In this edition of '10 questions with ...' we spoke with Hayley Aikman, who is currently studying towards an Honours degree in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Hayley was selected to undertake an internship with Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust as part of Lorena Gibson's Marsden-funded project on music and social change.
1. What are you doing this year?
In Honours, you can apply to do a voluntary work placement in the place of a normal paper, so this this year I've been lucky enough to work with the charity Virtuoso Strings.
2. What is Virtuoso Strings?
An incredibly cool organisation based in Porirua that runs a youth orchestra and provides tuition, instruments, practice sessions, and even food and transport - all for free - to kids in the area. Coordinators Liz Sneyd and Craig Utting teach about 160 students from eleven different decile 1 and decile 2 schools around Porirua, rehearsing twice weekly as a group as well as running music classes out of partnering schools three days a week.
Their aim is to ensure that every student is catered to, no matter how diverse their needs. There are clear links between learning a musical instrument, personal growth, and academic success, and Virtuoso Strings hopes to provide an accessible space for that to happen.
Excitingly, we were actually featured on Seven Sharp a little while ago, so you can see for yourself here: https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/seven-sharp/clips/extras/magic-music-has-changed-these-porirua-childrens-lives-6524448
3. What made you apply for the internship instead of taking a normal paper?
The main reason that I applied was that I was finding it hard to reconcile a passion for action and creating change with a year of being completely immersed in academia. I love Anthropology, and truly enjoy studying it, but in undergrad I balanced study with a job that I was really passionate about. Coming into Honours, I knew I wouldn't have the time to work as much, and I was concerned about becoming detached from the "real" world so to speak. There is something that feels very uncomfortable about dedicating your life to studying people, and doing that solely through readings and class discussion.
I also felt very drawn to the organisation, as education is something I'm very passionate about, and Virtuoso String's focus on accessibility really resonated with me. I basically looked up the internships out of general interest, and straight after reading the description for Virtuoso Strings I decided that I had to apply.
Lastly, I loved the idea of being able to work alongside a lecturer and an outside supervisor, and develop practical skills, as well as academic ones.
4. Has it been what you expected?
Yes, and no. It took us a while to figure out where I could be most helpful. I think I naively had visions of spending my allocated hours onsite, hanging with the students, but I soon understood that doing that would have benefited me, rather than Virtuoso Strings. I quickly realised (and unfortunately I think this is the case for all New Zealand charities) that the best thing I could possibly do was try to provide exposure, to gain funding and monetary support. Liz knows exactly what she needs to be doing - she just doesn't always have the funds to do it. So my work has actually drawn more on my marketing experience (I did Commerce at undergrad too) than anthropology, which I didn't initially expect.
5. What has been the most rewarding thing of your internship so far?
Outside of the obvious excitement of being able to see students thrive, the most rewarding thing has been the opportunity to work with an organisation that "gets" it, and completely aligns with my own values and priorities. I've had so many "anthropological" conversations with Liz, where we've talked about agency, and hope, and everything in between, despite not using the official jargon. I think studying Anthropology can make you very suspicious of charities and aid organisations, so it's been incredible to see the impact a charity can have when it is truly committed to and reflective of its community.
6. What has been the most challenging thing about it?
Without a doubt the most challenging thing has been witnessing the lack of resources the group has to work with, and the impact that it has on their capabilities. There is so much energy that has to be put into getting funding and raising money, which takes focus away from what the group actually wants to be doing. Liz and her husband Craig, and the community, put their absolute all into making the group work, and to see that go unsupported by funding agencies and government initiatives is very frustrating.
7. Would you recommend doing this to others?
Absolutely! You have your whole degree to do readings and write essays, but it's not often that you get to practice tangible skills outside of that, and be involved in organisations that are contributing in such a big way. I also think that it is vital to stay in touch with the world outside of the library, and opting into one of these papers means that you have no other choice, regardless of how busy the assignment schedule feels.
8. What has being your biggest learning outcome so far?
I wouldn't say I'm at the "outcome" stage yet, as this is something I am constantly thinking about, but working with Virtuoso Strings has definitely forced me to reflect on the role of action within anthropology. We are constantly talking about the purpose of anthropology in class, and how we see ourselves fitting into that. Theoretically, it's easy for me to engage in conversations about the risks of "doing," and how we shouldn't necessarily give ourselves the authority to create changes. But then I go out to Porirua, or Liz gives me a call, and I realise that all talk aside, she still needs help supporting her community. So for me, I'm facing up to the fact that being paralysed by the fear of overstepping or causing harm isn't helpful to anyone. Instead, the best I can do is support the platforms of others that I trust to do the best for their own communities.
9. What are you working on right now?
We are actually in the midst of organising a trip to Auckland for the orchestra. The trip is based around two concerts, and we really want to have a big audience so the students can experience excelling on a national stage. So please, if you're in Auckland on the 13th or 14th of July, go along! It'll be an absolutely amazing concert, with performances from Ria Hall, Lisa Tomlins and Win Baxter, three fantastic New Zealand musicians.
Here are the details for each concert:
It's not often that we can just show up to things and actually make a difference, but attending this and making sure the students know that people in wider New Zealand believe in them is very important. So please tell everyone you know in the area about the concert, and motivate them to go.
10. How can others help Virtuoso Strings?
Virtuoso Strings needs financial support to make the trip happen. We didn't get some expected funding, so we are currently raising all of the money ourselves (which is a lot, considering the orchestra is taking over 40 children to Auckland and providing transport, food, accommodation etc for free of charge).
We have a fundraising page here: https://www.boosted.org.nz/projects/virtuoso-strings-orchestra
If we don't reach the $2000 mark, Virtuoso Strings doesn't get any of the money raised so far. If you believe that every child in New Zealand deserves the chance to excel on a public stage, if you support NGOs that actually practice community values and achieve holistic progress, if you want to take a tiny piece of action to make the world a fairer place, please consider donating. Even $5 makes a difference!