The Tironui Music Trust’s sounds of success

Nov 12, 2012

When Peter Hubscher left Montana Wines, he and his wife set up a school music programme that is helping to change the world, one child at a time.

Loata Mahe conducts the young musicians, photo David White

Loata Mahe is frowning. “That was a little bit flat,” she announces. “Try again.” She raises her conductor’s baton and the two dozen or so young string players assembled in a semicircle around her launch again into Autumn Rhumba. This time it sounds better, and Mahe barks encouragement. The neophyte musicians, pupils of Papatoetoe East Primary School, are Polynesian, Indian, Chinese and European: a microcosm of multicultural South Auckland. Disciplined and focused, they run through the tune repeatedly, each time sounding a little more confident, a little more together. It’s a simple piece but they play it with brio.

Eventually, Mahe is satisfied. “A very good effort, guys,” she declares. It’s important they get it right, because this is a rehearsal for the children’s big performance of the year. They have only a few weeks before their families will squeeze into a school hall to watch and listen as they show off their newly acquired musical skills. They will play Autumn Rhumba, Bluff Oyster Blues, Frère Jacques and Fiddles at Shady Gulch. Video cameras will roll and parents will beam with pride. Some will shed a discreet tear.

The young string players, one so diminutive he can barely stretch his arms around his half-sized double bass, are among 220 South Auckland primary and intermediate school pupils receiving formal music tuition through a programme funded by former Montana Wines managing director Peter Hubscher and his wife, Pam, a former teacher. The Tironui Music Trust, founded by the Hubschers in 2006, aims to give children from low-decile schools the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument, master the basics of reading music and experience the challenges and satisfaction of performing in a group. The trust provides instruments and tutors, and participating schools make teaching time available during school hours and provide a suitable space. Children wanting to be part of the programme have to write their own letter of application. Invariably there are more applicants than places available – proof the kids of the sprawling South Auckland suburbs have aspirations beyond video games and skateboarding.

MODEST START

Jada Murray marks her score, photo David White

The programme made a modest start at Papatoetoe West School in 2006 with a class of children from Year 5 (typically nine-year-olds) learning wind instruments. Hubscher, whose Jewish Czechoslovakian father was a violinist in the original New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, would have preferred violins and cellos to saxophones and trombones, “but everyone said it was too difficult”. By the end of that year, the pupils were sufficiently advanced to play on the back of a truck in the Papatoetoe Santa Parade, to an appreciative audience of thousands. Their principal, Trevor Canute, was on the truck, too, dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and doesn’t mind admitting he got quite emotional.

Since then, the programme has been extended, first to Puhinui School and then to Papatoetoe East, where Hubscher finally got his string group. In 2010, Papatoetoe Intermediate also signed up, providing continuity for children progressing from the area’s primary schools. About 500 children have been through the programme, which now has eight tutors working with pupils from Year 5 to Year 8. No one who knows Hubscher should be surprised this is what he chose as his retirement project after leaving Montana in 2005. A lifelong lover of classical music, he would hire the NZSO Chamber Orchestra to play for the staff in the company’s warehouse in Glen Innes. “People would say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” But the enthusiastic reaction of the staff confirmed for him that once exposed to classical music, people catch on.

Small and unassuming but quietly emphatic in his views, Hubscher is one of those men to whom wealth doesn’t mean much unless they can do something socially useful with it. He certainly doesn’t seek self-glorification; he was reluctant to have his photo taken for this article and didn’t want to reveal publicly how much money he and his wife are putting into Tironui, although it’s a very substantial sum.

THE “BIG VIEW”

The trust, which the Hubschers named after the road they live on near Napier (Tironui means “big view”, which they thought appropriate), grew out of their concern that kids don’t participate in music as much as they used to. “There used to be an expectation that people would learn an instrument or sing,” Hubscher says. “Now they play on computers.” He has a firm belief in the power of music to enrich and even transform lives. “Music is a skill you retain for life. The guy who can bang out a tune on a piano has friends for life. And it’s not competitive; you don’t need to be a champion.” He has a broader agenda, too: namely, promoting interest in classical music so that orchestras in the future will be assured of audiences and a stream of new players.

