Planting the Strings Seed under the Baobob Tree

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.
— Leonard Bernstein

In 2014, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Orff-Afrique course in Dzodze, Ghana, run by Dr. Kofi J.S. Gbolonyo and the music teachers of the San Francisco Orff Training Program. This incredible 2-week course was filled with dancing, drumming, singing, xylophone, and cultural trips, as well as performances by Nunya Academy, and other local traditional musical groups. This experience has had a lasting impact on me, as well as my students who have loved learning about the music and culture of Ghana and West Africa.  

While I was there, I found out that not only was being a guest teacher at Nunya a possibility, but that they had violins, violas and a cello donated to the academy that were just sitting there because there was nobody to teach strings. It was the end of the trip when I told both Kofi and Prosper (Nunya’s assistant director and Kofi’s brother) that I wanted to come back to teach strings someday.  

One morning in early 2017, I opened my email to find out that Kofi would be holding the 1st Nunya Summer Institute for Advanced Studies in West Africa Music, Dance and Culture. I knew as soon as I saw it, I was finally going back. I contacted Kofi, told him I wanted to sign up for the course, and that I would like to stay another week to help start the strings program at Nunya. He sent me the most gracious and enthusiastic email accepting my proposal, informing me that another strings teacher, Mary Jackson-Richardson, would be staying to teach strings as well.   

And so we started planning through numerous emails and texts between Kofi, Prosper, Mary and myself. Prosper went through the instruments, cataloguing the sizes and repairs needed. On our side, Mary and I started collecting parts, repair tools, bows, strings, rosin, shoulder sponges, and other accessories, as well as a few more violin donations to bring with us. It was a little nerve wracking to figure out what we needed to repair instruments before we left, because once we were there, there wouldn’t be a local music store to run down to for a broken violin strings or other parts.  Whatever we brought with us was our store.

All the planning paid off. By the time we were ready to teach, we were able to restore 32 violins and violas of varying sizes, as well as one ½ size cello.  The plan was to teach each of the 2 campuses separately.  We would spend 3 days at the Hatsukorpe campus, which is currently a large, open aired room in Prosper’s house, as well as 3 days at the Dzodze campus, which is currently the Gbolonyo family compound house. As the students were still in school during the day, we only had about 2 hours for each session, which meant a total of 6 hours with each group of about 40 or more students.  So we had a plan, and yes, not quite enough time!

Shared determination during lessons

Shared determination during lessons

Before teaching strings to the Nunya students, however, we had 2 weeks of classes with Kofi and other guest teachers to experience. A typical day’s schedule went something like this:  Dance at 6:30 am with Kofi, followed by breakfast. Drumming for half the morning with Kofi and Oliver Torgboh, a local drummer, musician and teacher, followed by gyil lessons with Sampson Kuudenign, a teacher from the University of Accra. Lunch was long enough to eat, and to journey to the market using the two main forms of public transportation: a motorcycle, or a trotro, a small van. After lunch, more drumming and dance, as well as a lecture on various aspects of West African culture, or what Kofi humorously refers to as “blahblahblah.” After dinner, there were performances at night, by Nunya or other local traditional music groups, all of which ended with everybody dancing together at some point. Finally, we went to bed at the end of the day with images and rhythms of Ghana floating through our minds.

Although that was a “typical” day’s schedule, no two days were ever the same.  While we were scheduled for about 7 hours of actual instruction a day, we never stopped learning and experiencing Ghanaian culture between classes. There were often special cultural experiences throughout the day that you would only get as a student of this course.

For example, on our first day, we paid our respects to the village chief who, along with the village elders, welcomed us to Dzodze. We then met Kofi’s immediate and extended family at the family house and although there was a language barrier, there were warm smiles, gestures and laughs that made us all feel at home. After that, we went to Kofi’s uncle’s house for a homemade traditional Ghanaian lunch where we sat under the shade and ate too much food because it was so good.

