The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Simply Music Students – Khamis and Alam Buol

Found in: Simply Music Community

I would like to introduce you to Khamis and Alam Buol, two talented and hardworking students I have had the privilege of teaching for the past eighteen months. They are aged 13 and 11 and are refugees from the Sudan. When we met, they had been in Australia for a couple of years after spending most of their lives in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Our association started by chance. I give lessons in a local primary school as well as at home, and one recess I was chatting with a lady who came in to support the refugee students. When she discovered that I taught piano, she was keen to find out if I could do something for Alam because she had noticed him gravitating towards the piano in his previous school and trying to pick out a tune. She also made it clear that little or no payment could be involved.

This was a chance for me to make a contribution with the skills I have. I just had to sort out a few issues, such as finding a keyboard for Alam to practise on, and deciding which method to teach him with. I can’t imagine thinking twice about it now, but back then I had just started teaching Simply Music and still had many students learning the traditional way. I was also thinking about the price of materials and whether I was prepared to give them away, and a traditional tutor book was much cheaper. My third problem was how to communicate with him, because he was reluctant to talk to me!

These things gradually resolved themselves. A keyboard was donated by another student who was upgrading to a digital piano, and teaching Alam traditionally failed miserably as he regularly forgot his book and obviously wasn’t interested in playing the simple tunes. The turning point came when he told me his older brother Khamis was teaching himself songs from the keyboard and wanted to have lessons too. So I decided to visit the family and do it properly and teach them with Simply Music. Luckily a Sudanese man was also visiting and he could interpret, so I offered lessons for the cost of the ed fee and a small amount for some second hand materials, on the condition that they turned up for lessons at my house and did the practice. After much incomprehensible discussion, their mother agreed, but I knew that there would not be any parental support or encouragement.

I started teaching the boys in a shared lesson, but Khamis came back to the second lesson with all of level one already learnt, so I had to think again about how to approach things! I could hear Neil saying “Learn slowly to progress quickly” and I felt a bit panicky about how to slow things down, but I also knew that it takes as long as it takes, and if it took hardly any time at all, what could I do? Fortunately arrangements and the accompaniment programme slowed Khamis down a bit, and Alam was going along at a very civilized speed so we settled into a good routine. As the next levels were needed, I asked the boys to do some work at my place to help pay for them, and I now have a painted fence and a lot fewer weeds in my garden. Piano was also an area where Alam could excel and be totally focussed when things at school were not going so easily.

I discovered that my contacts through piano teaching could help the family in other ways too. Parents of ex students were very involved in the local soccer club and they were able to find teams for the boys for no cost, and another student’s mother drove Alam to practices and games. The husband of a lady in my Ladies Piano Evening group took on the job of teaching the boys’ mother how to drive, and he now has a regular stream of refugees waiting for driving lessons. He also became the family’s Fix It Man. Another piano family has given Khamis and Alam their old piano on an indefinite loan. I am very grateful to be part of this community of music lovers!

The boys are up to lesson 62 now and have had a half hour lesson each since the early days. One works with me while the other plays on my old digital piano with the headphones and has the option of recording his composition ideas on a floppy disk (better than nothing!) I love the way they are so at home on the piano and can spend half an hour playing continuously with no reference to books or music.

Khamis has nearly finished level 6 and I feel very confident that he will be an independent learner very soon. Right from the beginning he has had a particular affinity with classical music, which I find particularly interesting considering how little exposure he has had to it. Last week he started playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, which he apparently heard on Karate Kid and looked up on YouTube. He tells me he wants to keep learning piano for as long as he can, and seems to need no repeating of the long term relationship conversation. Alam is almost up to level 5 and has many ideas for composition. He also wants to keep learning “to the end”.

The boys told me that before they started piano and soccer they had nothing to do but watch TV and get bored, and they are very happy to have these opportunities to develop some skills and to have a more interesting and satisfying life! In the future they both see themselves playing music for friends, entertaining people (maybe for money) and possibly teaching piano as well. Khamis is already on the path to earning his keep through his piano playing. The mother of one of his friends told me that he visits their place regularly before dinner and she tells him he can stay for the meal if he plays for her. So she is entertained while she cooks, and Khamis gets to eat!

Every week I am seeing evidence of their developing confidence and how the patterns they are learning in Simply Music are becoming a natural part of their playing and musical self expression. I am very grateful that I can give them a way of learning piano that offers so much more than the ability to read notes off a page.