Violin Volunteering in Uganda | By Rachel Ellis


I arrived in Kampala on 20th January 2017, 6 years to the day since my husband died. Over those 6 years I had continued and built up my work as a violinist, teaching and performing in and around my home town of Horsham in West Sussex.

I was enormously blessed to have incredible practical and emotional support from both my church and musical communities, who helped and encouraged me to bring up my two daughters (Charlotte and Katy, now 22 and 20) as a single mother, and find increasing joy and stimulation in a wonderful variety of musical work.

In September 2015 with my 50th birthday approaching, and my girls becoming more and more independent, I began to wonder if there was anything new on the horizon….Perhaps a way for me to extend the reach of my, by now, considerable experience both as a teacher and performer.

I had done a fair amount of travelling abroad in my teens and early twenties, with various youth and student orchestras and chamber groups, but I’d never seen myself as the traditional missionary sort, or had any great hankering to travel ‘just for the sake of it’; but when I heard that the Kampala Music School was keen to welcome string teachers in particular to visit for 6-12 month periods, my curiosity was aroused.

The first step in finding out more was to visit Graham and Fiona Carr in their home near Oxford. They had lived in Kampala with a young family in the 1960s and 70s and then again between 1995 and 2005. During their ‘second coming’, Fiona, who was a passionate and experienced piano accompanist and teacher, happened upon a particularly gifted cohort of young, aspiring musicians, and by a series of what she calls ‘God-things’, the Kampala Music School was created. It was wonderful to hear the stories of how they managed to find numerous pianos for donation and raise money to ship them here, and how the students ‘lapped-up’ the teaching like thirsty animals at an oasis, amazing Fiona and others with the speed of their learning and willingness to practise for many hours a day.

Now 15 years old, the music school is led by one of Fiona’s original talented pupils, Kiggundu Fred Musoke, who believes passionately in the power of music to enrich and transform lives. It is a well- researched and widely accepted fact that learning a musical instrument has huge educational benefits; improving levels of both literacy and numeracy in children, as well as boosting concentration and mental and emotional wellbeing in people of all ages.

So KMS now provides high quality instrumental tuition for people of all ages and stages. Lessons are offered at KMS premises (Kitante Close and Makindye) as well as in several schools and outreach centres. KMS has a mission that no talented student (or those with potential) will be turned away so funding is sought for a bursary programme. Several of the current KMS teachers and regular performers started out as bursary students and are now supporting themselves and their families. KMS also solicits funding to run programmes in orphanages to offer music lessons to needy and deprived students. On the string side of things – my area of expertise – I’ve been impressed by the work that some of the teachers have been doing with beginners and the early grades, especially considering their relative inexperience. The majority of my work has been in teaching the teachers – encouraging them in their own technical and musical development as well as sharing and discussing my approach and experiences of teaching. By the time I return to the UK at the end of June, it’s my hope and aim to have given my students enough repertoire, technical know-how, motivation and inspiration to sustain them as they work toward the next level for themselves, and the vision, experience and confidence to expect the highest possible standards from their pupils too.

Alongside my teaching, I’ve also enjoyed giving several concerts during my time here, the last of which will be on the 10th June in Makindye, and 17th June at KMS itself in Kitante Close (near Humura, off Yusuf Lule Road). These concert programmes will be a mixture of solos and ensembles, showcasing many of the players that I’ve been working with and promise to be wonderfully varied and entertaining. For more information please check the KMS Facebook page or contact KMS on +256773327414 (WhatsApp)    or 0773 131369. Raising funds to provide music lessons to needy students is not an easy task so if you want to support KMS in this work, please attend the concerts or consider making a donation to KMS.

In many ways the work I’ve been doing has felt very comfortable and familiar, despite being so far from home, friends and family; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. still sound the same, and violin playing joys and challenges are the same the world over. I’ve really enjoyed being warm all the time, no need for jumpers or woolly tights, and I’ve found both Ugandans and Expats equally welcoming and helpful in settling, finding my way around and feeling accepted and appreciated. Several of my students have asked me when I plan to return….. No concrete plans as yet, but I can’t quite imagine that I won’t keep the lovely connections and friendships I’ve made, especially as there are so many quick and easy ways to stay in touch these days.