was proud of the kids.
“The songs were really beautiful. I loved the concert and it’s my first time seeing the ni-Van kids playing the violin and the double bass,” she said.
That is no surprise, considering Ensemble Nabanga has the only double bass in all of Vanuatu.
Orchestras usually for those that can pay
Orchestras have many barriers to entry, but Ms Idieder has made it her mission to set the record straight.
While teaching at some of Sydney’s most prestigious private schools, Ms Idieder saw how it was only the brightest students – “the crème de la crème” – who made it through rigorous auditioning processes to claim a seat in school orchestras.
“I’m used to being in that environment, but I’m more interested in helping out those who need a bit of a hand,” she said.
Ms Idieder left the private school world in 2004 when she was accepted into an Australian government-funded program to train music teachers in Vanuatu, which kicked off a years-long journey teaching music literacy in developing nations including the Congo and Madagascar.
“Learning a musical instrument is generally available to those with the means to pay for it. Not just the instrument itself, but the lessons,” she said.
There is high demand for Ms Idieder’s services in Port Vila where students must join a waiting list for her private music lessons.
“But I wanted to make myself available for those who didn’t have the means to pay me, so this is my best way of addressing disadvantage in my school and just in the community writ large,” she said.
Vanuatu’s first youth orchestra
Ms Idieder approached her school principal with an idea to start Vanuatu’s first youth orchestra, specifically for disadvantaged children.
The principal took the idea to a French senator who was in town and it was exactly the sort of project the senator was looking to support, according to Ms Idieder.
The French government handed over 5,000 euros to purchase instruments, and Ensemble Nabanga – named after a native tree species sacred to Vanuatu symbolising community, life and protection – was born.
Six years later, with the help of numerous fundraisers and weekly rehearsals, Ms Idieder’s orchestra has 34 students, and its reverberations are being felt around the community.
“The amount of work I’ve put in, I think, it’s beyond measure,” she said.
Ms Idieder said she feels joy seeing her students leave school with their brass and string instrument cases “because that’s a really odd object here”.
The members of Ensemble Nabanga are indigenous to Vanuatu and attend Port Vila’s Lycée Français Le Clézio international school through French government-supported scholarships.
Chrystele Kaltack, the mother of 14-year-old Dominique who has been with the ensemble since the beginning, thinks her son is the first ni-Vanuatu man to play the violin.
“I’ve never, ever seen anyone in Vanuatu play the violin,” Ms Kaltack said.
Traditional Vanuatu music is typically sung and sometimes backed with percussion and flutes.
While Ensemble Nabanga are embracing classical Western instruments, their priority is not compositions from the likes of Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
Ms Idieder writes sheet music for traditional Bislama songs and lullabies, creating instrumental versions for Ensemble Nabanga to play.
When the students visited Toowoomba Grammar School they played a lullaby from the remote Torres Islands of Vanuatu with the local school orchestra.
“It’s a really nice idea that this lullaby was sung to a baby in a little island in the Torres Islands and it’s going to get an audience in Toowoomba,” Ms Idieder said.
Viola player Anamalia Fiakaifonu was a little nervous to play with Australian students because she thought they were going to outperform her peers.
“I was a bit scared, but then when we came here I felt like we were in the same level so I had more confidence in myself,” she said.
‘Music a right, not a privilege’
There is plenty of research to suggest music learning has a remarkable impact on brain development, especially in school-aged children.
“The studies have been done. We know that music is great for the brain … but I think more importantly it makes good hearts and souls,” said Loreta Fin, a Brisbane-based composer and music educator.
Ms Fin specialises in writing educational compositions and donates her sheet music to Ensemble Nabanga, saving them $100 a piece.
“I think [Barbara] is doing an amazing thing with these children,” she said.
“Music should be for every child. It’s a right, not a privilege. I think every child should be exposed to have that opportunity.”
Ensemble Nabanga is not just nurturing an appreciation for musical composition, but an ability to read and understand detail instantly, Ms Idieder said.
“I think being able to switch on your concentration skills when needed, and being able to focus on details, that’s a really valuable skill. That’s what you do as a musician,” she said.
To find suitable ensemble candidates, Ms Idieder will ask colleagues at Lycée Français Le Clézio to identify students who are falling behind due to disadvantage and developmental difficulties.
“Students who don’t necessarily have learning difficulties but are disadvantaged in certain areas or have not completely developed in some areas that we expect by CE1 [late primary school],” said school principal Françis Bacquié.
“That could be shyness, or difficulties expressing themselves orally.
Speaking through violin
One such child is Dominique, who was “the sort of kid who never really talked,” his mother Chrystele Kaltack said.
“When the teacher would ask him to come to the front of the class he would get up and just start crying.”
Ms Idieder was strapped for time and teaching resources, so to help meet the needs of her growing orchestra she turned to what she knows best – training music teachers.
She created a buddy system where the 10 eldest members – the string ensemble on tour in Queensland – mentor the youngest and newest members.
Dominique was made leader of Ensemble Nabanga, a role he “grew into” over time, Ms Idieder said.
“It’s really, really nice to see kids at 14 years of age take on the responsibility of mentoring another little kid,” she said.
Improvements in students’ confidence has been noticed at home and school.
“We noticed very clearly an all-over change in the students’ attitudes. They were much more engaged, more positive in their studies,” Mr principal Françis Bacquié said.
Dominique now plays violin for the wider community at Sunday school.
“Now, through the violin, I can see Dominique is able to come out and speak to adults,” his mother said.
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