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Revealed: The remarkable teacher behind the Soweto strings

  • @susiemesure

The Soweto suburbs are an unlikely location for a globally-renowned classical music school. But that is where the British viola player Rosemary Nalden has spent the last 20 years, sharing her passion for stringed instruments with hundreds of township children and transforming their lives.

She has the magic touch: pupils from the Buskaid Soweto String Project have studied at some of the UK’s top music academies and played with such acclaimed orchestras as the Halle. And yet Nalden warned last night that she would struggle to repeat her feat in the UK precisely because of that touch.

Nalden, who on Tuesday will receive honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of her achievements, said rules preventing physical contact between teachers and students would make it “incredibly difficult” for her to open a similar school in Britain.

She said the fall out from the escalating police investigation into claims of sex abuse at some of the country’s leading music schools, including Chetham’s in Manchester had “done music teaching a horrible disservice,” adding: “It has the potential to cast a cloud over all the wonderful teachers that there are who would never dream of inappropriately touching their pupils.”

Her comments, made in an interview with the Independent on Sunday, underline how hard it will be for the musical establishment to move on from the scandal that has escalated since Chetham’s former music director Michael Brewer was jailed in March after he was found guilty of indecently assaulting his former pupil, the then-teenager Frances Andrade, who killed herself one week after giving evidence against him.

She added: “I understand why it’s difficult but the fact of the matter is you cannot teach a stringed instrument without at some stage physically putting your hands on your pupil. If I want to put a violin under your chin, I have to deal with you physically.”

The Musicians’ Union, which represents teachers in the UK, said it advised all instrumental teachers to keep their hands to themselves. Diane Widdison, its national organiser for teaching, said: “Our advice is you don’t need to touch your pupils to be an effective teacher.” She said teachers could take an online course, which stresses the need to “avoid all physical contact [because] any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations.”

Nalden’s success, which follows an illustrious career playing under such conductors as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle, and Sir Roger Norrington, speaks for itself. Students at the Buskaid Soweto String Project, which Nalden set up in 1997, have played on some of the world’s top stages, including at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, and with orchestras such as the Halle. Buskaid’s Soweto String Ensemble has been voted one of the world’s most inspirational, up there with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

And it is all down to Nalden, who I meet at her Hampstead flat, where she used to teach very different pupils from her current ones. At 69, she is an inspiration and says she has “never worked harder”. She has no plans to retire. Her school is modelled on El Sistema, Venezuela’s famous network of community music schools, where older pupils teach their younger disciples, albeit Nalden’s is run on a somewhat smaller scale.

“If we’d had either government support or reliable, dependable funding, we could have done the same thing, but my eye has been on lots of different balls,” she said.

Even now, more than two decades after a report on Radio 4 about the cash-strapped Soweto music school  prompted Nalden to hold a co-ordinated busk at railway stations across Britain that raised £6,000, money remains her primary concern. She has the means to keep the school, with its SAR 4 million (£290,000) annual budget, going until the end of year but no longer, she warned.

Her goal is to grow a £100,000 nest egg, raised by the film star Gillian Anderson, tenfold; creating an endowment that would last in perpetuity. She would like to raise an additional SAR 5 million to double the size of the existing school in Diepkloof, a suburb of sprawling Soweto, which is stretched to capacity with around 115 students and up to 12 teachers.

Although Nalden says the school does not select by talent, preferring instead to help some of the many Diepkloof children for whom life remains tough some two decades after apartheid ended, she has unearthed some gems “out of nowhere”.

One such pupil is 12-year-old Mzwandile Twala. Nalden remembers when his adoptive grandmother – he was abandoned by his parents as a baby – begged her to start teaching the then three year old. “He was a damn nuisance. He was too young, and quite disruptive. But he is probably the most talented musician I’ve ever taught.” Buskaid pays for his schooling, among others, as well as sponsoring others to study overseas.

“What’s extraordinary is how many children are extremely talented,” Nalden added, “Especially when you consider there’s no family background [of classical music], no parents saying ‘you should practice’. The child is always almost totally responsible.”

It is the randomness of Nalden’s story that is so astonishing. She points from the kitchen where we sit chatting, back to her bedroom, remembering the day back in November 1991 when Radio 4 was providing the normal “wallpaper” to her morning. “I heard some classical music, which isn’t something that’s often played on the Today programme. Then I heard them say it was from Soweto, then I heard the story, about a group of string players who were struggling. It seemed it would be nice to do something to help because musicians have a keen sense of social responsibility.”

A further report in the Independent on Sunday galvanized her to action and she decided to hold a group busk with her close-knit group of friends, who all regularly played together. “There was something very novel about being a professional musician and going out and standing on a railway station. Nothing like that had happened on that scale. It really captured people’s imagination because it was for young children in South Africa at a very sensitive time.”

When she took the cash out to the original school in 1992, the country was still coming to terms with the official end to apartheid two years earlier. She remembers arriving in Soweto. “It was very, very unusual for a white woman to suddenly appear in a South African township. It was unheard of.” She describes “a mutual fascination” that snowballed as her relationship with the children deepened. “I was fascinated by the whole phenomenon of these incredibly talented children who were so thirsty for violin lessons. I couldn’t turn back although I don’t remember making a conscious decision. I was just captivated and had this feeling that after having shown them what was possible I couldn’t walk away.”

Hundreds of children and their extended families will be forever thankful that she didn’t.

Rosemary Nalden is one of five international musicmakers who will be made honorary members of the Royal Philharmonic Society at its awards on Tuesday in association with the British Council