Friday, June 6, 2014

The "right" way to support the arts

I wrote before about why I have been a supporter of the arts:
I have long believed that one of the ways to nurture youth is to give them a focus in their lives, whether it be music, sports or other pursuits. This is especially critical during their adolescent years as they start to form their own identities. It's one of the key reasons why I became involved with the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra Society. Participation in a VYSO orchestra teaches young musicians to focus on both their individual musical and orchestral skills. The latter is particularly important as many people can learn to play music, but a different skill is required when the conductor points to a section and have them all play the same sound at the same time. (That's why often school bands have "muddy" sounds - it's because they haven't learned orchestral skills.) It's much like the difference between learning to walk and learning to march in formation.
To reiterate, young people need a focus during their formative adolescent years. It teaches them to have be focused, disciplined and have a passion about something, whether it`s music, sports or some other pursuit.

To illustrate my point, I encountered this Bloomberg story about a group called Umculo reaching out to the youth in the shantytown just outside of Cape Town, South Africa in order teach them to sing opera (!)
Having never been to South Africa, I asked her to describe Kraaifontein.

“It’s a sprawling landscape where many of the shanties are cobbled together with scrap metal, cardboard, and salvaged wood,” she said. “Families of six or more often live in homes the size of an average suburban living-room.

‘‘One outdoor toilet is shared by dozens of families; washing, a habit scrupulously observed by all, is done in plastic buckets filled at a communal tap. After 20 years of democracy in South Africa, the poorest of the poor are no better off than they were under apartheid.’’

Yet the kids in the photographs are impressively neat, I said, comparing them to the slobs attending private schools in my Manhattan neighborhood.
Singing opera gives the kids a sense of purpose, according to the interview with Umculo founder Shirley Apthorp:
‘‘After rehearsal the other day, most young singers bounced eagerly off into the catering corner, but a teenaged boy and girl approached Catherine Milliken, our head of education, and asked if she would mind if they sang a duet from ‘‘Figaro’’ for her.

‘‘As Catherine picked out the notes on her portable electric keyboard, we heard an odd echo effect. There were, it transpired, four juvenile Figaros in the hall, and all of them wanted a chance to sing the role for Catherine.

‘‘Watching these tall boys, all with the self-conscious swagger of adolescence, some clutching plates of food, literally lining up for the chance to sing part of a Mozart opera with a visiting professional, I thought: If only my colleagues in international opera houses could see this!

‘‘Our little group cannot keep up with the immense hunger for opera that we find in young people. It is the reason I founded Umculo.’’
It gives them pride, discipline and hope:
‘‘They come to school in crisp, clean uniforms,’’ said Apthorp. ‘‘Appearance is a matter of great pride, and parents will do whatever it takes, even if they have nothing else, to make sure that their children have a decent uniform.

‘‘The school is ambitious, and maintains strict standards of discipline; at first glance, it would be easy to assume that these well-behaved youngsters come from middle-class homes.’’
Contributions to initiatives like these can go a long way. Think of it as an investment in human capital and global development. Apthorp echoed my sentiment about giving the kids a focus in their lives. In the case of Umculo, it also minimizes the physical dangers of living in a slum:
‘‘And it would help keep our singers safe from violence, rape and drugs, and help them steer through their critical high school years with a healthy vision, strong motivation and the social tools they need to make a positive contribution to their communities.
Some people support the arts because they like being patrons of the arts. I prefer to leverage the support I give to help the development of youth, as I did with the VYSO. In the case of  Umculo, it is also an investment in global development and human capital.

Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. (“Qwest”). The opinions and any recommendations expressed in the blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and recommendations of Qwest. Qwest reviews Mr. Hui’s blog to ensure it is connected with Mr. Hui’s obligation to deal fairly, honestly and in good faith with the blog’s readers.”

None of the information or opinions expressed in this blog constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or other instrument. Nothing in this blog constitutes investment advice and any recommendations that may be contained herein have not been based upon a consideration of the investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific recipient. Any purchase or sale activity in any securities or other instrument should be based upon your own analysis and conclusions. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Either Qwest or I may hold or control long or short positions in the securities or instruments mentioned.

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