Monday, 01 December 2014 04:22

school-for-the-blind

My Yangon speaks to Sebastian Schierenberg founder and director of School for the Blind Project.

 

What is the School for the Blind Project?

The programme was started with the assistance of the British Council at one of the schools for the blind in Myanmar; as a scheme that teaches children to play music together, and specifically how to play the violin.  It's a well documented fact that music study greatly boosts academic and social skills, and of course it is a great way for children to express themselves, engage with each other, develop confidence (which is key to so many things in life), and above all have a lot of fun. The programme is run by a UK charity Live4Music (registered 1150636). The charity was started by myself (I am a professional violinist) and my wife Susana (Director of Education and Arts for the British Council) while we were based in London, UK.

 

What inspired you to start the project and have you done anything like this before?

In London we used to take professional volunteer musicians into schools in low income areas where there were children at risk of social exclusion, either due to their ethnicity, family backgrounds or where they spoke little English. It was wonderful to see those young, often withdrawn kids coming out of their shells, smiling, relaxing, enjoying the music workshops and engaging with each other using music which really is a universal language.
We are now based in Myanmar and a few months ago we organised a free concert at the National Theatre here in Yangon with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the British Council and we had a fantastic audience response with 1700 people attending and also an amazing press response. Some friends of ours brought a young blind girl to the concert. She enjoyed it so much that we decided to give a performance at her school. Then I thought 'why not teach a violin class there as well?' Our friends who run an Italian charity called YADE donated some violins, and Live4Music provided the teachers.  That's how it started.  

 

What challenges did you face at the beginning of the project and when did it begin?

Of course one needs permission to run these projects and we were lucky that the British Council liaised with the relevant ministry and also with the school staff and we obtained permission without any problem. There is also an issue with the language barrier but luckily I have excellent Myanmar teaching assistants who are very skilled at communicating with children and who help me during lessons. My main assistant is Seng Li who is from Kachin state. Teaching children who have never seen a violin or anyone playing the violin and cannot copy their teacher by visually imitating them is of course challenging. We have also had to invent a new system of describing music so that it's easy to memorise. Braille sheet music does exist, but to be honest these children have a lot of other studies and learning a braille music system is not the priority. That's maybe for the future.

 

How have you fund-raised for the project and who is involved in the program?

The instruments were purchased by the Italian charity YADE and they held a fundraising event in Rome some time ago for that purpose. On our side I volunteer two mornings a week and my Myanmar teaching assistants have very generously done the same, so expenses have been zero so far! However I am aware that this is not really sustainable and my Myanmar friends have to earn a living.  Also we will expand the programme to include more children and so we have recently held a fundraising concert and photo exhibition at the Yangon Gallery (see page 26 for more information on this gallery!) which was very successful. 13 wonderful volunteer musicians performed and 22 stunning photos of the project taken by Italian photographer Giuseppe Salerno were exhibited, and we raised 2700 USD in donations which will allow us to start another class and also allow us to pay the Myanmar teaching assistants a token fee which can at least cover their expenses and help a little with their own studies. We hope this can in future be a sustainable model.

 

How many students are involved in the project and what are they like?

We started with 12 students, but unfortunately a couple have not been able to continue due to difficult family circumstances that meant they have left school. Actually my best student who could play every tune I gave him after hearing it only twice is not part of the programme any more as he had to go back to his village due to some problems.That made me really sad and brought home to me how hard it is for so many of these children and their families and the talent which is there but is unable to be fulfilled. We will shortly expand the classes to include 20 children, and then see how we can increase numbers from there. I would ultimately like 100 students across a few different schools.


We are also teaching one of the teachers at the school, and she is really doing very well, so there is an element of 'cascading' in the programme. Of course it's difficult to cascade complete violin teaching knowledge in a short time, but this teacher can already assist in lessons with posture and technical aspects and also with music memorization so I think she will be able to take over (with some  guidance)  the beginners class in a few months.


The children themselves are wonderful. They are some of the happiest and most enthusiastic students I have ever taught. They practise a lot, progress exceptionally fast, have a lot of fun in lessons and also are exceptionally polite and well mannered. A commonly held idea is that blind children somehow have more sensitive hearing and find learning music easier. I have found this generally not to be true, but what is true is that they never make a fuss or complain that something is 'too difficult'. They just keep trying and don't give up until they can do it (unlike some of my other students....!)

 

What challenges do people with disabilities face in Myanmar?

Let's just say that in all countries experiencing transition, there are people who have very difficult lives and if you have a disability of course it's even harder. There is also stigma to deal with.
 

How can music help people with disabilities?

Music is one of those things that doesn't depend on sight. It's a beautiful world in which you can play with other people, express your emotions and ideas and tell your story.  You can reach into people's hearts. As I said earlier, music also develops all kinds of life-skills such as the ability to work as a team, leadership skills and confidence (playing in front of an audience is not easy you know!) and is therefore maybe particularly rewarding for people with disabilities.  It also boosts academic skills, particularly regarding mathematics. There is even a phenomenon called the 'Mozart effect' where it has been scientifically proven that if students listen to the music of Mozart while revising for exams, they consistently score on average 10% higher. So playing and listening to music is good for everyone....

 

What advice would you give to a person wishing to initiate a charitable project in Myanmar?

Above all I think as outsiders we need to be respectful of the people we are trying to impact. Always consult with them and work together, rather than impose on them. Honestly, I have seen people turning up at the school uninvited wanting to 'have a look around', taking photos of kids in class while they are trying to study.  I have had well-meaning people walk into a violin class and start pushing candy into the children's hands. Would you turn up at a school in Europe or the US and disrupt classes like that?  That kind of thoughtless behaviour really drives me nuts.


And don't do anything at all that cuts into their funds. You must absolutely make sure you cover every last cost of the project. If you are working with an organisation that for example has a fixed budget for feeding its students, you don't want your presence to be cutting into that budget in any way.

 

For you what is special about the Project?

I have to say this programme is really the most rewarding thing I have ever done. The children are just beautiful people and it's an honour for me to teach them. I am so proud of them.

 

What are your hopes for the future of the School for the Blind Project?

I really hope it goes from strength to strength. The children will give their first performance at school for their friends and teachers this month, and if they enjoy it I hope they can perform more concerts to showcase their talents. I hope to sustain the programme and expand it to include many more children. I hope the children will continue enjoying music, that it enriches their lives in some way, and maybe even helps them achieve the success they deserve.


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