October 12, 2022

Article: Whakaaro Tahi Community Trust – Serving the Far North for 17 Years

“Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest; heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”

The genesis of the Whakaaro Tahi Community Trust’s music programme emerged from my day-to-day experience working as a secondary school teacher at Whangaroa College in Kaeo, a low-decile secondary school in the far North.

While there I noticed that disengaged rangatahi (youth) were seriously lacking extra-curricular activities that could engage and encourage them to succeed and enjoy learning on their own terms, and somehow integrate that learning with their school education. The College already had musically gifted students such as Shaun and Jimmy Colbert (from the now internationally renowned ‘1814’ band) But many of their peers had no formal pathway to advance their passion. Apart from anything else, the college lacked even a rudimentary Music Department.

As Whangaroa Tahi Community Music, I wrote applications and raised funds to buy equipment. Initially, in 2005, we were able to launch the programme with music sessions held in the Social Sciences resource room at lunch-times, in any spare periods, or after school. Eventually I had enough funding to hire our first paid tutors – Bundy Waitai and Mohi Te Hana Dawson – who worked out of a suite of rooms at Whangaroa College.

The Trust’s other tutors have since included Denise Stothard, Kawiti Juventin, Peter Welby, John Hailstone, Simon Whitehead, Damien Rice, Emma Paki, Sherry Pomare, Christoph Maubach, Eli Moore, Brady Arkle, Jen Whittington, Jade Leatherby-Tipene from the band Paua and long-standing tutors like Jane Hillier and Tups Ellis – and this is by no means a complete list. About four years after our initial launch, the Trust in its present form was established, and our music programmes became available to the wider Far North community, including home school students. We have travelled and have delivered tuition to areas such as Mitimiti, Pawarenga, Panguru, Broadwood, Kaitaia, Oturu, Pamapuria, Paparore, Kaingaroa, Taipa, Peria, Mangonui, Oruiati, Waitaruke and Whangaroa. We even conducted a music programme in Ngawha Prison for a time.

Present tutors are now currently teaching some of my original pupils’ children.

Our whole kaupapa (purpose) is to empower rangatahi with musical interests to achieve their goals and dreams by eliminating as much as possible barriers such as equipment availability, isolation, tuition fees, and the like. Hopefully, with our support and guidance, they can transition their passion and joy of music into a lifelong journey of unique self-development and cultural expression.

Waitaruke students performing at the Annual Waitaruke Cultural Festival

It’s a given that in a host of ways music enriches our lives and promotes connection with others, and so needs to be available to all. The universal language of music is a tailor-made way to bring our diverse Te Tai Tokerau communities together.

Countless studies abound listing the cognitive and social benefits of music – enhanced brain development, concentration, self confidence, empathy, listening skills, creativity, literacy and maths benefits, how it reduces stress, increases wellbeing (especially at this time), cooperation, trust, respect and community connections, and so on and so forth.

But the key element underpinning Whakaaro Tahi Community Trust’s kaupapa is simply “engagement”. Music is the key
that unlocks many previously uncharted domains, because – even for those who don’t aspire to be professional musicians – it opens doors to all manner of other opportunities and vocations, practical all-round life-skills, and new mentors and networks. And also simply because it’s a perfect vehicle to self-express, and just great fun – especially when you’re part of a team.

While our initial programme enjoyed almost immediate success at Whangaroa College, the college’s original situation was by no means an isolated case. The Far North unfortunately is near the head of the field in many negative statistics, and sadly this also applies to availability of suitable and effective resources in many of its public schools compared to not only – most markedly – private schools, but also public schools in higher socio-economic areas.

The evidence from our own initial programmes showed the benefits to individuals and to the wider community to be very real, very positive, and – particularly in the context of the Far North’s particular needs – to be highly effective.

The Trust was therefore specifically established to address this inequity that makes music a luxury for the financially able. We strongly believe that music needs to be accessible to all students, and not just the privileged few.

Whakaaro Tahi Community Trust has lived and breathed this philosophy since our inception.

The Trust has provided foundation music skills at early childhood centres (ORFF programme) and primary level, as well as facilitating students to attend music programmes at New Zealand universities and Music Schools such as MAINZ, and assisting numerous Far North students to achieve NCEA credits in music.

Our programmes have also included working with junior and senior bands and orchestral ensembles, and fostering skills in vocals, keyboards, guitar, uku, cello, violin, electric and double bass, saxophone and flute. We promote original songwriting and performance at community events, and have participated in many events such the Ukulele festival, Rock Quest, Big Sing, etc., and have enjoyed success in many of these events and songwriting competitions.

Home School group performing their original composition to support the Ukraine

Our students have produced many original songs over the years, and these have included songs written specifically to raise funds for events such as ANZAC, the Christchurch earthquake and the Ukraine invasion. We have also been encouraging our more advanced students to enter music examinations through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London. While Covid has hindered these activities in the past two years, hopefully November will see some of our students enjoying this wonderful global experience again.

Group of Trust students celebrating NZ Music Month and students in pink supporting Anti-Bullying Day

Students have showcased their work at local and regional events, street performances, in the atrium at Te Ahu centre in Kaitaia, at local and cultural festivals; rest homes, Xmas festivals and end-of-year performances, and also perform an annual carols event in Mangonui. Our secondary student bands have done well in the past and now our home school group are building up their repertoire with jazz pieces including “Sway” and more challenging pieces like Paul Desmond/Brubeck’s “Take Five”; as well as writing and performing their own compositions. We hope to showcase these at the Mangonui Waterfront Festival in April next year, and then at the annual Jazz and Blues Festival in the Bay of Islands in August.

It’s not too hard to see how all these various endeavours and student accomplishment also help deliver many accompanying personal and social benefits such as building self-esteem, fostering teamwork and nurturing future career skills.

Peria students performing in Te Ahi Centre for NZ Music Month

Whakaaro Tahi Community Trust takes pride in the fact that our programmes have played a crucial role in establishing a focal point for our youth and creating positive ripple-on effects through other sectors of Far North Rohe. Our continuing mission and kaupapa is to attract the wider community support to allow us to continue this journey – helping to stepping-stone many other present and future Far North rangatahi into achieving their own goals and fulfilling their own dreams while having fun and learning valuable life skills along the way.

Words by: Sharyn Van Heerden, Founding Trustee, Whakaaro Thai Community Trust

“Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music, I get most joy in life out of music.” EINSTEIN

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