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Fighting poverty in India with music education

One winter morning in 2007, my husband Luis said to me, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if poor children across India were given instruments and taught to play them to a high standard?”

We had recently returned to the UK from our annual Christmas trip to India to visit family. On our way to Mumbai airport, our taxi stopped at a traffic light and we were soon surrounded by little children hawking books, toys, and plastic goods. Luis was thinking of those children, and millions of others like them whose future was undetermined and likely to be bleak.

That stray remark was soon forgotten and life went on. Luis was then working as a busy doctor on the National Health Service and I had my own fledgling career with a Down Syndrome charity.

A few months later, when the brochure for the annual BBC Proms festival came out, we were shocked and amazed to learn that not one, but two acclaimed orchestras made of precisely the demographic we were talking about, would be on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London that summer.

In the next year, the universe madly conspired to make Luis’s off-the-cuff remark a reality.

group of children in India practice violin In January 2010, the couple began their first music lessons at a local shelter called "Hamara School" (our school). (Photo: Child's Play India)

We went to the Proms and were moved by the Buskaid Soweto Strings ensemble from South Africa. We watched the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from Venezuela rock the Albert Hall. That performance created a wave of new music education projects and we were one of them.

We read up on El Sistema, the music movement in Venezuela that reaches over three million vulnerable children and young adults. Could this be replicated in India?

In mid-2008, we moved back to India to try out this audacious idea. We were going to call it "Child’s Play India Foundation." Because learning music was really child’s play if a child had the opportunity.

We met musicians, funders, teachers. Unexpected and incredible connections were made across the UK, USA, and other places. Seed funding was promised.

Luis and I were house-hunting and checking out mortgage rates in the UK at the time. We returned to India instead, unsure if this would work but game to give it a serious chance.

Young Indian boy plays violin outside The couple wondered what impact could Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart have on such traumatised lives? (Photo: Child's Play India)

In January 2010, we began our first music lessons at a local shelter called "Hamara School" (our school). Hamara School is a shelter that provides support to children who are vulnerable and marginalized.

All children here go to regular schools in Panjim but come back to the shelter for nutritious meals and help with their homework and studies. Some girls live in the premises, but most children now return home to their families at the end of the day.

These are children of construction workers, balloon vendors, domestic workers — as well as parents with addictions and criminal records. What impact could Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart have on such traumatised lives?

Turns out, quite a lot.

Children in India play in professional orchestra with trainees Studies have shown over and over the connection between learning music and the impact it has on a child’s brain and development. (Photo: Child's Play India)

Ten years later, Child’s Play India now reaches out to around 120 children across four locations in and around Panjim. Our association with Hamara School is still going strong and new children sign up every so often.

We have after-school projects at a high school in a Panjim suburb teaching violin, viola, cello, and choir — and a village project in St. Cruz open to all children of the village with lessons available for violin and piano.

In 2018, after nine years of teaching in the hot sun, in open spaces, and sharing room with children studying or sleeping, we were able to rent our first office premises. That is now a thriving studio with music lessons every single day.

Indian children play in professional orchestra Ten years later, Child’s Play India now reaches out to around 120 children across four locations in and around Panjim. (Photo: Child's Play India)

Ten years is a long time to watch a child grow. Some of the children who began with us in 2010 are still with us. They are not only continuing to study music but they are doing exceptionally well in their academics as well.

Studies have shown over and over the connection between learning music and the impact it has on a child’s brain and development. We are seeing it in action here in India, at the very grassroots.

In India, marginalized children have to fight many battles. The poverty of their parents is a huge stumbling block, as are the obstacles of caste and access to education and employment. We wanted to give these children a fighting chance.

Not all of the children in our project will become orchestral musicians. Not all of them will continue to learn music. Some drop out, losing interest. Others move away and cannot continue with lessons.

Girls, especially, are vulnerable to the possibility of early marriages or dropping out from school. Whatever their circumstances, we feel that learning music shows our children that there is another world out there.

Two boys pose with classical instruments In their tenth anniversary year, the founders want to reach out to many more children, but their biggest stumbling block is finding qualified teachers. (Photo: Child's Play India)

It is a world of possibility, of beauty, of hope. Our advanced students are offered a stipend to become trainee teachers, empowering them to think beyond traditional means of earning an income.

In 2018, we formally launched an ambitious cello programme to train a new generation of cellists in India. There are very few cellists and even fewer cello teachers in the country.

Making music without a good cellist was increasingly difficult (which partly explains the lack of chamber music ensembles across the country) and we need to resolve this. In the short term therefore, we are recruiting experienced and qualified cello teachers from overseas to work with our children for six months to a year or more.

They not only teach our beginner students, but work with advanced students to be trainee teachers and play in our faculty ensemble. To reach out to more people, we opened the cello project to the wider community.

We now have 20+ students, including some adult learners who are incredibly proud to be playing the cello with us. To most of them, this was something they could not have dreamed of even eight months ago. It is a thing of beauty to watch these young musicians take the stage confidently or eagerly wait for their next class.

Young boy plays violin Child Play's mission is to provide, through music education, a sense of discipline, self-esteem, and possible career opportunities. (Photo: Child's Play India)

In our tenth anniversary year, we want to reach out to many more marginalized children, but our biggest stumbling block is teachers. We need qualified and experienced teachers.

In the past ten years, we have had some wonderful teachers from all over the world and we welcome musicians who want to come to India and change a child’s life.

Because, as our tagline says, every child is noteworthy.

Chryselle D'Silva Dias headshot

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a freelance writer and journalist currently based in Goa, India. Her byline has appeared in TIME, BBC, The Atlantic, VICE, Scroll.in, The Telegraph UK, The Guardian Weekly, Marie Claire India, Christian Science Monitor, Conde Nast Traveller India, The National (UAE), Wall Street Journal Asia, Silverkris, Architectural Digest (India), Hindustan Times, FirstPost, DNA, Mint, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Bucks Free Press, India Today Travel Plus, Home Review and Soul & Spirit magazine, among others. She is also a contributor to ‘The Ultimate Runner’ (HCI Books, May 2010) and to ‘A River of Stones‘ (March 2011).

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