Liz Sneyd has given up apologising for the mess in her suburban Wellington living room. It’s organised chaos – there’s only room for 16 violins on the wall, so the other five are just lying around. The corner is a jumble of violin cases. There are music stools, music stands and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf of music scores. You get the feeling the TV doesn’t get much of a look-in.
It’s the same chaos people sometimes see in her music and orchestra lessons. Kids laughing uproariously. Kids playing different pieces at once. Kids with hoodies down. Kids playing on couches; kids playing on the floor; kids playing in cardboard boxes.
There’s nothing textbook about Sneyd’s teaching methods. And that’s probably why she was named New Zealand’s inaugural Music Teacher of the Year.
The restless energy that courses through her hands and sends her waist-length blonde hair twitching increases tempo when she talks about the free orchestra she set up in 2013 for low-decile Porirua school pupils. She pulses with anger talking about the obstacles, the lack of faith, the struggle for sustainable funding.
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She was just declined a Lotteries grant on the basis the programme didn’t benefit the wider community. That really fired her up. Because every pupil has a story, like the bully and classroom menace who is now winning awards. And every pupil has a family. And every family lives in a community.
“I could never forgive myself if I stopped doing what I’m doing, because it’s the only job that I’ve ever done in my life where I feel that change is actually happening. I sat beside a computer for years – I added up people’s numbers. Did I actually do anything that was useful? No. Not a bloody thing that actually affected anybody’s life, and probably if it did it was in a negative way.”
Sneyd, 50, grew up in a music-steeped Dunedin family. Her grandfather and mother played violin. Her mum would ferry her across town to music lessons and knit in the corner while she played. Her dad would take her to concerts, which her mum would often be singing in.
Old instruments lay about the house ready to be discovered. Opportunity was everywhere. But it took Sneyd about 40 years to realise just how privileged that musical education was.
She describes herself as more plodder than prodigy. She was frustrated when she couldn’t play a G-major scale at first attempt, at the age of about six. But she loved it and persevered.
She didn’t play much orchestral music, because local orchestra rehearsals clashed with art class. So when she played her way into the National Youth Orchestra at 13 or 14, it was equal parts exhilaration and terror.
“I remember ringing up Mum on a payphone far away from home, saying ‘Mum, there’s this guy out the front that’s waving this stick, what do I do? How do I follow it?’ “
It’s one of the reasons she thinks orchestral experience and performance are so vital for her pupils – so they can absorb the skills gradually, without the terror.
Sneyd went on to play first violin in the Madison Symphony and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestras, while studying in the United States for a PhD in maths. People often talk about the parallels between music and maths, but for her one is an antidote to the other.
While analytically minded students often find it easier to learn to read music, that doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming great musicians, she says.
“It’s quite unrelated – processing information on a page, versus communicating an emotion via an instrument.”
For years, Sneyd earned a healthy salary working as a mathematician for government departments. Husband and professional musician Craig Utting would look after their five kids, bringing the babies into the car park to be breastfed, cooking dinner. In some ways it was easy, but she hated it.
“If you saw an idea or a different way of doing something, there was zero scope for showing any sort of creativity or initiative. I just found that oppressive in the extreme … I got so bored I felt like my soul was shrivelling up.”
So in 2006, she quit and the couple set up a music-teaching business, with a sideline of importing violins. It was partly “pure despair” and partly motivated by the fact their own kids – who were stroppy but loved music – kept being pronounced unteachable by other teachers. Sneyd figured if she could find a way to teach them, she could apply that to other people’s kids.
As time went on, and recession hit, they noticed their pupils all came from families wealthier than they were. And then Utting picked up a piano prodigy from Porirua.
“You realise you’re teaching a very small cross-section of society. Then you have students like Craig’s piano student, who have talent that just blows you away. And you think – something’s not right here. He’s going to have brothers and sisters and cousins and friends. And we’re teaching just the people that can afford to pay us.”
It started with 17 violins and two schools. Now the Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust and its orchestra boast 150-200 students at any one time. They have national tours and just played with Grammy Award-winning opera singer Jonathan Lemalu. Next year they will have three different orchestras.
Some schools have given amazing support, others shoved her in a room with broken furniture and half-eaten lunches. Others said she was wasting everybody’s time – these kids couldn’t learn; they had no exposure to classical music; they wouldn’t stick at it. It was that attitude that upset her the most.
“I have met many teachers who talk about students who are unteachable … I have never met a person, in my life, who cannot learn if they want to,” Sneyd says.
“That’s what I tell my prospective students. I love telling them that because I love watching their reactions. To a classroom of 8, 9, 10,11-year-olds I say ‘I’ve never met a person, in my life, who can’t learn to play the violin’. They look at me like – ‘Oh, come on, come on’.
“It’s a strangely empowering statement. It shouldn’t be, should it? That always shocks me, that they’re so surprised. So somewhere within themselves they’ve got this idea that they’re not good enough, able enough, whatever enough, to learn.”
It’s that faith in people’s abilities that Sneyd credits for the programme’s success. Sustained funding remains challenging, although they get support from Creative NZ, family foundations and community funders. Continually grovelling for money is stressful – she still stays up until midnight writing grant applications. In the perfect world, they’d get $500,000 core funding from government.
She earns half what she did as a government mathematician, but wouldn’t go back for anything. Not every student will stick it out, but it’s worth it to bring optimism and options to those who do. And not every student will become an international sensation – but being a great teacher is about understanding their goals, and giving them ways to achieve them, Sneyd says.
“You can’t expect the student to fit you as a teacher. As a teacher, you have to figure out the best way for the student to learn. I think that’s part of treating your students with respect, to have high expectations. Because students actually feel flattered if you expect a lot of them. If you expect a lot of a student, you’re showing you believe in them. And that’s the first step towards them believing in themselves. And once they believe in themselves, your final battle has been won.”