Refugee and migrant children in Australia are being welcomed with an offer of free piano lessons, funded by piano recitals in unexpected spaces. The initiative, still in its infancy, is already showing signs of success.
Tucked away in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, three students from the Western English Language School are having music lessons in the library. Osman Ali, Khuasalia Nima Sung and Boo Ling Thang are learning how to play the piano, thanks to a unique new Australian initiative set up by two friends, anesthetist Georgina Imberger and lawyer Erica Martin.
In an interview with DW, Imberger said that the project was set up to extend a hand of welcome to children, many of whom arrive in Australia having faced difficult circumstances in their home countries.
"We want these kids to know that we think our country is a richer and better place for them being here. We hope that by offering them something that we think is a special part of life in Australia, we will communicate this welcome," she said.
A dream come true
Eleven-year-old Osman Ali arrived in Australia last year from Sudan, and has been learning the piano for a few months. With Osman’s family now saving to buy him a keyboard, the budding pianist and guitarist told DW that it was like a dream come true when he opened the piano for the first time.
"I hadn’t seen a piano before coming to Australia. I’m now doing really well with reading [the music] and I’d love to keep playing," he said.
Piano can be a comfort to migrant children, many of whom faced difficult circumstances in their home countries
The Western English Language School provides newly arrived children with their first experience of an Australian school, with intensive English language subjects offered to help students ultimately progress into a mainstream school. Assistant Principal Mary Spyropoulos told DW that their students come from a variety of backgrounds, with up to 20 different nationalities represented in the school.
"With our refugee children, they may have never been to school at all, and [therefore] have huge gaps in their knowledge and conceptualization of what school is. It’s quite different for each child. Some may struggle with their numeracy, or reading or writing," she said.
"The main focus is on English language," Spyropoulos added. "We do have an activities program, but the students don’t always get music. The Piano Project is a lovely way for students who've never had that opportunity to learn the piano, and these three boys took up the challenge. It's just lovely to listen to music being played in the afternoon."
'Power to be a bridge'
Australian pianist and composer Gemma Turvey recently performed at a concert raising funds for these piano lessons. She believes that music lessons can act as a bridge into new cultures.
"It really brings to life something I believe in so deeply about music, and that's its power to be a bridge, or to be a comfort, or to be whatever you need when words fail you. And for children who are newly arrived migrants to Australia, they're going to be struggling with things like language, fitting in, adapting, and I just think giving them the opportunity to be surrounded and immersed in a world of piano for half an hour a week is so powerful,” Ms Turvey said.
The Piano Project’s founders, Georgina Imberger and Erica Martin, also want to highlight some unexpected or unused recital venues not typically renowned for classical music in Melbourne, with inspiration for the project being born out of a visit to Berlin’s unusual piano workshop performance space, "Piano Salon Christophori."
"We are trying to create an atmosphere like that, and bring new audiences to live classical music. Thus far, we’ve had recitals in a tucked away bower and an old meat market," Imberger said.
"For us, live classical music is such a treasure, and to be able to potentially support the next generation of musicians or music aficionados with the funds raised from these concerts, we can help support the continued existence of classical music in Melbourne," she added.