Street music leads to a life-changing experience

Opinion: Letters To The Editor

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By John Rice

Never underestimate the power of a small weekly newspaper. Oak Park street musician Laura Osterlund said that a Wednesday Journal article  [From corner to concert hall Jan.2, 2013] triggered a "chain reaction" that led to her teaching music in South Africa. 

Laura just returned from the impoverished township of Hamburg, in East Cape, where she spent nine months teaching junior high and high school students the recorder and other instruments. As if the experience weren't life-changing enough, Laura was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died.

That day, she was teaching at the Keiskamma Trust Music Academy. The school is located in an AIDS-ravaged township, where residents live in shacks topped by corrugated tin roofs. They are subsistence farmers, who get by with little or no help from the government. 

"My students are very intelligent and have great talent," Laura said. "They were just born on the wrong continent."

Many of Laura's students were orphans being raised by grandparents. An entire generation of parents had been wiped out by AIDS. 

"My poor students didn't have stable homes," she lamented, "Many didn't know where they were going to sleep that night. Still, they were happy and thriving in their environment."

Laura was part of a team of four teachers, who took on over 100 students. She taught 60-70 students at a time, also conducted Saturday workshops and gave private lessons. 

"It was overwhelming," Laura recalled. "I was on call 24/7." 

Though she lived in a nice house that was 15 minutes from a breathtaking beach, she only visited the Indian Ocean three times. 

Her students never went to the beach. They are terrified of water. This is unfortunate because the residents could have turned their town into a fishing village. They herd cattle instead and sing a traditional song about how "The beauty of a man lies in his cattle." Cows are so prized, they're used for dowries. "The husband-to-be pays cows to marry a girl," Laura explained.

Unlike Americans, the students and their families are not individualistic. They live in a collective society where there are no "squeaky wheels." The uniformed students were respectful and very creative. They began each school day by singing "The Lord's Prayer," gospel-style. They could create songs on the spot and one of Laura's students took second in a regional competition. 

December 5, 2013 started out as a normal school day, until they got the news of Mandela's death. 

"We dropped everything," Laura recalled, "And had a program where we sang the South African national anthem and grandmothers spoke of the Apartheid days." After the funeral, Laura traveled to Johannesburg, where she saw giant billboards thanking "Madiba."

When it was time for her to leave South Africa, Laura's students were sorry to see her go. One of them cried. The experience was so profound, she said, "A new Laura was born." The 24 year-old plans on going to graduate school and continuing to teach. If money gets tight, though, you might find her playing her cello on the street. 

Meanwhile, the Keiskamma Trust in Hamburg, Eastern Cape can use your donations to keep bringing music education to the most vulnerable children. Laura said a $50 donation is "equal to $500 there." You can read about the Keiskamma trust schools at

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