In an Interview, Dr Wendy M Dickson, founder and director of the Kiara Music Academy tells Ashwini Jaisim how her upcoming musical titled Tales as Old as Time is a “giving back” not just to society and its underprivileged members, but to God, the Giver of their gifts. She believes that God wants His people to be happy in their work, and in its own little ways Kiara has been able to do good work. The event is in aid of BOSCO Rainbow Home, a children’s charity, working in the space for girl children who continue to be victimised, ignored and ill-treated, especially in this country where their gender is under attack even in the womb. Excerpts:
What is Kiara all about?
The name KIARA is actually “chiaro” in Italian meaning “light”.
For me, that’s what any educational system should be about, not just bringing the light of knowledge, but also the light of the joy of learning, into whatever branch of learning it deals with.
How and why did you start a music academy?
I actually quit a job teaching a subject I used to love, and which I still do, Literature, because of the semester system. In my humble opinion, that system doesn’t do justice to or give one the scope for in-depth analysis and understanding of the subject. Literature, which is a subject to be deeply explored and savoured and absorbed as teaching and learning for life, was being reduced to merely representative components with the focus not on what it can give the student for life, but for how easily testable it is within the framework of an exam. I felt that with my own soul in danger of being stifled by the system there was not much joy left in it for me… and soon, that would trickle down to my students. My life’s philosophy has always been to do what I enjoy and believe in.
Music was, actually, my second love after Lit…I turned from Lit and took up music full time to be able to still find meaning in what I do for a living. I continued to teach Lit at the post-grad level for six more years only on the request of my management. I gave that up completely only in 2012 when Kiara was growing and needed me full time.
What is your philosophy with regard to education and musical education in particular?
I remember as a school girl, the subjects that I responded best to were the ones I found most related to the humanist aspects of life… history and its story of the doings of people and the effects of those doings on other people… geography and its connection between the earth and human life… Literature with its exploration of the human heart, its emotions and desires, its responses to beauty, to truth, to the world of Nature and the ideas of God and the infinite. The subjects I loved best were the ones that gave me those light-filled moments… those a-ha! moments which enlarged the soul with meaning.
Back then, Shakespeare and my poetry teacher could take me places that my maths teacher (and my algebra text in particular) could not. I loved those spaces that I inhabited within the pages of a poetry text, I found my soul touched to its depths only onstage, singing cantatas in the school choir, or essaying a role or character in a play. Numbers, equations, experiments in maths, physics, and chemistry put me to sleep… and I scraped through those subjects because I know I studied them with dislike bordering on disgust.
So, when I chose to teach, I chose a subject which I know illuminated my own soul first, and which I hoped, would do the same for the students whom I taught. When that felt threatened I quit…to design my own dreamscape. I knew that whatever learning was to take place at Kiara it had to be the kind that couldn’t be quantified by marks or grades in an exam. And so, Kiara is a place where children come to sing, to learn to harmonise, to learn to fall in love with an instrument and make it their own to enjoy, without being burdened by the pressure of exams and grades. I wanted kids to come to Kiara to escape from tests and exams and such like. Kids who come to us unable to sing two notes straight suddenly find themselves holding their own against three other voice parts, with nothing to quantify their achievement except the songs they sing, the parts they play, the sounds of music they create in freedom and peace.
As someone passionate about music and the arts how do you also carry out all the managerial and administrative requirements?
Well, it’s the part I like least about my job. I’m happiest teaching voice classes and conducting my choirs. I especially love my theatre arts class which allows me to fool around like a kid, playing roles which the children then learn to play. It’s so much fun being a love-sick mermaid one moment and a beast the next with my class enjoying my shenanigans as much as I do. Why would I want to spend valuable time poring over boring bank statements? Still, if accounts and paperwork and all the humdrum of administration is what I must do for those few precious hours of thorough enjoyment, then I guess I just do it.
Over these 12 years, I haven’t really run Kiara as a “business”. In someone else’s hands, perhaps it would now exist in a huge set up of several floors and departments, running like well-oiled machinery with a healthy bank balance to its credit. But that’s not what it’s all about to me. The admin stuff and the “sums” get done somehow, mostly badly, but that’s not my primary focus. I give that very little space. Happily, our Kiara kids and their parents don’t mind me and my foibles and we all muddle along happily together; and together we’ve pulled off some pretty impressive stuff onstage despite it… or perhaps because of it?
God meant us to be happy in our work, as He was, and I like to think that because we at Kiara keep our focus on the soul, our own and our kids’ – and not on our bank balance, we too have been able to do good work, and say, like He does in Genesis, “That’s good!”
Why did you choose Tales as your theme this year?
I love stories. I love hearing them, reading them and telling them. And I still love fairy tales; to me, they’re more about the real issues of life than a lot of so-called “real-life” stories are. I love the sweep of the fairytale, encompassing the worldly and the other worldly, the real and the imagined. Happily, ever since Snow White, which was the first Disney movie I watched, we have had that amazing company bring fairy tales to life on celluloid, with the most beautiful music scores. Now, thanks to the internet and the convenience of online purchasing of licensed scores from authorised publishers and distributors, we have been able to access this music in the form of medleys in beautiful arrangements and present them onstage. In Tales as Old as Time, we will bring medleys from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and also singles from Moana and Tangled to the stage, alongside contemporary classics like Sister Act, Footloose, Chicago and La La Land. We’ve got lots of lovely tales to tell our audience.
What was it like to work with 98 people? What has the journey been like?
A few more than that actually, and a lot more than that when you count technical teams, sponsorship teams, and a whole lot of other interactions. It’s always lots of very, very hard work and unstinting discipline. I’m a stickler for discipline: without it neither I nor my singers and actors could produce anything of worth or value. I’m demanding and unrelenting, and all my performers know and accept that. They also know that I do not ask them for what I am unwilling to give myself. Being mostly kids, they also have enough of a sense of discernment to know that when I am being tough it has nothing to do with them as persons but as performers. So, the journey through a production is always tough – for the performers and for me too.
The event is in aid of BOSCO Rainbow Home. Why did you choose this particular organisation to be the recipient of the proceeds from Tales?
I want to support a children’s charity. And I want, particularly, to do something for girl children who continue to be victimised, ignored and ill-treated, especially in this country where their gender is under attack even in the womb.
What message (if any) would you like to send out the community / people in general?
This city, this country, has been seeing some ugly and tough times recently: the killing and rape of little children where they ought to be safest, in their schools, and some even in their homes. The greed for money is at the root of so many social crimes. Free speech is threatened, the civic amenities are in a mess, bullying and beatings are the stuff of common social discourse now. Even as I answer your questions, I grieve for a young man I did not know as a person but only as a brilliant pianist, a stellar performer, whose life came to a sad and untimely close just a few days ago. We need to get back in touch with our souls, back in touch with who we’re meant to be, who the Creator God designed us to be, to merit again the term “human beings”.
Perhaps with our production and its themes of love, joy and faith in the seemingly impossible, we can do that, in a small way, for ourselves and for our audience.
Before every performance all of us pray together, we thank God for the talents He has given us, and we offer the performance back to Him as praise and thanksgiving.