Performing Arts

Youngsters find a promising market in a genre thought to be for the 'oldies'


From cellists to trumpeters, saxophonists and tubists, classical music is as much a scene for Gen Zs as it is for older generations. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Harmonies and arrangements, octaves and dynamics and Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies are scarcely the kind of subjects you would expect a member of Generation Z to talk about.

Orchestral music is associated with older folks with the assumption that they have a keener ear for music.

Is that true, though? Not quite true as BD Life has discovered.

Gen Z’s enjoy not only listening to this genre of music but playing it as well. From cellists to trumpeters, saxophonists and tubists, classical music is as much a scene for Gen Zs as it is for older generations.

Some like Michelle Oguya, a multi-instrumentalist who plays the violin, piano and cello are living off the craft.

Others like Tamara Wachira are breaking gender musical barriers to play the trumpet that has been played predominantly by men for generations.

To respond to the growing number of young enthusiasts, all major orchestras in Kenya have a youth category.

But what drew these young people to classical music when they could have settled for any other equally nourishing genre?

Michelle started playing in her church before joining her school’s band. At only 22, she has played for nearly all orchestras in the country, including the Kenya National Youth Orchestra and the Safaricom Youth Orchestra (SYO).

‘‘I currently play for the Nairobi Orchestra and for the International Women’s Orchestra,’’ says the cellist, who is a member of all orchestras in the country except two.

‘‘I was the concertmaster at SYO for about a year in 2018. I have since gone back to the KNYO where I am a leader. My friends and I started the Strathmore Orchestra,’’ she recounts.

For Michelle, playing the cello is reflective. ‘‘With every piece that you play, you gift a part of yourself to the world. Music allows me to express who I am in ways I could not without it.’’

By playing for different orchestras, she says she is more disciplined, which translates to other aspects of her life. ‘‘It is only through discipline that you transition from an average player to a refined one.’’

Nick Rigobert, 20, has played the French horn for five years now, having first developed an interest in high school.

‘‘The school band was recruiting members. I went for the auditions hoping to learn the trombone. I was on it for a week but realised it was not as exciting.’’

He opted to change to the horn. The choice would become a love story, starting slowly and blossoming over time. Today, the two are inseparable.


When he tried the horn for the first time, no one believed he would stick along for long. ‘

‘My fellow band members thought that I would just be another person to successfully fail at it. This made my journey to learn it even more interesting.’’

He says the French horn is one of the hardest brass instruments to learn because of its wide playing range. ‘‘It has close to four octaves.’’

The commerce student at Strathmore Business School currently plays with the Nairobi Orchestra and the Kenya Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra.


John Mwangi, 24, plays the alto saxophone and is a member of the Symphony Orchestra. FILE PHOTO | POOL

He adds: ‘‘It looks odd at first glance. But as soon as you hear its sound, it is difficult to not like it.’’

What specifically does he like about this instrument? ‘‘The horn has a soft, mellow sound. It works wonderfully as a bridge to the other orchestral instruments. This is why it is loved by many composers.’’

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To learn the playing techniques and to avoid failing, he would spend hours watching videos on YouTube. Six months later, he got his first breakthrough. ‘‘I got the chance to be part of the SYO. I have never looked back.’’

‘‘The horn tests your patience and endurance like no other musical instrument. The results, though, are worthwhile,’’ he adds.

Everyone in Tamara Wachira’s school associated her with the orchestra, the choir and the music room. It was her ‘‘happy place’’ then and now. ‘‘Classical music is therapy to me,’’ she says.

Her love for classical music, though, occurred by happenstance. A visiting brass band was playing at her church, the Holy Family Basilica. The timbre of the trumpet tugged at an intimate part of her.

‘‘I enjoyed its nice, warm and vibrant sound. Among the instruments they were playing, the trumpet stood out for me,’’ Tamara, 19, narrates.

The band would later introduce her and others to classical music, which she has continued to learn. ‘


Nick Rigobert, 20, plays the French horn. Nick, is a member of the Nairobi Orchestra and has previously played for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra. FILE PHOTO | POOL

‘I still have a lot of things I need to build on to perfect my skill,’’ says the first-year political science student at the Multimedia University.

Like her peers, only music gives her ‘‘genuine joy.’’ Through music, she says she has created memories and networks with the ‘‘most amazing people.’’

‘‘The feeling of meeting your fellow instrumentalists and creating a connection is like no other,’’ she adds.

So, what does the instrument say about her? ‘‘I am unpredictable. I thrive in challenges and learn from them.’’

Tamara is also fearless and ‘‘strives to break into male-dominated spaces.’’ Findings of multiple surveys show that 97 percent of trumpet players globally are men.

She plays a minimum of 10 hours every week, especially when school is in session. On balancing school and music, she says strict planning and discipline are critical.


Tamara Wachira, 19, plays the trumpet and is a member of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music. FILE PHOTO | POOL

‘‘Whenever my classes end early, I head home to practice for at least an hour. Sometimes I practice before leaving the house especially when my classes are in the afternoon,’’ she says, adding that Saturday is ‘‘solely for orchestra and music.’’

On days she has failed to meet her weekly hour targets, she wakes up early to practice.

‘‘I have always loved music, especially the technical aspects of it, that is the harmonies and arrangements. There is something satisfying when a piece of music comes together and sounds as it should.’’

Any plans to major in music? ‘‘It might not be now. But eventually.’’

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Like Nick, John Mwangi took up classical music in high school. At the time, his inspiration to play the alto saxophone was ‘‘just to get good grades.’’

As he went along, the instrument grew on him. He narrates: ‘‘Soon I discovered its benefits. My memory improved. I also started to feel calmer in tense situations.’’ He had found a ‘‘peaceful escape’’ in the saxophone.

The 24-year-old student at Key Montessori College is playing for entirely different reasons now. ‘‘What inspires me is the value of universality that the saxophone brings. I can apply it in every aspect of my life.’’


Michelle Oguya, a violin and cello player since her teen years is a member of several orchestras in Kenya. PHOTO | POOL

Of the lessons he has picked from playing classical music, simplicity overrides all else.

‘‘Beethoven’s fifth symphony, for example, is a piece that sends chills down your spine, yet it is a simple piece. If you break it down, it is just different notes being played over and over. The beauty is in how Beethoven ingeniously develops his melody with those two seemingly simple notes,’’ he says.

He adds: ‘‘Through repetition and development, beautiful melodies can be created.’’

Heavy investment

Like all musical instruments, playing the saxophone too can be challenging. But finding a good instrument is the first challenge.

‘‘The best quality saxes are expensive. There are cheaper ones in the market, but the sound quality is poor,’’ says he, adding that so far he has invested more than Sh100,000 in his music.

Then there is the time investment. John alludes to the 10,000-hour rule.

‘‘There is no instant gratification. Even with a good-quality saxophone, it takes a lot of time and effort to attain the right tones. Nothing exposes your laziness more than a musical instrument.’’

For him, the driving force is the growth of the popularity of classical music in Kenya in recent years, and the demand for artists. ‘The market is promising.’’

Support from family and friends has kept him going.

‘‘Music was my favourite subject in high school. It was, therefore, easy to convince my parents to allow me to pursue it as a career. I do not take their support for granted.’’

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