A Porirua "Let THem Play" Project: Virtuoso Strings Orchestra

Elizabeth Sneyd is the director of Virtuoso Strings, a non-for profit charitable trust that provides free instruments and free tuition to students at low decile schools in Porirua. Currently, Sneyd oversees the musical development of over 160 young musicians in East Porirua. On top of her teaching duties, Sneyd is jack of all virtuoso strings trades including, but not limited to: trip organiser, event manager, administrator, shuttle driver, full - time volunteer and mother of five. Over the past 25 years, Sneyd has played in professional orchestras in America and New Zealand. She holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics with a minor degree in Music from the University of Wisconsin. This past week Porirua Project was able to catch up with Sneyd at Brandon Intermediate to discuss her Porirua Project.

Anybody who works in East Porirua realises that the kids have hugely bright futures, huge talent, huge potential, but they need support. You don’t realise your potential unless somebody has guided you and supported you.
— Elizabeth Sneyd

Q: What's your Porirua Project? 

A: We run free music programmes across East Porirua. We are currently in 8 different schools and also have kids come to our home in Tawa from a number of other schools. Kids come into the programme through decile 1 primary schools. In short, we go around teaching large groups in the schools during the day; we teach selected kids after school, run holiday programmes, hold twice-weekly orchestra rehearsals in the evening. We take the kids on big orchestra tours and run music camps. We also take huge boxes of donated food to orchestra rehearsals at Porirua College to feed the musicians.  

Q: Why Porirua? 

A: There is an enormous need. Kids in Porirua simply don't have the opportunities to do the things that kids from wealthier families and more privileged neighbourhoods do. So, you have all these enthusiastic, talented, motivated kids and there is nothing for them to do. There is a huge gap. The kids really love their music. They are enthusiastic and motivated, but there is this great gap between loads of kids loving music and wanting to do it, almost no teachers in the area, and very few families with the financial means to pay for music tuition.

Q: What does the project need? 

A: Maybe a winning lotto ticket (laugh)... More volunteers to help out. More people who want to do some thinking about how we can really build this into a truly sustainable organisation. People who want to sit down and nut things out. More teachers. Just more people who have the passion to make it work. Because we can make it work. We will figure out a way. Obviously money and financial support is the biggie... corporate sponsorship is definitely something we want to look into. 

Q: What is your biggest problem? 

A: People outside the Porirua area just don't get it. They don't get it in the sense that they don't believe in the future of these kids. Anybody who works in East Porirua realises that the kids have hugely bright futures, huge talent, huge potential, but they need support. You don't realise your potential unless somebody has guided you and supported you. If you come from a background with family violence or acute deprivation or ill heath or poor housing for example you need more support than if you had come from a privileged background. Not only is more support required but that support is harder to give because you cannot communicate via the normal channels. Communication and logistics is difficult. You don't have email. You don't have people with money on their phones to text you back, so we're very much reliant on face to face communication. More support is needed and that support takes longer to provide. If we could persuade other organisations and government to help us provide that support we could with 100% certainty change the future of pretty much every kid that we engage with. 

Q: What pisses you off?

A: There's a lot of condescension towards Maori and Pacific musicians. For example, when I'm asking for tickets to the Symphony Orchestra or I’m trying to get the Virtuoso Strings Orchestra to play at certain venues, or persuading teachers in the profession to come help out for a few hours, I'm getting zero buy in. With the odd exception of course, but most of the people that help tend to have some Maori or Pacific connection themselves. So they are more understanding. 

It is the total lack of understanding and lack of practical support that is frustrating. You get that sort of "Oh that's lovely what you are doing, (but don't ask ME to teach the kids or help out. I don’t want to get my hands dirty)." I applied to a funder recently that professes to support and help the futures of young musicians. I applied for $500. A pretty realistic amount, I thought. I wasn't asking for $5,000 or $50,000. I got zero. Why? Because there is not the core belief that with support these kids will succeed. Now they won't succeed without support, but the support they need is really easy to provide. You just need some motivated people and some money and you need to do what needs to be done. That kinda sums it up...

Q: What would surprise people?

A: They'd be surprised how disciplined these kids are in their own time. How hard they practise and the amount of effort that goes in. People will visit me at school and they'll see a lot of goofing around, stuffing around, running around, noise, chaos, mayhem, and they often equate that with zero discipline, motivation, enthusiasm, effort. I say total garbage. What surprises a lot of people is what these kids are doing when nobody is looking. They are getting their violin out at home and practising, which is why my 1st violins are pretty good. You don't get to that level by mucking around. So I think it surprises people that you can learn skills in a relaxed environment, and that this atypical way of learning does not equate with lack of discipline. 

Q: What are your success stories?

A: Well... on an individual basis, Toloa Faraimo is the best student I have taught in my entire life. He is simply exceptional. He will be famous one day. He has huge passion, the coordination, the creativity, the talent, the discipline. He ticks every single box. He has way more talent than I ever had. He will do his grade 8 exam at the end of this year. Grade 8 usually takes the average student nine to ten years to complete. It will take him two and a half years. So we are talking an order of magnitude faster at learning, than most. (READ Porirua children's orchestra hitting all the right chords on international exams)

But there are dozens and dozens of success stories. The biggest successes, if I am thinking about it more holistically, are in terms of how far whole Whānau have come over the last few years. For example, you see parents and caregivers really engage with their kids’ learning. You see kids excelling in their music, not only that, excelling academically, being good leaders. Sometimes you don't really notice the huge benefits until you look at it longitudinally over a few years. So you have people like Toloa who is just a phenomenal musician. But more importantly you can see entire families being turned around, whole attitudes to learning shifting. The big self esteem thing - that is probably our biggest success. You know what I mean? That's more meaningful than playing an instrument or running with a ball, you know... you'll always find someone better than you at the violin or rugby. You'll always find somebody that can run or move their fingers faster. We are trying to produce - all of us - happy human beings. It all comes down to that really, doesn't it.

Ben SippolaComment