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Uncovering astonishing musical talent

Teacher Dr Elizabeth Sneyd leads Virtuoso Strings Orchestra members.

Extreme talent for classical music, uncovered in east Porirua, is about to go on public display in a concert with New Zealand household name Sol3 Mio.

For the past five years charitable trust Virtuoso Strings has been providing children with violins, violas, cellos and free lessons with outstanding results.

Many of these young musicians also belong to the trust’s Virtuoso Strings Orchestra.

On the evening of Saturday, March 3, around 50 members of the orchestra will perform at Porirua’s Symphony in the Park with Sol3 Mio and Orchestra Wellington.

How it all started

Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust was established five years ago by violin teacher Dr Elizabeth Sneyd and her piano teacher husband Craig Utting.

Twelve years ago Liz, bored with her work as an analyst, gave away her good salary and began a music teaching business with Craig whom she met when both belonged to Orchestra Wellington.

During the next seven years they had found several children with “uncanny talent” for classical instruments but a gulf – usually financial – separated them from learning.

The couple saw that their students were becoming less and less diverse.

The recession had also impacted on the affordability of private lessons.

Removing barriers to entry

Based on the philosophy of removing barriers, the couple formed the charitable trust, put in $20,000 of their own savings and went after suitable instruments – violins, violas and cellos. More were donated or bought with grant funding from the Nikau Foundation.

Low decile primary schools in east Porirua were offered the trust’s services. Liz says some school principals doubted any of their pupils would be interested but she proved them wrong.

“People thought classical music would not catch on. But kids think ‘Would this be fun to do with my friends’.

If you offer everyone the same opportunities it is remarkable how similar kids’ interests are,” she says.

Liz works on the basis that every child should be able to have a go.

Last year the trust provided free lessons to about 200 primary pupils, a number larger than the rolls of some individual schools in east Porirua. As well as loaning instruments, the trust and its supporters provide uniforms, meals and transport to lessons.

You have to be committed to providing the whole package,” Liz says.

Many of the children come from large families with parents working long and unusual hours to pay the bills.

Many parents don’t have time in their day to take their children to music lessons, she says.

Most of the tuition is given on a voluntary basis. Liz says there is a “desperate need” for more funds to pay tutors.

Liz, whose PhD is in maths and who also studied performance in the USA, says international research has shown learning music is good for the brain and for mental health.

“But here [in New Zealand] if you want access you have to pay.”

The trust offers Trinity College London exams and has yet to have a student fail.

Success stories

One of the trust’s success stories is Toloa Faraimo who has just passed the Trinity College London violin exam in Grade 8 with merit. Toloa has achieved the pass in three years, instead of the usual nine or 10.

Toloa will play a solo with Orchestra Wellington at the Porirua concert.

Liz says studies have shown that natural talent is over-rated and that hard work is more important than previously thought for musical achievement.

At Virtuoso Strings they celebrate success rather than competition.

Students are encouraged to support each other and “collectively stand tall”.

The Virtuoso Strings Orchestra is open to children and adults and 90 to 100 rehearse weekly at Porirua College in Cannons Creek. So popular is it, that Liz has divided the group into a junior and senior orchestra.

The orchestra gives community concerts in the Wellington region and further afield.

It performs a mix of classics, film themes and contemporary music, even including Lady Gaga numbers.

Because the concerts target those who would not normally be able to attend, entry is usually by koha. But transport, venue hire, accommodation and promotion still have to be paid for.

Andrew Atkins conducts Virtuoso Strings at a performance at Aotea College, Porirua.

In the April school holidays 60 orchestra members will travel to Whanganui for performances in rest homes and maybe a public venue. Liz sees it as an alternative to the school camps many of her students struggle to afford.

In the July school holidays a bus tour to the South Island is planned, giving concerts in out-of-the-way places including Hokitika, Greymouth and Wanaka.

A community of funding

The trust’s funding comes from grants, sponsors and fundraising, including busking by some of the students.

Liz hopes to attract more private and corporate sponsors. Their money supports group and individual lessons.

It’s really rewarding for the sponsor, they can see what their money does,” she says.

Major funders are Creative New Zealand, the New Zealand Community Trust, Trust House Foundation, Wellington Community Trust, Thomas McCarthy Trust and the Porirua Creative Communities Scheme. There are also many smaller funders.

The trust is practically supported by parents and caregivers.

They help organise performances and do community liaison and administration.

The trustees include two parents and there is a large steering committee.

Virtuoso Strings is “very community driven,” says Liz.

Harnessing talent

Parent and trustee Joyce Fuatavai says the talent among Virtuoso Strings students is “just amazing”.

Student Bianca practises violin with teacher Dr Elizabeth Sneyd.

She met Liz when daughter Bianca Mika was at Russell School and began learning the violin through the trust.

Four years later Bianca, 12, now at Brandon Intermediate, has passed her Trinity College London grade 6 violin exam with distinction.

Bianca says she enjoys playing the violin with Virtuoso Strings because it is fun, she has friends there, the songs are “cool” and there are trips away. Bianca, who has just begun piano lessons privately, is looking forward to the concert with Sol3 Mio.

Joyce says guitar and piano are more popular among Pasifika. If Liz had not been offering tuition through Bianca’s school, she would never have begun violin lessons.

Joyce became involved in the trust as a supporter, helping in the kitchen and moving furniture. More recently she has become a trustee.

Music runs in the Cannons Creek family although they traditionally did not learn to play instruments. Joyce used to sing in competitions and at church.

Following her daughter’s success, sons Daniel and Levi Mika are starting lessons this year with Liz, probably for the cello.

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Symphony in the Park at Porirua Park, Saturday, March 3

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