The joy of making music, listening to music and moving to music is so absolutely fundamental to the human condition that ABBA put their finger on it when they sang, “Without a song or a dance what are we?”

Stefné van Dyk conducts her Handevat Music Project at Kleinmond Primary, where between 40 and 50 children are taught various instruments.

The words of this popular song might as well be the theme song of the 40 or more pupils of the Handevat (Holding Hands) Music Project in Kleinmond. Founded in 2013 by the wellknown musician and music teacher, Stefné van Dyk, it followed a similar music development project in Caledon, which she ran with great success under the auspices of the University of Stellenbosch.

Unfortunately many children, or indeed adults, in our underprivileged communities have been starved of the opportunity to participate in this creative activity. As Stefné comments: “We recognise the importance of connecting with the natural abilities and understanding (the foreknowledge of music) already in them. I want to touch the music in their hearts, then I can add the concepts and symbolism necessary for being ‘musically literate’, which is necessary for classical music training.”

She bemoans the fact that by starting with the technicalities, teachers often smother the joy in the heart of the learner; those can come later, she feels. “Most of all, learning to play a musical instrument should be fun; it should give you pleasure.”

And that’s why she likes to start children on the marimba, where there are very few technical barriers between innate talent and actual music making. Her Handevat Marimba band has made waves locally and across the province, winning Gold and Cum Laude prizes at eisteddfods and other competitions; even, several times, the overall winner’s prize. Many of these band members have become ‘serious’ music students, passing theory and practical exams and becoming proficient in several other musical instruments.

Stefné is assisted by two other highly-qualified and experienced teachers, Debbie Bierman (piano and violin) and Debi Best (clarinet and saxophone). Her daughter, Maya, now a professional viola player, is coarranger and -facilitator for the marimba band. The students of the project (currently between 40 and 50 children and 10 adults) therefore have a choice of marimba, djembe, recorder, piano, guitar, saxophone, clarinet and voice tuition.

Apart from her regular teachers, Stefné believes in exposing the learners to other professional musicians whenever possible, in order to widen their horizons and stimulate their love of music. Last year, for example, the marimba band participated in a very exciting international skype music concert between Utrecht (Netherlands) and Jakarta (Indonesia), giving the learners a fascinating insight into the music of other countries.

The most important thing of all, though, believes Stefné, is what music does for the soul and for the brain. Neuroscientists have proven that playing and even listening to music has a major impact on brain development. As one expert described it: “It’s like fireworks going off in the brain.” Others agree that playing an instrument activates regions in all four of the cortex’s lobes; it increases the IQ, and the cerebral cortex of a concert pianist is enlarged by 30%.

Even pre-schoolers, after only a short period of key-board lessons, show a dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning. And then there are other factors, like developing an attitude of self-discipline and commitment, selfconfidence, teamwork, timekeeping. These qualities are all fostered by the study of music.

Stefné mentions one recent example of these benefits. She had a young intellectuallyimpaired learner who had a beautiful voice. Stefné started giving her singing lessons, which she enjoyed so much that they went on to recorder training. Towards the end of last year her school teacher called Stefné aside to tell her that for the first time, this little girl had written the same exams as the rest of the class and not only had she coped, but she had done better than most of her classmates. They could only put this down to her involvement with music!

“None of this would have been possible,” enthuses Stefné, “without the support of the Principal of Kleinmond Primary, Mr Brikkels, who knew about my community work in Caledon, and offered me a classroom in his school for my music project. He appreciates the value of music for his learners and has encouraged as many of them as possible to participate. I am so grateful to him.”

But, of course, as the name suggests, the Handevat project is not just about teaching children to make music; it is about using music to bring people together in a community like Kleinmond, to share, to get to know each other and to work towards a common goal. So it’s not only the children of Kleinmond Primary who attend her classes, it’s children from other schools, as well as home-schoolers. And it’s not just bringing children and music together; it’s reaching out to their parents; it’s helping the children to get study bursaries; it’s arranging for them to go for dental check-ups; it’s acting as a catalyst for community development. Stefné endorses Nelson Mandela’s sentiments: Music will be the salvation of our people.

This dynamo of energy and enthusiasm doesn’t let much get in her way. Music is her passion, not just for her own enjoyment, but to share with others, especially children. However, she acknowledges that it is not an inexpensive activity – instruments, for example are very costly – and the pupils pay either nothing at all, or a minimal amount.

She was, therefore, overwhelmed with gratitude when Handevat recently won a prize from Bible Media (Wellington), in collaboration with the Cordis Trust, in the category that acknowledges those who make an exceptional contribution to the community. At the prize-giving ceremony on 23 March Stefné received a charter of recognition for her wonderful work and a muchneeded donation of R5 000.

Stefné van Dyk can be contacted on 082 923 2723.

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