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Helping young musicians in Uganda

Graduate Gemma Norford tells us about her experiences volunteering at Kampala Music School which provides musical opportunities for talented youngsters whatever their background. Now a music teacher in London, Gemma is still a board member for the UK based charity Friends of Kampala Music School which is tirelessly raising money to help support this amazing school and the opportunities it offers its students.  The Cardiff connections don't end there though as another Music graduate, Natasha Chong, is currently Assistant Director of KMS.

Gemma NorfordIn 2008, two years after I graduated from Cardiff with a BMus, I decided to take a somewhat belated gap year. I began my travels in China where I worked in a Panda reserve for a month and then, later in the year, travelled to Uganda where I spent just over 3 months volunteering at Kampala Music School.

Kampala Music School was opened in 2001 and grew from a scheme called ‘Pianos for Uganda’. Pianos for Uganda brought in donated instruments to various institutions in the country such as churches and schools. By the time of my visit the school, although well established and with a reputation for excellence throughout the capital, was stuck in a basement where space was at a premium. The music library, of which all the contents had been donated, was a space of no bigger than 8ftx4ft. 

Despite the daily physical and financial hardships KMS faces, it’s determined to provide opportunities for students whatever their background and runs a bursary system for talented youngsters who otherwise could not afford musical education. Of course this does not happen for free. Being actively involved in the life of this friendly and vibrant school I saw how tirelessly both the Director and teachers worked to fundraise through organising concerts, book sales and solo performances. In Uganda there is little if any government funding and the life of the school depends on these events, the meagre tuition fees it charges for instrumental lessons and the kind donations from friends in the UK.

I took on the dual roles of ‘Head of Woodwind’ and well as ‘Finance and Administration Manager’.  My time was divided up between teaching and helping sort the bursary scheme and marketing the concerts upon which KMS rely. Teaching introduced me to many wonderful and talented students who were all willing to learn and so excited to have a teacher even for three short months. A few Saxophones had recently been donated so I started up a few students on Sax.  Gemma Norford

It was such a thrill to see these people fall in love with the instrument and to hear them practicing in the room next door. Unfortunately they had to share instruments and, to my horror, mouthpieces.  The only thing I could do was to ensure that they had their own reed. Many a night was spent disinfecting the mouthpieces I did have for the next day, especially if any of them started to complain about malaria! Upon my return, and with the help of the Friends of Kampala Music School charity, I was able to send out ten mouthpieces, enough for each of my students and a few spare. One of my clarinet students who started sax with me now proudly covers the horn part in the school’s orchestra.

KMS also run many outreach projects. The amazing thing which I discovered in Uganda is that people are so much more willing to share what little they have to help others. KMS ran schemes throughout the capital to ensure everyone who wanted it had the opportunity to learn music. I worked with other teachers visiting a local primary school where I taught recorder and an orphanage for ex-street children, M-Lisada.  The head teacher of the primary school would insist we shared a pineapple with him after our weekly lesson although they could not afford eggs for their children. The following week I managed to buy enough eggs for everyone for which they were so grateful.

Gemma NorfordM-Lisada took in street-children who had been stealing  to survive and had become dependent on drugs. M-Lisada, run by an ex-street child, turned them around, giving them a place to stay, food to eat and a skill to learn. One of these skills was music, provided through a dedicated KMS teacher. Armed with this skill they were then able to earn money to keep the orphanage running. Pupils here were amazing and extremely talented. We would sit in one of the rooms playing together until the sun went down and we couldn’t see the music or each other!

Returning home to England I moved back to London and have begun my career as a teacher. From starting off with a handful of pupils I now work full time for a local music service and love the job which began in Africa. I have also become a board member for the UK based charity Friends of Kampala Music School which is tirelessly raising money to help support this amazing school and the opportunities it offers its students.  Through them and the school itself, KMS finally raised enough money to move out of the basement to a bigger building much more suited to its ever growing needs. This has been masterminded by another Cardiff music graduate and Assistant director of KMS, Natasha Chong.

My time in Uganda really opened my eyes to what life is like for some of the young people there and how much KMS does to nurture these talents and develop skills to support pupils’ future. The school has become a second family to both students and teachers who will come during the day just to hang out as well as attend lessons. KMS is such a compassionate place and has used the power of music to bring everyone together – a place which truly deserves all the help it can get to keep going!

KMS is always keen to accept volunteers to help in the life of the school if you are interested in taking a trip out to Uganda or would just like to make a donation to the school then they would be extremely grateful.  For details please e-mail me: