A digital bittersweet symphony for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra

The Safaricom Youth Orchestra cannot meet in person anymore, but until the pandemic is over, they will continue to practice and get lessons virtually ... and make sweet music

19 Jun 2020 . 2,263 Views

The slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a silence, an uncomfortable lull on opportunities for artistes to audition, play, record and rehearse.

But for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra (SYO) the show must go on.

The orchestra has gone digital this season. Students, practicing with their instruments at home, are getting music lessons virtually, learning how to arrange music and to keep the harmony on. Though physically distant—to help stymie the spread of the coronavirus—the budding musicians are connected, musically, through digital channels.

Founded in 2014 by then Safaricom CEO, the late Bob Collymore, the orchestra was meant to nurture musical talent in children and young adults across socioeconomic levels. An ambitious dream to curate Kenya’s next generation of professional musicians. Art and Music Foundation is the partner that manages the orchestra on behalf of Safaricom.

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It’s Executive Director and Classical music enthusiast Elizabeth Njoroge says as part of the shift to the digital orchestra, they identified students who needed mobile devices and instruments and prioritized setting them up with the tools for success.

“The pandemic has forced us to be innovative and creative in the way we do things. All around the world, orchestras are having sessions online on various meeting platforms and we are no different,” Elizabeth said at a recent ceremony to handover the devices where around 26 devices were donated to both the students and the tutors.

Dennis Ngige and Executive Director Art of Music Foundation and Safaricom Youth Orchestra (SYO) Manager Elizabeth Njoroge.


“We are grateful to Safaricom for the support because they are not only giving us devices but also getting us a good online platform to meet on, and airtime so the kids can access it and meet with their teachers,” She added.

This year’s selection for the next orchestra’s cohort was conducted online, a first such audition. Previously, they would be done in-person at the Michael Joseph Centre at Safaricom House, which is also the venue of the orchestra’s weekly Saturday rehearsals.
For the digital auditions, the candidates were required to submit audition tapes online where sectional tutors and  the orchestra director, Dr. Duncan Wambugu and his deputy Levi Wathaka, reviewed and shortlisted the applicants.

Once shortlisted, they were invited for online interviews, selected on the same platform and included in the final list of the newest Safaricom Youth Orchestra members.

Masala Sefu, a cello tutor, was part of the selection committee for this year’s auditions. She has commenced individual and sectional rehearsals with her students virtually. Masala, and the rest of the orchestra have been using Microsoft Teams for the weekly online rehearsals. She holds individual sessions with her students during the week before the section comes together on Saturdays to meet and play together.


Masala explains how she has had to adjust to teaching students with varying levels of experience due to the lack of in-person interaction. “For an instrument like the cello, it’s very beneficial to have a tutor there to immediately correct things like posture or positioning of the instrument, or handling of the bow” she says, “It gets a bit frustrating that I can’t just jump into the screen to adjust the mistake.”

Nonetheless, she is glad she has an opportunity to continue making music even if its online. “The fact that we’re still able to play together… you play your part and your part contributes to somebody else’s part and you come together to make this beautiful symphony. Playing in an orchestra is all about that and I look forward to being able to experience that again.”

Rayana Wairimu, a 17-year-old standing violinist in the SYO, it has been difficult adjusting to staying at home on Saturdays—when she would attend the in-person weekly training sessions—to now adjusting to the rehearsals online. “I always loved waking up on Saturday mornings to go and play music with my friends; they’ve become my second family.”

Previously, her Saturday sessions at the Michael Joseph Centre would be a culmination of at least three other personal rehearsals. Now her sectional rehearsals take place in front of a phone in her living room.


The first sessions of virtual rehearsals were checkered with technical hitches and glitches.“At first, during the adjustment period, it was quite slow because we didn’t know how to work with the software. If we tried playing together, the sound would start lagging so it would sound as if everybody was playing at different times.” Now, she says, the tutor and students have worked out a way for them to rehearse seamlessly on Microsoft Teams.

“Our teacher will be on, and he’ll pick a person to perform and the teacher will assess the student’s performances one by one.”

Having worked through the nooks and crannies of the new system, Rayana is excited to be back to practicing, learning music and sharpening her skills with the violin.

“I’ve been looking at different kinds of music. After the pandemic, I would like to join the National Youth Orchestra and then further develop my skills to play with advanced orchestras,” she concludes.



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