Although some orchestras have “outreach” initiatives, they tend to tap into affluent schools with established music programmes. Hubscher wanted to widen the catchment to include schools from outside the brick-and-ivy zone – hence the targeting of a low-decile area. He points out that music tuition, at a cost of $60 a week, is out of reach for most children from poorer areas. Add the cost of instruments – $450-650 for a saxophone, $2000 for a half-size double bass – and it becomes even more unattainable. In Papatoetoe, the Hubschers found not one but several schools that embraced the idea.

Canute, whose school has a decile 3 ranking, says the suburb’s schools work closely together and there’s a determination to make the programme work, “not just for us but for Papatoetoe in general. We believe in putting out rounded children. We want to expose them to a whole variety of experiences, and music is one.” Papatoetoe Intermediate principal Brian Hinchco observes that “Pap” was an ideal place to launch the programme because its large Maori and Pacific Island population is naturally musical. “There’s a lot of music in the churches and in homes.” What the children of the suburb lacked was an opportunity to participate in formal music education.

SELF-DISCIPLINE

Trust co-founder Peter Hubscher

The benefits extend beyond simply learning to play. Having to practise in their own time and look after their instruments instils self-discipline and self-organisation. Canute tells of wind players arriving at school at eight in the morning because “home isn’t always conducive to practice”. Teachers have noted behavioural improvements, too. Hubscher says being able to express themselves through music often helps troubled children gain a sense of achievement and so lessens the need to be in constant rebellion. “They learn things here that they carry into other aspects of their schooling,” says Lyn Insley, a stalwart of Auckland music education who teaches violin and viola for the programme. Getting the right tutors was critical. Mahe, a Tongan who grew up in South Auckland and has a master’s degree in violin performance, is a relatively recent recruit. She joined a team that includes Insley (“I’m the battle-axe”, she says with a mischievous grin) and Robin Snape, who teaches cello and double bass.

Watching the tutors at work, it’s clear they have a warm and relaxed rapport with the kids. At rehearsal, Insley constantly prowls among them – watching, playing along on her own instrument and listening intently. A few kilometres across town at Papatoetoe West, Sheryle Steele, a former army musician, takes the school’s wind band through its paces. It’s the same story – the children playing with great gusto and intense concentration. Watching from the back of the room, Hubscher gently reminds them at one point that they don’t have to play every tune at full volume.

Already the Tironui programme has notched up milestones. Several children have won scholarships to private schools where they are continuing their musical education, and four were selected to take part in a summer music school run by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. At the Auckland Junior Music Contest sponsored by the Lewis Eady Charitable Trust, a string group from Papatoetoe East won a gold medal. Insley had told them not to be overawed at competing against kids from private schools with shiny, expensive instruments – “if they haven’t practised, they’re toast”.

CRITICAL POINT

Now the trust has reached a critical point where it’s keen to introduce the programme elsewhere. That also means finding additional sources of financial support. The Hubschers have wholly funded the programme so far, but Peter Hubscher hopes that now the concept has been proved, other sponsors might put their hands up. From the start, the idea was that local communities would eventually take over responsibility for finding funding so the trust could put its resources into establishing the programme in new areas. Hubscher says there’s no timetable for withdrawing or reducing financial support for the Papatoetoe pilot schools, but the next couple of years will be about encouraging other people – either individuals or businesses – to buy in by sponsoring pupils, classes or schools, which is why the otherwise publicity-shy Hubscher has gone public. Graeme Gilbert, principal of Papatoetoe East, is blunt about the bleak prospect of finding enough money from the hard-pressed local community, but he’s in no doubt about the programme’s value to his pupils. “We’re adding something to their lives that they didn’t have before.”