Empathetic Music Programming
Or: How I Learned to Stop Teaching Like an Englishman
Philip Monk, Founder, Mbale Schools Band
I’m often asked about the Mbale Schools Band. It’s easy to see why: we are a celebrated and widely visible British-style brass band founded in Uganda, a country with no tradition of or overwhelming interest in such an ensemble. But while ours is a success story, it is also one of listening and deep empathy—a parable for the virtue of placing yourself in your students’ shoes. Without their wisdom, it’s likely that we would not have made it past year three.
When I arrived in Uganda in 2007, I began a charity organization that helped with children’s educational needs but also focused on youth music. I created many brass bands in schools, NGOs, and orphanages. But one by one, each band collapsed, either through disinterest or opposition. Many instruments were stolen, and some of our players were attacked on the way to practice, often by those who were jealous or competitive. Some kids suffered from malaria, typhoid, and other medical problems. Some just didn’t get enough to eat.
By 2008 I had eight bands who could play a decent hymn, but we struggled to break through public apathy. And then I experienced my breakthrough moment. During a band practice that second year, one pupil raised his hand and asked: “Please, sir, why are we doing this?” That question changed my life.
Confidently, I replied with the many reasons why one should play music. It was everything you might expect of an English music teacher: “Learning to play a musical instrument teaches concentration, teamwork, timekeeping, self-confidence, life skills, and a many other admirable qualities.” The kids all paused a moment to absorb the information I had so wisely imparted. And then another boy spoke up: “But sir, these are your U.K. positive values—they are not ours in Uganda.” That statement really changed my life, and indirectly led Mbale Schools Band to the success it has enjoyed to date. All the Facebook views, all the visits to our website—none of it may have happened if not for that exchange.
That day made it obvious that I had to change my approach to teaching music. In building my curriculum, I stopped being an old Englishman and devised a completely new strategy based on what the children had said in that music lesson. And then I wrote our new mission statement:
“Don’t teach music unless you have understood WHY a child would want to learn to play.”
Over the next few years, that strategy underpinned everything I did. I abandoned the idea of trying to create bands in outreaches, schools, and orphanages where kids had been told to play by the teachers or supervisors. Instead, I focused on the psychology, imagining myself as a 15-year-old boy living in hardship in the community. I had realized that, in Uganda, these types of bands worked better when two prerequisites were met: 1) They took place in communities without transport costs that prevent students from practicing; and 2) Students were empowered to decide whether they wanted to learn music or not.
While I was busy teaching with my new strategy, we were making musical progress. The standard of play was being raised higher and higher. The band was playing “Knight Templar” and “Caliph of Baghdad.” By the end of 2015, I felt the band was ready showcase their talents, so I organized a big concert at a top venue in Kampala. To my dismay, even after we heavily advertised the concert date, only 13 people attended.
I drove back to Mbale in a dark depression, wondering if I was wasting my time. How can you motivate a child to play music if no one wants to listen to it? The next day I decided to give the project one more chance.
Again, I stopped thinking like an Englishman. I encouraged all the brass players to sing and dance; I created Africa’s first all-girl brass band, comprised of 35 players; and I offered travel. If you have never left Mbale (or even your village), how exciting might it be to go on an international tour to Kenya? These were real experiences we were offering, rather than lofty and unspecific promises of transforming lives.
We had to serve our students’ immediate needs. If a band can offer someone something to eat or drink, or provide some small transport, it becomes more than a creative outlet. For instance, we provide black tea (with sugar!) after each practice. It is an inexpensive but effective way of motivating the children to attend rehearsals.
The results showed in the number of players who attended rehearsal and the number of beginners who wanted to join the band. While welcoming new members, we published a Facebook video every six weeks. Some were huge successes! The all-girl band’s first online performance brought over 2 million views. We realized that international audiences were excited to see children in Africa play classical music and play it well. Meanwhile, I fundraised as best I could. Eventually, we raised enough money to construct our own Music Centre in Mbale—lowering our overhead by eliminating rent costs.
By 2019, we were back at the National Theatre in Kampala, this time with a billing on Facebook as the most popular brass band in the world. This time, we had 300 people in the audience. As the band walked on stage to huge applause, I sat in the back thinking of all the obstacles that we had overcome, my handkerchief at the ready for the opening bars of Cyril Jenkins’ “Life Divine.”
All we’ve done at Mbale Schools Band is build a Music Centre, fill it with brass instruments, and create the right conditions to say to local children, “If you want to come and play a brass instrument, you are welcome. If you’re not interested, that’s okay too.”
And they come. They walk miles to the band in all weather. They want to play in our brass band.
Learn more on the Mbale Schools Band Facebook page: