It is hard enough to train as a classical pianist, even in a Western country with good access to instruments, sheet music and advanced tuition. If you happen to live in Kenya, where nothing of the above is easily available, the many obstacles make it almost impossible. Yet, there are people with an absolute determination to learn. Piano Street has talked to pianist Cordelia Williams, whose new documentary film depicts a new generation on track to break the ‘glass ceiling’ of classical music in Kenya.
Cordelia Williams recently spent six months living, performing and teaching in Nairobi, Kenya, where the Guildhall School in London had asked her to scout out piano talent, with a view to setting up some kind of future scholarship or assistance for the most promising pianists.
Working with the cinematographer Lemuel Agina, she interviewed some of the young people she met and coached, about the obstacles they face in trying to learn classical music. The most obvious hurdle for any aspiring Kenyan pianist is the complete lack of qualified piano tutors. As one self-taught pianist, Teddy Otieno, pointed out, ‘maybe if I get a lesson this year, I will have to wait two or three years to get another one, and I find during those years I have been making small mistakes’.
Piano Street: The young people you taught in Kenya have picked up almost everything they know about the piano from the internet. What do you think your presence there as a real-life teacher meant to them?
Cordelia Williams: What I felt was really valuable in this situation is the fact that I was engaging on a one-to-one basis with each pianist: mentoring, guiding and supporting their own interests and progress. Learning from the internet is of course difficult, but also lonely – all musicians need support, feedback and someone to believe in them and invest in their talent. Honestly I just feel honoured to be able to provide that to a few promising pianists who are otherwise totally self-driven.
PS: How has your stay in Nairobi affected you as a pianist and teacher?
CW: Working in depth with pianists like Teddy is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, I think because the strength of their desire to improve is so refreshing and invigorating. They went out of their way to learn as much as possible from me and visibly devoted their complete attention and energy to absorbing the new ideas I presented them with. It is such a pleasure to work with someone like this, and that humility in the face of music’s depth is something I want to emulate in my own career.
Cordelia is now planning to visit Nairobi three times per year to carry on coaching and mentoring the most promising pianists she found. She hopes that she will also be able to find summer school places for some of them — by common consent among those interviewed, the most valuable opportunity for a young Kenyan musician would be the chance to travel abroad and take part in focused and concentrated music-making and learning. The long-term goal is to offer scholarships for undergraduate study abroad to the most promising pianists in Kenya.