Birmingham Conservatoire make virtual a reality for South African music students

Louise Lansdown, Head of Strings, Birmingham Conservatoire with students at Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa

Tutors and students from Birmingham Conservatoire travelled to Soweto, Johannesburg in South Africa to perform with a group of children they have been teaching virtually over the last 18 months.

The visit comes as a climax to the collaborative project, Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire – or ARCO, which is also the name for the technique of playing a stringed instrument with a bow.

ARCO has seen 24 strings students aged between eight and 16 in South Africa selected to participate in weekly instrumental Skype lessons, given by academics, current students and alumni of Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University.

ARCO aims to provide the benefits and life changing inspiration of music to children in the most deprived of circumstances. As well as providing transformative music education activities, Conservatoire staff have been acting as role models for vulnerable youngsters living in Soweto, a Johannesburg township deeply affected by poverty and crime.

Louise Lansdown, Head of Strings, Birmingham Conservatoire initiated the ARCO project. She said:

“Music is a very powerful tool that transcends both language and cultural boundaries. It can develop creativity, self-esteem, a sense of achievement and facilitate social cohesion.”

“Through ARCO, the distance between Soweto in South Africa and Birmingham in the UK has been erased, as the students and teachers of two music institutions learn from each other and engage in a daily creative exchange.”

In addition to the student’s regular lessons at Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music in Soweto, the Skype sessions allowed students to receive additional individual tuition and string quartet coaching from Birmingham, which is not currently offered at the Centre.

Alongside individual lessons, the masterclasses, workshops and performances taking place at Birmingham Conservatoire were streamed live for the students at MIAGI and the wider community to enjoy.

Between Saturday 20 and Wednesday 24 August, Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music hosted the first ARCO Festival, which was run by two academics and eight current Conservatoire students. The Festival featured public concerts by Birmingham Conservatoire, intensive individual tuition, instrument-specific classes, quartet lessons, and listening classes.

Works by Bach, Brahms and Palmgren were performed for audiences, and the Festival closed with the students’ final concert on the Wednesday, which featured the premiere of the ARCO Anthem, that was specially composed by Patrick Nolan – brother of Birmingham Conservatoire Viola Tutor and Chamber Music Coach, Lucy Nolan – for the occasion.

As well as backing from organisations in South Africa – including the Goethe Institute and both the Germany and Austrian Embassies – the programme was supported by benefactors in the UK who donated all the string instruments for the students.

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