“Hungarian conductor with a formidable European training, Bela de Csillery, was one of the most important music teachers to emerge from Britain during the post-war years … ”
When I was nine or ten, on Saturday mornings at the superb Kent Junior Music School, two expert violin teachers would attend my lesson—Gillian Sansom and her husband, Bela de Csillery. As well as violin and string orchestra, we sang in his Kodaly choir. The colours were terrific.
I’ve experienced music in a special and colourful way from an early age. As a child, I loved to play with my eyes shut—the Bb violin scale evoking stunning cascades of shiny, sparkling silver. It happens only when notes are in tune and flow.
I think I was the youngest there because I remember everyone else was much taller… but my memories are clouded with colour!
“Some of Bela de Csillery's techniques were based on (his teacher) Zoltan Kodly's highly successful choral method of training. At Kent Junior Music School - which included teachers of equal calibre to the London music colleges - and the Summer Music Schools at Benenden, de Csillery insisted on everyone singing in his choir … The results were stupendous…”
I now run a primary school program featuring oboe and electric guitar through Musica Viva in Schools. It focuses on the unique interplay between colour and music, sharing my experience—and that of many other synesthetes—with children around Australia. We call it Colours of Home, and it’s the most important thing I do.
We travelled 3,000 kilometres on our recent tour and played for 3,000 children—four of whom self-identified as synesthetes. Through sun and snow, we traversed the Snowy Mountains and the Hay Plain.
Synesthesia: Not As Rare As You Think!
Synesthesia is an uncommon phenomenon, but not as rare as you might think. It’s hard to quantify, with estimates sitting at around 4% of the population. These numbers are likely skewed low because people don’t talk about the experience enough. When synesthetes do come together, it’s very exciting. Everyone is so passionate!
I kept quiet about my synesthesia for decades after experiencing bullying in high school. That’s why I’m doing this program now—to encourage children to take pride in their differences. Drawing on my personal experience and time at Kent Junior Music School, synesthesia is strongest at ages five to twelve. That’s why our primary school focus is so important.
In fact, I believe Bela de Csillery’s teachings may have encouraged more synesthesia in those early days, and with Colours of Home, I’d like to do the same. By sharing ‘tools’ to make music, we open up opportunities to discuss emotions and sensations associated with hearing and playing. And we all have a lot of fun!
As my guitar colleague Caspar Hawksley explains, kids don’t have to be synesthetes to enjoy the show—it’s designed for everyone. And everyone has feelings and enjoys music.
Colour, Mood, and Place
The kids love it when they choose a colour, explain how they feel about it, and together we make up a piece on the spot, following audience input. How can we change from sadness to excitement? Can you show us with your hands, how jealous might look? What shall we do for calm music?
(On that note, you can read about our Federal Government-funded RISE residency in Mount Gambier here!)
In our show, we have music inspired by special places by fellow synesthete, Sally Whitwell. Sally’s work describes changing landscapes through the train windows of her daily commute.
Musica Viva specially commissioned one piece, Aqueous, from Torres Strait Islander composer, Will Kepa. Will’s special place feeling describes the beach and sailing a traditional boat out to sea. Will sought permission from the Elders of his community for me to teach their traditional movements. It’s a lovely, relaxed piece, and an honour to be involved in spreading this cultural awareness.
Together, these musical experiences form a solid foundation for emotional exploration, building confidence and independence while celebrating diversity.
The Power of Musical Education
Colours of Home is part of Musica Viva’s nationwide suite of education concerts, created with unique themes that engage diverse flavours and connect with online educational resources. Each group tours a given area at a certain time, and schools can apply to participate in the scheme. You can find out more here.
Sharing indigenous culture and accessing children’s imaginations at the same age when I encountered my mentor, Bela de Csillery, is an honour. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a time when enthusiasm, imagination, and vibrancy of colour are at their highest.
By engaging children at this pivotal time and giving them the tools to independently create and enjoy music, we can inspire more creativity, passion, and potentially more synesthesia! Our upcoming Colours of Home tours will be in South Australia—our own special place.