In the quiet Kampala suburb of Lungujja is The Organ Academy (TOA), a facility dedicated to promoting classical and contemporary music in Uganda.
During a visit on this bright afternoon, I am greeted by a scene of about 20 youngsters practicing on the organ, piano, violin, clarinet and viola, among others. They are members of the TOA chorale and orchestra and are rehearsing ahead of their upcoming Christmas carols performance this weekend on January 8 at Namirembe cathedral.
It will be the chorale and orchestra’s second carols after last year’s maiden performance. For 15-year-old Daniel Kato, a violin player, his favourite classical composer is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Lionel Lumu (14) plays the recorder and his is Johann Sebastian Bach. The facility is a 15-minute walking distance from Namirembe cathedral, whose choir forms the backbone of TOA’s array of talented young performers.
Like so many young ones, they have a dream one day to perform masterpieces of their favourite composers at a global grand stage and emulate Ugandan classical music legends such as Michaiah Mukiibi, Samuel Kimuli, Paul Luggya and Patrick Kabanda, among others. TOA may be dominated by Namirembe’s musically-exposed choristers but surprisingly, getting a spot at TOA, with its sophistication, is not that tough.
Students are allowed to start from scratch. They are introduced to basics and with time are able to grasp complex musical pieces. Thanks to expert musical training, the young boys and girls at TOA have a realistic chance of achieving this lofty goal. And if the dream does not come to fruition – which it won’t for many of them – the young ones are being trained in the idea that success in life does not mean just music glory.
“It’s possible that not everyone may make it as a classical music performer or composer, but classical music is cerebral, involving intelligence rather than emotions or instinct. So, we groom them to succeed in real life,” Kimuli, the founder of TOA and head of the academy, tells The Observer.
“Above all, TOA is about nurturing music talents, our training approach also focuses on providing a solid backbone to our learners, a platform to reach their audiences, showcase their abilities and skills, as well as opening up numerous avenues and opportunities for them to express themselves, excel and thrive in various aspects of music settings.”
Kimuli says they encourage learning and playing of instrument as a belief that it teaches some of the most important life skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and many others, which translate into success in all areas of life.
“That, plus a professional approach and understanding of any trade in general, is a springboard to succeeding in life. We are grooming model people for emerging Uganda. We have boys and girls who had no idea of classical music but are making great strides. They came to TOA and didn’t even know how to read staff notation.”
It’s amazing. Since the first intake in 2020, TOA currently has about 70 students. Kimuli, who is based in the UK, and is already impressed
with the impact it has had.
“Honestly, I dreamt of starting TOA on just mere passion and commitment. And with the support from the Royal College of Organists, we have been able to mobilize instruments and even hold masterclasses conducted by international stars,” he says.
Incredibly, Kimuli says TOA is not funded but derives its His vision is shared by the academy’s other tutors: to give back to society what classical music has given to them. One is Paul Luggya, an organ tutor and TOA’s head of studies. Luggya rose from humble roots as a chorister at Namirembe cathedral choir to traverse the globe to perform in some of the major cathedrals in the world.
“We are keen to open doors to people passionate in pursuing a career in music by providing a unique and personalized method of learning, creating an environment to nurture, educate and encourage creative individuals to achieve the highest level of success. It is also important to note that every student studies at their own pace. It is not a competition. If one prefers to study once a week, that’s OK,” he says.
CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR EDUCATION
It is ironic many Ugandans see classical music as very complex to understand and associate it with the affluent and expatriates. That may be true to some extent, but at TOA, there is an opportunity for everyone aged from eight years to 25 years to start from nothing. Incredibly, the cost of this stellar classical music education is almost charitable.
“We want to attract as many people to classical music as possible. We want to debunk the stereotype that it is hard to learn and expensive because all it takes is passion, dedication and discipline,” says John Ssekibaala, a choral tutor and TOA coordinator.
Already, one of TOA’s standouts is organist Annabel Cynthia Nakalema. It is almost unheard of for a young Ugandan lady to play the organ, but Nakalema was greatly impacted by TOA’s emergence under the tutoring of Kimuli to pass with a as well as the masterclasses by Dr Robin Harrison to pass with distinction the internationally acclaimed Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) organ exams in July, 2022.
At TOA, the mere sight of several youngsters seamlessly playing instruments goes a long way to show how anyone can make it as a classical musician. For 18-year-old David Mubiru, TOA is a life-changing opportunity. He says TOA has given him the perfect platform to pursue his dream.
“I was a piano player before TOA came up but thanks to my tutors, I can now play the organ and have also been given other responsibilities to groom young ones,” he says.
At TOA, the gates lead to one of the best music facilities in the country. According to Francis Muteesasira, a choral tutor and TOA’s Choral Studies Leader, when the students arrive, excited and full of aspiration, most have only ever sung classical music but never played any instrument.
“It’s a major shift,” he says. “It is a whole new experience because they get access to instruments they’ve only heard before, a personal tutor and a raft of classic music pieces.”
Notably, the students are polite: every time they are given instructions by their tutors, they nod their heads earnestly. As Daniel Seninde Kaggwa, a piano, choral and organ tutor, explains, TOA is not out to create an alternative form of learning. Here, students are encouraged to pursue academics first, music second.
“We are out to complement our student’s education with hands-on music knowledge. The students know that much as classical music is important, academics come first,” he says.
“It is also important to note that classical music may not transform the entertainment sector but it provides the highest form of musical knowledge that can allow someone to diversify into other genres smoothly.”
Nearly all students are on course to achieve ABRSM certification. According to Kimuli, many of the students are on course to attain a professionally recognized qualification at the highest level, with some of the world’s well known accredited colleges and organisation, such as the ‘Royal College of Organists’.
TOA is a one-of-a-kind musical establishment due to the variety of instruments on offer for classic music students. At the facility is a recording studio, five acoustic pianos, a digital piano and a midi-keyboard.
There are also four organs and two manuals (musical keyboards) as well as several flutes, violins, trumpets and guitars. The facility can accommodate 15 students at a time and according to Kimuli, plans are underway to bring in more instruments such as saxophones soon.
All this positions TOA to become the ideal classical music dream home.