On the first day of teaching, students began arriving at the Hatsukope Campus in groups of varying sizes and ages.  Somehow, through the constant chatter, introductions, and 40 bodies moving in a space, students ended up in seats with instruments in their hands. The full size violas were given to the biggest students, all high school boys. We made every attempt to give students a violin that fit them, but in the end there were still full size students playing ¼ size violins and other students sharing. The cello made its appearance on the second day, and wound up in the hands of a high school boy who had been quite successful on his viola.

The author working with Nunya students

The author working with Nunya students

Mary and I decided technique was the most important thing on which to focus during our short time with Prosper and the students. When we discussed beforehand what music we would eventually play, Prosper assured us, “Once they know a scale, they can play anything,” which pretty much proved to be true. So, onward we went with how to hold the violin, how to hold and use the bow, and how to play the D major scale. As Mary and I made the rounds to help students one-on-one with their bow holds, we heard students figuring out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on their own, They were clearly enjoying the process and challenge of their new instruments. By the end of the first 2-hour session, the students were able to pluck as well as bow the D major scale, and “Twinkle” as a group.  

Our sessions with the Dzodze students were held at the White Dove Hotel, which is where the adult participants stay for Kofi’s courses. Our first day with the Dzodze students yielded not only the D major scale and “Twinkle”, but also a version of the “Our Father” Prosper had taught them on their wind instruments.  The students on this campus were just as engaged and excited to learn a stringed instrument.

Nunya students helping each other adjust left hand position on the violin

Nunya students helping each other adjust left hand position on the violin

By the end of the week, students from both campuses were able to bow Twinkle, French Folk Song, Ode to Joy and the Our Father as a group. Mary and I were impressed with how quickly they picked up the music, as well as the technique. This is obviously a result of having Prosper as their teacher for both traditional and Western music. They have learned to really listen, both to the music, and to instructions, as well as how to transfer the concept of playing from one instrument to another with relative ease.

Each session with each campus had so many funny and memorable moments. One of my favorites was seeing Prosper playing his violin the first day while surrounded and cheered on by his students, who obviously love him and were sharing his excitement for his new instrument. Another picture I still see in my mind was how the students immediately started helping each other, whether they were sharing an instrument, or had their own: one person’s victory was everybody’s victory.

Acting principal, Prosper Gbolonyo, learning alongside his students

Acting principal, Prosper Gbolonyo, learning alongside his students

The staff in Ghana includes Becky, who is Prosper’s wife, who is also a high school English teacher; Daniel, a high school science teacher who teaches math to the Nunya students; Achtu and Promise, members of the Gbolonyo family.

These incredible people are not just there to teach music, math, language and technology for free, but to be there for the whole student.  When I think of them and the way they care about the students, I keep coming back to a quote by Shinichi Suzuki:

Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.

In the end, that is what Nunya Music Academy is going to give the students lucky enough to be part of the school. They are going to be not just great musicians, but will also be good citizens, not just in Ghana, but in the world beyond its borders. There is no doubt that Nunya is going to have students follow Prosper’s footsteps to be a music teacher, or Daniel’s to be a math or science teacher, or Becky’s to be an English teacher, or even to follow Kofi’s footsteps to other parts of the world to study, perform and teach, many with the intention of returning the opportunities given to them through Nunya.

It’s exciting to follow the already incredible journey of Nunya.  Once you are touched by the experience, you start thinking about how to help Nunya reach their ultimate goal of seeing their new school building completed and filled with students, instruments and computers.  There are many miles to go, but as Kofi often says at the end of his emails, “Onward!”

Mary Maravic is a strings, rock band and general music teacher at the Seacoast Charter School, Dover, NH, an arts integrated Pre-K through 8 school.  Her instructional approach is Orff-based with an emphasis on world music and culture.  When she is not telling students to stop playing while she is talking, she can be found playing double and electric bass for local music groups.