It is therefore the more extraordinary that within such a small group there should be so great a fund of talent, both technical and musical.
I first became aware of this aptitude for string playing at a course Buskaid ran at the Lapalala Wilderness School in December 1994, when, somewhat experimentally, I applied the string teaching techniques I had been using in the UK alongside my friend and mentor, the distinguished teacher Sheila Nelson. Sheila and I had had the good fortune to attend workshops led by the late Hungarian/ American pedagogue Paul Rolland, before his untimely death in 1978. Rolland and a distinguished team of teachers had been funded for four years by the University of Illinois and the US Office of Education to investigate the fundamental principles underlying movement in string playing, and to devise an organised plan of instruction derived from their findings.
Based on free flowing movements in musical expression, this style of playing seemed to suit the natural flexibility of these young African students, whose physical skills in their other leisure activities I had observed with great interest. It was relatively straight forward to harness this ability and to apply it to their string playing.
At the same time I knew how vitally important it was that these young students should gain a high level of independence so that they could take responsibility for their own practice and playing time together. At this stage I was visiting South Africa only spasmodically, mainly to help with the funding of the Diepkloof Project, so that it was not until one year later that I was able to tackle the challenge of teaching these youngsters to read music fluently. At our 1995 Lapalala course we applied ourselves to the task of music reading: singing, clapping and Hungarian rhythm techniques, combined with the youngsters highly developed innate rhythmic sense soon revealed a flair for reading which struck me as remarkable.
Nearly all of this training took place in group sessions, which was not only an important aspect of my own teaching techniques, but was also admirably suited to conditions in Soweto. In 1996 I spent about five months teaching this same group of youngsters on a voluntary basis, and was forcibly struck by a level of motivation and commitment not often experienced by a private music teacher! Rather than turn the children away when they showed up seven days a week, I taught as many as possible in large groups, often for several hours at a time - an arrangement which of course accelerated their progress.
Since January 1997, when the Buskaid Soweto String Project was established, I have constantly refined and explored this approach with both the original students and a new intake of beginners. Those teenagers, who four years ago could scarcely read music, now comprise the senior members of the group, and a number of them are themselves trainee teachers, assisting with teaching the fifty or so young beginners who have now joined the Project.
Over the past four years, I have become aware of a very clearly defined musical style emerging from this group. Certainly the pedagogical approach has much in common with techniques employed by the “Early Music” movement to which I have been deeply committed for the last twenty years or so. This “feel” for musical style is not however a superficial imitation of what these young students hear, but rather a real expression of their instinctive musicianship.
Furthermore their playing has a distinctive quality which sets them apart from their European counterparts. I believe it was this quality which caught the attention of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and my British colleagues when they worked with the group in 1997 and later in 1999. There is a full-blooded, earthy and rounded sound which this group produces, a commitment of bow to string, which I feel has always been present within them, and simply needed to be drawn out and encouraged. It is quality which makes working with them and listening to them exciting - it gives vibrance and ebullience to their music-making, and is, perhaps, the expression of their African soul.