From South Africa with Love

by Rob Knopper, percussionist

In March, while the MET Orchestra was performing Wozzeck, Werther, The Enchanted Island, and Prince Igor, Principal Trumpet Billy Hunter and trombonist Weston Sprott took on an additional project: hosting two student musicians from South Africa for ten days through a program that Weston inspired called the 10x10 Scholarship.

Weston Sprott

MET Orchestra

Instrument: Trombone

From: Houston, TX

Started Playing: Age 11

Billy Hunter

MET Orchestra

Instrument: Trumpet

From: Austin, TX

Started Playing: Age 11

Ryan Kierman

Cape Town University

Instrument: Trombone

From: Cape Town, South Africa

Started Playing: Age 7

Brandon Ruiters

Cape Town University

Instrument: Trumpet

From: Belhar, South Africa

Started Playing: Age 5

Q: So, where did you all meet?

Weston: Billy and I have been teaching for the past few years at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF), which is the only international chamber music festival on the entire continent of Africa. The students and community there rarely get the opportunity to hear concerts or take lessons from artists at the level of the MET Orchestra, so the level of appreciation and excitement is truly extraordinary. Also, many of the students come from very deprived backgrounds and third-world parts of the country. 

Q: What kind of poverty are we talking about here?

Weston: Last year, I brought a trombone student I met at the festival to visit and shadow me for 10 days during the holidays. This was the first time the student, Angus Petersen, had ever left his home country. He told me that when he was growing up, his family lived in one room with a roof that constantly leaked when it was raining. The closest bathroom was outside and down the road. In order to bathe, he had to get water from a well one bucket at a time, boil it, and wash himself from the bucket.

Left to Right: Weston Sprott, Wynton Marsalis, and Angus Petersen

Left to Right: Weston Sprott, Wynton Marsalis, and Angus Petersen

Q: Wow. So, what did he do while he was here?

Weston: For ten days, he came to every rehearsal and performance at the MET and took and observed private lessons. He also had the opportunity to meet Wynton Marsalis at one of Wynton's performances.

Q: Ryan and Brandon, how long have you been attending the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival?

Brandon: I've been coming to the festival since I was seventeen. It has been a huge part of my classical music upbringing. In fact, it's especially great to be here right now with Ryan, because I started trumpet studies with his dad, who was a huge influence on me. I don't think I'd be here right now if it weren't for Ryan's dad.

Ryan: Me neither! [laughs] I've been attending the festival since its inception, ten years ago. I'm even going back this summer!

Q: Weston, how did it come to pass that Ryan and Brandon could come to New York and shadow the two of you for two weeks?

Weston: The directors of the festival took note of the experience that I had with Angus and were able to raise funds to provide a similar opportunity for ten more students. At this summer's festival, it was announced that there would be a 10X10 Scholarship Program, which involves ten scholarships for ten students to shadow their mentor from the festival for ten days. The directors asked for faculty members to host these students and take them under their wing. Billy and I were two of the first to volunteer. This summer, Billy and I each selected a student we thought was deserving of such an award. 

Q: Brandon and Ryan, what are some particularly important experiences you've had in your time here?

Ryan: I’ve had lessons with Billy and Ray Mase [who is a faculty member at The Juilliard School], and there will be more lessons. Watching Wozzeck was profound because I’ve never heard an opera orchestra play at that level. It’s so unreal to us because we've seen it on YouTube, we've heard it on CDs, but while we were watching we’d look at each other and say, “Wow, did you hear that? Did you hear that?” I didn’t watch the opera that much because I was just listening to the orchestra. 

Brandon: You get to hear what the orchestra can do. I’ve also sat in on a lot of things: I observed ten or twelve lessons and a masterclass. I was just sitting and watching, and I felt exhausted - Weston’s busy!

Weston: They’ve also auditioned at schools while they were here. That was one of the goals - we tried to time their trip so it would be during audition season for conservatories and schools. 

From Left to Right: Billy Hunter, Ryan Kierman, New York Philharmonic Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi, Brandon Ruiters, and Weston Sprott

From Left to Right: Billy Hunter, Ryan Kierman, New York Philharmonic Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi, Brandon Ruiters, and Weston Sprott

Q: What do you hope to take home from your time in New York?

Ryan: The work ethic. The passion. When you think about these things objectively, you assume that these professionals work really hard. But when you actually see it and experience that level of work ethic, to be able to perform on a brilliant and consistent's definitely changed my mindset.

Brandon: In Africa, it's a little bit more of a laid-back atmosphere. Now I'm like a New Yorker - I don't walk slowly anymore. People are so driven to make a life here. The work ethic and the passion that I've found here - you could conquer the world with that.

Ryan: To expand on that, I would say that, musically, one major thing that I've noticed here is the extent to which everyone really listens. From what I've observed in Weston's lessons, everyone has a recording device, everyone's listening to every word in the lesson, everybody's working with a tuner and a metronome. It gives you an objective standpoint for how to work. For me, that is a pivotal step towards improvement.

Q: What else should we know about the festival?

Weston: Well, two summers ago Anthony McGill went to the festival, and performed two solos with the orchestra. Billy played the Second Brandenburg Concerto a couple of years ago. Last year I played a concerto with the orchestra, and the second half of the program featured Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a narrator. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Billy Hunter

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Billy Hunter

Q: Desmond Tutu?!

Weston: Yeah, Desmond Tutu.

Q: Did you get a chance to speak with the Archbishop?

A: Yes! He is a great man with a wonderful personality. He told me that the contributions we make to the lives of young people in South Africa is immeasurable. The impact of great musicians coming all the way from New York to work with and inspire them will linger in their hearts forever.

Weston Sprott soloing with the SICMF Orchestra

Weston Sprott soloing with the SICMF Orchestra