A Far-Flung Teaching Partnership to Keep a Namibian Music School Alive

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

A Far-Flung Teaching Partnership to Keep a Namibian Music School Alive

Enrico Palascino, violinist, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), Germany


YONA students and teachers with musicians from Berlin, after a concert for YONA, March 2022.

Since 2016, the Youth Orchestra of Namibia (YONA) has been providing music education for economically disadvantaged children in Windhoek, Namibia. I cofounded the program, along with Namibian singer Gretel Coetzee, during my two-year stay in Namibia from 2016 to 2018. Our goal was to give some children in Namibia a dream: to make music together, to grow together, and to make life’s difficulties more bearable together by learning a musical instrument. Our vision was to create unity within diversity, fostering children’s potential to develop together academically, socially, and personally. We were inspired in this endeavor by the international El Sistema movement.

Today, more than 80 children come to YONA every afternoon to learn music theory, recorder, clarinet, oboe, flute, violin, viola, or cello. Younger children participate in a string orchestra and a recorder ensemble, where they are introduced to rhythm, melody, and music notation. More advanced students play in woodwind and string orchestras, study music theory, and take individual lessons. Regular concerts take place in shopping malls, community centers, schools, churches, and old age homes as well as more traditional performance venues. For our students, YONA has become not only a place of music but also a protected space, away from domestic violence, drugs, abuse, and street gangs.

The Covid pandemic has greatly weakened the school’s financial situation these last two years. The music teachers who have stayed are not paid enough, and there is a risk that YONA will have to close due to a lack of teachers. While Gretel and I are working to improve the teachers’ pay, we also aim to train the most experienced music students as junior teachers—following the El Sistema model—in order to address the issue in the long term.

Martin Essmann, RSB violinist, teaching a student at Emma Hoogenhout Primary School. Photo: Cornelia Volk.

Recently, we have created an initiative whereby dedicated musicians from Germany fly to Namibia at regular intervals for the next five to six years to pass on their pedagogical knowledge to the YONA music teacher team. The initiative is already up and running; we recruited the German teachers by selecting them from different European music education programs. Accommodations for the visiting teachers are usually provided by people in Namibia who support the project. Depending on their means, the teachers pay completely or partially for their flights; they donate their teaching services either free of charge or for a small stipend to cover living expenses.

The first visiting teachers gave courses and workshops at YONA for two intensive weeks in March 2022. We also presented 13 school concerts in the Windhoek area, reaching more than 6,000 children, to raise awareness about YONA. Because of the high travel costs incurred by the teachers, we are now in the process of fundraising to try to ensure that this process can continue. Anyone interested in supporting this effort can contact me via email at enricopalascino@gmail.com.

Why are we not simply relying on Zoom and similar virtual technologies to accomplish these training sessions between German master teachers and Namibian teachers at YONA? While we do have some virtual courses going on, we firmly believe that music learning is much more powerful and effective when teachers and students share the same physical space. Motivation and progress are much more likely to happen when the days are intense and full of new energy for everyone.

Also, being in the same physical space helps teachers learn what works best for each student. Finally, they are often able to bring and donate other material things to the school, like instruments and sheet music.

We hope eventually to be able to support a full symphony orchestra for our advanced students. For now, all our energy is in the service of keeping the program alive, advancing musical learning, and, first and foremost, supporting the well-being of children.