Music and Machine

When Dan Rather left CBS Evening News, an eager reporter asked the celebrated American presenter to reveal the secret of his success.Dan gave a one word reply: curiosity. “Is that all?” was the follow up question. “That’s everything,” Dan said simply.

28 November 2016

And that is true of most journalists – we are insanely curious! So the web and Uncle Google have replaced dusty libraries and files of clippings and we are able, when the fibre hasn’t been sliced accidentally, to garner the knowledge and frivolity of the globe on to our smartphone or tablet. And the evolution of Skype means that we can meet and greet the rich and famous, along with Aunt Beryl in Saskatchewan, with some basic piloting of the computer mouse.

But what exactly is the link between the crest of the communication wave and an aspiring musician in a township striving to master the finer challenges of playing a musical instrument invented in the early 1600s?

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Well, the key to this charming bond is a violinist who left South Africa along with many other talented musicians almost two decades ago. Louise Lansdown, now head of Strings at the renowned Birmingham Conservatoire, was sitting in a light deprived coffee shop, looking at grey UK skies, when the clichéd light bulb suddenly shone brightly.

Why couldn’t her top musicians teach aspiring music students thousands of miles away, by simply using Skype?

The Cape Gate Miagi Centre for Music in Soweto needed very little encouragement to buy into Louise’s brainwave and two very different worlds have come together thanks to the power of the internet. Now every week, 14 Birmingham students, along with some of the teachers, mentor and coach the young Soweto protégés. Surprisingly, nobody is paid and the project has been run with passion and precision for over a year. The highlight of this story is that the Birmingham musicians did some weird and wonderful forms of fundraising to pay for flights to Johannesburg and the Carte Blanche cameras were at the Miagi Centre when they met their Soweto Skype partners face-to-face for the first time!

There were some extremely emotional moments as Birmingham and Soweto were brought together in perfect harmony and the five-day visit culminated in a classical concert in which everybody played a part.

But Louise, who admits to being obsessively focused, isn’t leaving her virtual venture to Skype. She plans to get the top Miagi students over to Birmingham and would also like to see her UK students and teachers spending more time out in the Soweto Sun.

It is one of those Carte Blanche stories that exudes hope and upliftment…and makes you wonder why so many other facets of our lives in South Africa can’t work so simply and beautifully.

Derek Watts has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, presenting on South African television since 1985 as a sports anchor. Derek has been an anchor and presenter on Carte Blanche since the programme's inception in 1988.

You can follow @DerekWatts on Twitter.