An innovative project to lift aspirations through classical music has struck up the orchestra in Otara. Joanna Davies joins in.

"Kia ora Dr Joe," the small class at Piripono Kura sings as Joe Harrop opens the door, violin case in hand.

The 5- to 8-year-olds clap their hands in time to musical notations, sing

Twinkle Twinkle


using the Solfege scale "Do do, so so, la la so, fa fa, mi mi, re re do," and name all of the parts of Dr Harrop's violin.

That's a big achievement when most of the children have had only three half-hour sessions learning about classical music.

The pupils are part of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Sistema Aotearoa programme, working with seven low-decile south Auckland schools to teach children a style of music they might not otherwise be exposed to.

"It's a social empowerment programme that is quite sneaky," admits Dr Harrop. "On the surface it is teaching music, but it is also giving these children different role models that they might not get anywhere else," he says.

"The kids find the music fascinating and their parents are very supportive because they can get involved with motivating their children to do well."

About 500 students at Piripono School, Bairds Mainfreight Primary, Rongomai Primary, East Tamaki Primary, Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, St John the Evangelist School and Wymondley Road Primary take part in two music sessions a week.

This is building up to a school holiday programme and afterschool classes, where the pupils will learn to play on real violins.

"We had our launch in the last school holidays and the pupils who came all made cardboard violins," Dr Harrop says. "We told them if they look after their cardboard ones, they get to play the real ones.

"We had 80 children involved in the last holiday programme, and now we have an over-subscription because 120 children are enrolled in the next programme.

"We don't have enough violins for everyone at this stage."

The programme is based on El Sistema, a Venezuelan music programme founded 35 years ago and now run internationally.

It has been credited with reducing crime, increasing school attendance rates and preventing people from turning to gangs and drugs in other countries.

Piripono principal Tipene Watson says the school is privileged to be involved.

"We've got some fabulous expertise coming here every week and our children get to benefit from it," Mr Watson says.

"The opportunities are huge and, from what I can tell so far, the students are really enjoying it, and the parents are very supportive."

Orchestra chief executive, Barbara Glaser, says Sistema programmes always begin in a place of need.

"Economically speaking, Otara, where Sistema Aotearoa is based, is a place of need. But, at the same time, there are qualities that make Otara ripe for this sort of initiative," she says.

"The community is very supportive of its own - people are used to looking out for each other whether that be through the extended family or just through someone down the road.

"For the Sistema model to work, it needs the support of families and other social groups, and it needs buy-in within the community."

Ms Glaser believes the programme will benefit the children and their community as a whole.

"The research overwhelmingly shows that learning an instrument in a group setting is good for young people in many, many ways," she says. "It aids cognitive development, it helps with concentration, it teaches important skills like self-discipline, working in groups and listening to other people. I could go on and on about the benefits.

"One of the principles of Sistema is that if you have young kids with all these important skills, you can't help but have a better community, so there's benefit there, and ultimately that's for the good for all New Zealand."


Sistema Aotearoa is looking for small violins for its school holiday programme  next month. The orchestra needs people to donate or loan their instruments to teach 120 children (originally the programme was catering for 80, but  interest is increasing). Some small violins are being ordered from China, but this is not enough to meet the demand. The instruments will be stored by the orchestra when not in use.

For more info, email: