As appearing in B’Jazz magazine’s 3rd issue

Felicia Lesch and SU Big Band
Felicia Lesch and SU Big Band

It’s an idle afternoon in the Stellenbosch Conservatory and I find myself milling about a long hallway. On its walls are the serious and haunting black & white stares of the classical masters – overseers of this department’s purpose – the preservation and tuition of classical music. As I pass the practice rooms, I hear a number of differing idioms finding a voice behind anonymous wooden doors. There is a fugue being played in one section of the corridor, while elsewhere I hear the ornamented hum of an organ doing Bach. Nearer still, I hear the distinct syncopation of someone practicing a ii-V-I chord progression, the most rudimentary sequence in the language of jazz, also to be found in many a pop song. This person is swinging their 8th notes on a busted old piano. I think to myself somewhat sardonically, “How dare they?” as I check my phone for the time once more – five more minutes. I am killing time as I wait for my appointment with Felicia Lesch, course coordinator of the Stellenbosch University Certificate Programme (CP).

Felicia Conducting the Big Band
Felicia Conducting the Big Band

The CP is a bridging course in music and outreach activity aimed at providing tuition to previously disadvantaged students who were unable to take music as a school subject. Under Felicia’s direction, the CP has grown to include satellite campuses, such as the campuses in Caledon and at the Army Base in Youngsfield, Wynberg. Several significant community partnerships have also been established with among others, the Elgin Learning Foundation (ELF), Mitchells Plain Academy of Music and the Arts (MPAMA) and the Athlone Academy of Music. Many of its functions are subsidised by the willing support of bodies like SAMRO and Graham Beck and not directly by the University, since their funding only accommodates courses which are presented at NQF level 5. It is with this in mind that the CP functions as a product of the support of arts patrons and not solely on the tuition fees of its students (many of whom at the end of the financial year are unable to cover their financial obligations). Where it relates to fundraising, the CP’s expenses are supplemented by money raised at live concert occasions – where members of the public are enticed to attend a warm presentation of the good work that is cultivated at grass roots level.

Felicia Conducting the National School's Big Band
Felicia Conducting the National School’s Big Band

The CP’s ultimate goal is to facilitate the learning of the fundamental principles of music, with the aim of creating access to the Bachelor of Music (B. Mus) degree programme. Its secondary objective is to cultivate holistic career musicians and one of its many other objectives, is to introduce jazz improvisation as a recognised course of study at Stellenbosch University.

Since Felicia’s arrival as course coordinator in 2003, the CP has grown in leaps and bounds – each year acquiring a new intake of keen students of music, all of whom receive a firm grounding in classical music education enabling them to study further. They each study theory, history, practical and aural studies and will no doubt learn the imperative skill of reading music. The latter in many instances is a sure fire way of ensuring both future employment and the creation of countless more opportunities. The role of classical music as a basis upon which any further study is warranted is a given, noted that many of the world’s most pioneering artists were at some point scholars of the greats – scholars of impeccable technique, form and composition. Keeping in mind that it is the student’s own personal development which is of paramount importance. While some of the CP’s students bring with them an insatiable love for classical, others are interested in gospel and contemporary music; having grown up on these forms – and others furthermore, enrol for the sole purpose of learning how to play jazz. The latter is a study on personal and social development all its own, upon which much of this discussion is based.

Felicia and Students
Felicia and Students

In the foyer on the second floor of the building, stuck up on a large window that runs along the length of the wall; is a series of bright yellow and green cardboard posters – an incentive initiated by the Arts & Social Sciences Student Committee, aimed at providing feedback to the powers that be. On one of them a question is jotted, “What upsets you about this department?” Scribbled in large, bold lettering beneath it stands, “We NEED MORE JAZZ!” – followed by another student’s cheeky pro-classical response, reminding the reader that such progressive notions shan’t be tolerated.

Come what may, the tuition of jazz has steadily made headway in the historically conservative Stellenbosch landscape – thanks to Felicia and her staff’s passion for it. As jazz garnered more of an interest sometime in the 90s, she was urged by some of her students to branch out into jazz education (herself a graduate of UCT’s classical music programme); resulting in an annual trip to the National Youth Jazz Festival in Grahamstown, where students are exposed to in a large degree, the various facets of jazz in its entirety. The CP has since established an ever evolving jazz big band (which won the National Ensemble Competition in 2012) and a smaller ‘gig’ band (which won the jazz category at the National Ensemble Competition in 2013). Clearly, jazz is on the up.

Such growth however, does not come with little opposition. Not all parties are keen on the development of jazz as a relevant course of study – claiming it a form of ‘light’ or ‘party’ music and fearing that its admission to the University may cripple the legacy and conservation of ‘art music’. Crediting jazz with compromising straight rhythm in favour of syncopation and the emphasis on beats two and four in a given measure is often the opinion of the resistance.

Felicia cites fear and ignorance as some of the defining hurdles standing in the face of introducing a course in improvisation to the department:

“Classical music complements jazz – if people were braver, they’d understand. It makes sense that music gives a voice to the disenfranchised and makes meaning of life.”

Improvisation as a core attribute of jazz, is not particularly exemplified in traditional classical music training – but has been found to create a liberal sense of self-discovery in many of the CP’s students, even those who in addition to their B. Mus studies enrol for the more jazz-centric modules offered. This is continually noted in bi-annual observational interviews, where a number of students’ demeanours and self-views have been found to change for the better – an inextricable link to the CP’s ongoing goal to use music (generic use and not genre specific) as a motivation for social reform. Where it affects jazz, the link is intrinsically expressive – an offshoot of the grounding of classical music, combined with the intuition based pre-occupation most prevalent in jazz. The act of separating a student’s utter reliance on written sheet music becomes a staple of the almost guttural manifestation of an engrained or newly discovered voice – that of the creative musician, executing a well crafted improvisation. After all, the work of the greats were executions of the same nature – the difference is simply that their works were not then limited by clear-cut labels, as many of the avant-garde or ‘progressive’ or even jazz sub-genres are labelled now.

Felicia credits the CP’s lecturers Inge Engelbrecht, Lynette Petersen, Karin Maritz, Pamela Kierman, Cheryl George, Alistair Mcdonald and the countless others who work tirelessly towards the same goal, as the driving force behind the CP’s success – that of enabling young musicians with the tools necessary to live out their dreams. The development of jazz at Stellenbosch University is simply one step closer to the unveiling of that goal, a goal I surmise is no less challenging than the act of unhinging the learned opinion (in conservative circles) of what jazz is thought to be, and the learning about what it actually is – freedom of expression.

To find out more about the CP or how you can assist, contact

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