by Sandra Daniel

The Nairobi Symphony horns performing Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”

When you think of a place exploding with classical musicians, I highly doubt Nairobi, Kenya would be at the top of your list. That was the mindset I had five years ago during my first trip to Kenya in 2014. I traveled to visit a friend teaching string instruments at a private high school with no clue as to the development of a music conservatoire, several youth orchestras, and even an adult community orchestra to accommodate all of the blossoming musicians in Nairobi. I was shocked to find enough people learning and performing instruments to form more than one orchestra when where I come from in “the developed world” I had to drive an hour in any direction to participate in simple community bands. It was both thrilling and confusing at the same time. 

One of the things that drew me back to Nairobi to live was finding that among this growing world of musicians, my own beloved instrument, the horn, was almost non-existent. The instruments were not really available in the country. The rare horn players that were around were not taking students. All of the orchestras were using saxophones to fill in the horn gaps. The horn was like Bigfoot or a unicorn in Kenya. My thought was that while I do not consider myself to be an amazing horn player or teacher, at least I can do something to help fill in this obviously needed role.

I moved to Kenya in 2015 and began teaching a few horn students in high school as well as recent graduates. What I found to be one of the biggest difficulties these young players faced was access to quality instruments. They all played on quirky single horns and used mouthpieces not suited to their facial features. Some of the instruments were pitched in keys from times past, causing them to constantly transpose. Others were ¾ sized made for very small players. The equipment these students were working with was just not working with them.

Later that year, I met the face of a nonprofit, Music for East Africa, another American lady who brought instruments, teachers, and performers to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to help music students in these areas continue to develop. She brought instruments and music supplies of any kind that were donated to her organization, but she focused on the very rare and delicate double reed instruments. It was my connection with her and some of her musician friends that gave me the idea to join in her work but focus on the horn. I joined forces with her bringing instruments and supplies every time I traveled back to the States to visit. I distributed instruments brought by another horn player to those students who would get the most use out of them. I bought used horns online myself to bring back. I requested and received donations from music-related facebook groups, all in hopes of giving my horn students a better shot at musical success.

Having these better quality instruments available to students and having a sort of guiding teacher has caused the horn population in Kenya to increase exponentially. With the availability of decent instruments and with each student I have taught teaching others, horn players are popping up all over. There is now competition for parts in the Nairobi Orchestra.  There are more players than instruments in both the Ghetto Classics Orchestra and Safaricom Youth Orchestra. The growth has been tremendous!

From this growth in the Nairobi horn community and seeing the work of some of the other music groups in Kenya, I got the idea of a horn club where all of us horn players could join together to just do horn stuff and possibly prepare music to perform. The progress of the actual horn club as a group has been slow-going so far due to everyone's busy lives, but the spirit of the horn club is alive and well.  We are grateful to a generous donor for making all of us members of the International Horn Society. Younger students are continuing to seek instructions and supplies.  My students, who were once just beginning to play alongside me in the Nairobi Orchestra, are now having their own students play alongside them in the Kenya National Youth Orchestra, Conservatoire Orchestra, and Nairobi Orchestra as well.

My future hope for horn players in Kenya is just as things are now: constant pursuing of improvement, constant starting and developing of new and excited players, and constant distribution of instruments, supplies, and knowledge. I hope that the time will arise when we can manage a performance of just horn players even just a short one. Until that time comes, I will be glad of the leaps horn playing has made in these past few years and continue making efforts in that direction.

Sandra Daniel is the IHS Area Representative for Kenya.

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