Symphony For Life Diary


Written by: Christopher Nicholls

A small group of people is building in Australia an inspiring and ambitious music program, influenced by the “El Sistema” model – the Venezuelan phenomenon that has spread around the world. Children attend after school workshops for two or three hours three times a week. They learn orchestral instruments and very soon form an orchestra and a choir of about 60 musicians. They are well taught by skilled teaching artists and soon reap the personal and academic benefits of music education as revealed by the research.

But the program has objectives that go beyond the musical. It is intended to build community and social cohesion and lead to wider life and career success for the participants. By preference, it will be offered in disadvantaged communities many of which, in Australia are often very diverse culturally. The Symphony for Life Foundation will begin by building a program in Western Sydney, but its intention is to support communities across Australia to set up programs so that there is national impact.

Loudmouth in each issue will publish a Symphony for Life Diary, reporting on the objectives pursued, obstacles faced, feats accomplished. It will be written by Christopher Nicholls, the founder and CEO of the program.

Symphony For Life diary: Entry #12

What’s happening in Holroyd?

Something pretty incredible is happening out at Holroyd High School. This is the school community where one of our programs is about to commence. in Greystanes in the Western suburbs of Sydney. As you may recall from previous dairy entries, Symphony For Life Foundation has been conducting a rather lengthy community engagement process within the Western Sydney community.

It almost seems like there’s something in the water there. You may also recall the wonderful story of Achel in a previous Diary entry – the self-taught saxophonist/clarinettist that we mentored, taught and assisted.

Holroyd HS is an island of hope in a sea of difficulty from areas of quite severe disparity and disadvantage. The extraordinary teaching and administrative staff led by the redoubtable Dorothy Hoddinott AO. For the past 22 years, Dorothy Hoddinott has been the principal of Holroyd High in western Sydney, where she has guided hundreds of refugee and asylum-seeking children, many of them having arrived on refugee boats before the Australian Government ‘stopped the boats’. In 2014 Dorothy Hoddinott was awarded the 2014 Australian Human Rights Medal, for her wonderful work and commitment to helping these young people to become model citizens in Australia.

Terry’s story

It’s through her commitment to the children in their care, that amazing things can arise. And none more amazing perhaps than the story of Terry Maelaua, a 17 year-old from the Solomon Islands. Terry was drawn to our attention by Dorothy Hoddinott as a remarkable young man with a passion for music. He’s also self-taught… He taught himself to play the piano, by googling it – mainly from lessons in piano available on YouTube. Something he shares with Achel!

Symphony For LIfe founder John Hibbard and student Terry Maelaua

John Hibbard, our Director of Programs, was introduced to Terry, because unfortunately, Terry can’t read music; he learns it by ear and with a few apps on his smart-phone.

John’s been helping Terry with his playing and introducing him to formal music and musicality; in addition, The Sydney Conservatorium of Music has now taken him under their wing in the Open Music program they offer young high-school age musicians.

The SBS heard about the work we were doing in Symphony For Life Foundation, wanted to do a story on us, and were informed about this talented young man. Wonderfully, they created a special news report around Terry, his family, the School and our work to date in the school.

As the SBS report stated, “Terry would spend hours imitating the fingers of pianists in videos, persisting until his version on the keyboard would sound identical to the professional on screen.”

When Terry was just 13, he and his parents moved from the Solomon Islands to Sydney to start a new life here, living in Parramatta.

It was though his church that Terry became fascinated with music and music-making – listening to the beautiful music coming from the church organ. So he became interested in the keyboard and specifically, the piano! His parents couldn’t afford private lessons but Terry borrowed a keyboard from his church and then taught himself how to play it. As the SBS report stated, “He almost spends most of his time playing keyboard,” his mother Leone said. “He can play keyboard from morning until late in the afternoon. He just sits there and plays.”

But without formal training, Terry is musically illiterate, he couldn’t read music, and it was that issue that Dorothy Hoddinott drew to our attention, hoping that we might be able to assist.

Music teach John Hibbard mentors Terry Maelaua through the Symphony for Life Foundation.

John Hibbard determined to help Terry bridge the musical gap and volunteered to mentor him this year through the auspices of the Symphony For Life community engagement at the Holroyd High School Community.


Over the past few months, John has helped Terry to develop an understanding of the basics of music, as well as worked to give him an appreciation for the history of music.

The classes have had a profound impact on Terry, and he was awarded a scholarship to undertake private lessons at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in their outreach program.

The last words go to Terry – “My dream is to a professional pianist one day and to make others think about playing the piano like me too.”

Symphony For Life continues its efforts in Western Sydney to transform the lives of its wonderful young people. And we will find more Terrys and Achels as we go forward into the programs being developed. Many more…

Well that’s where it’s all up to with Symphony For Life Foundation…

Onward and upwards!


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