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March 25, 2014

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YCIS music man: Lighting up children’s love of music

THERE is no gene for musical ability, and success is 10 percent talent, and 90 percent hard work, according to Gary Sanderson, music director for Yew Chung International Schools (YCIS).

Children who don’t come from a “musical” family can absolutely develop strong musical ability, he told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview.

“Parents sometimes say they fear their children might not be good at music because they themselves didn’t have any training or ability,” said Sanderson, a British composer and teacher who has been with YCIS for 15 years, since 1999.

“There isn’t any evidence to suggest that’s the case, and I encourage all children to try music in many forms, to see what they enjoy most, and to develop some skills,” he said.

Sanderson was in Shanghai early this month to prepare for the YCIS “Seeds of Hope” charity concert on March 22 at Daning Theater. Around 370 students, parents and faculty played instruments, sang and danced to raise money to build a new school for children in need in rural China.

The performing students, aged 7-18, come from YCIS schools in Shanghai, Beijing, Qingdao, Chongqing, Hong Kong and Silicon Valley in California.

Sanderson explained that his own family wasn’t musical and said he fell in love with music in his early teens, “so musical talent can absolutely be developed.”

He graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London and worked as a composer and conductor in London for many years, for companies such as Polygram Records, BBC Television and Radio, and the Scottish National Opera.

Today he divides his time between YCIS Hong Kong and all YCIS schools on the Chinese mainland, overseeing the music program and conducting school orchestras.

Sanderson said he found his calling in developing music programs to teach children.

“If you are a composer, you spend all day sitting on your own, and it’s quite a lonely life. When you work with children, life gets busier and more interesting,” he said.

Throughout his 15 years’ at YCIS, Sanderson has helped develop the music curriculum and has launched many programs to help students embrace the arts, a pillar of the school’s philosophy.

One program developed by Sanderson is the YCIS violin program, in which all students from years 1-3 can study violin and also perform on stage.

The violin was Sanderson’s first instrument and it ignited his passion for music. He believes it can do the same for the students.

“The YCIS violin program is a key component of our students’ musical success,” said Sanderson, adding that it provides a good foundation for music learning.

Though it is a challenging instrument, playing it has many benefits, including learning to distinguish and appreciate tones and improving fine motor skills and coordination. Playing the violin also builds self-confidence, since children play not only in the classroom, but also on stage in concerts and in musicals.

Over the past 15 years, Sanderson has written and arranged many musical works for children, based on the principle that works should be artistically viable, accessible to children and possible to play.

It’s not always easy.

Sometimes students are so good that they can play the original version, but others need to play works that have been adjusted to suit younger children’s abilities.

“I have wondered, if I change a Mozart symphony such that our students will be able to play it, am I a philistine?” Sanderson said. Obviously not.

At YCIS, primary students take one or two general music lessons a week in which they learn to appreciate different kinds of music, play different instruments and do some composition. They can join various after-school music programs based on their interests.

Secondary school students study a range of instruments, compose original music, record their work in the on-campus recording studio, and take part in various performances, from orchestras to choral groups and the annual YCIS “battle of the bands.”

For Sanderson, the aim of the YCIS music program is very clear.

“The world of professional music is very difficult to get into, and though we have had many exceptionally talented students who now have very successful careers in music, our focus is on making music available to everyone.”

For all students, he said, “we want to light up their love of music and help them cultivate a hobby that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”


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