Taking the gift of music to Sri Lanka

Serendib, also spelled Serendip, Arabic Sarandīb, name for the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The name, Arabic in origin, was recorded in use at least as early as AD 361 and for a time gained considerable currency in the West. It is best known to speakers of English through the word serendipity, invented in the 18th century by the English man of letters Horace Walpole on the inspiration of a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes often made discoveries by chance.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica

On January 12 violinist Ursula Nelius will play with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra for a performance of Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute at the Sydney Opera House. The next day she flies to Sri Lanka to start the next chapter of her life, one in which serendipity plays quite a role.

Ursula Nelius

Ursula Nelius, founder and CEO of Serendip String Tuition

About two years ago she went on holiday to Sri Lanka. It was a chance destination – a friend suggested it and she agreed to go. She was there for just two and a half weeks but the effect was profound. “I fell in love with the place. Fell in love with the way I felt. I’d never felt like that in another country. I felt as if I’d come home,” she says. She loved the family-oriented society she saw and the value placed on education. Travelling and looking around, Nelius started to wonder what she might be able to do if she moved there; something that allowed her to give rather than take. The fact that on her last night in Sri Lanka she met the man who would become her partner was “the icing on the cake”.

Nelius was living back home in Sydney after graduate music studies in the US and a long period working in Munich – Nelius has German family connections although she describes her self as “fifth-generation Watsons Bay” – and was working as a freelance musician. She had auditions for more permanent positions “but was always the runner-up”. She wasn’t downcast, however. Everything happens for a reason, she thought.

After the Sri Lankan holiday Nelius went to visit her mother in Macksville where they happened to be watching the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program. Serendipitously it featured Buskaid, a South African organisation based in Soweto that helps young black musicians in the townships. Bingo! A little over a year ago Nelius returned to Sri Lanka for three weeks to gauge support for the idea of starting something similar in Galle, in the south-west of the country. She met people who knew people and doors started opening. “Every time I talk to somebody about it, whether it’s here or there, it’s ‘how can I help?’,” she says. Just the other day, for example, via others she made a good Sri Lankan contact in the person of the chairwoman of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, who invited Nelius to perform with it in February.

Out of all this passion – and networking – came Serendip String Tuition, of which Nelius is founder and CEO. The not-for-profit organisation will offer free tuition and instruments (concentrating on strings only) to underprivileged children, not expecting that they will become professional musicians (although some may) but that music will enrich their lives and the lives of those around them. Nelius says Eastern classical music as well as the Western tradition will be taught.

Ursula Nelius2

Ursula Nelius in Ambalantota, Sri Lanka

The planning doesn’t stop there. An Australian expat with whom Nelius is working in Sri Lanka suggested establishing a community centre with a library and café that could potentially be a source of funds and also a place for visiting teachers to stay; and Nelius envisages the possibility of an annual chamber music festival in Galle that would feature Australian musicians who could mentor the local children.

None of this happens simply by wishing it to be so. Not only does Nelius need to raise significant funds along with in-kind donations, she has had to navigate her way through the thickets of officialdom in two countries to have Serendip String Tuition registered as a charity in Australia and an NGO in Sri Lanka, the latter “an arduous process” in a country torn by war until relatively recently. As those wheels turn, Nelius has been busy with more grassroots work. She put the call out for donations of instruments, bows and teaching materials and so far has “two cellos, I got a second viola last night, there are umpteen million bows and 16 to 18 violins of different sizes”. (A group of “very generous” people has donated time to prepare the instruments and bows.) And on it goes. For instance, a little while ago Nelius contacted a whole raft of private schools in Sydney to see if their annual stocktake of instruments might yield something for Serendip String Tuition. She says the response has been positive. A double bass has eluded her so far and may have to be sourced in Sri Lanka.

On the micro-fundraising level, a friend’s children have pledged to donate their takings from Christmas busking to Serendip. Every bit helps.

Now it’s time to take that big step of moving to Galle. Steadfast, organised, determined and excited, Nelius says that although she knows it will be a struggle in the beginning, she hopes Serendip String Tuition will be doing its job within the year. She had the benefit of discovering music and its transformative powers when she was only four – she is now 45 – and would like to be able to look back “when I’m 80” and think she’s done something important with her life. “It’s never struck me that it’s not going to work,” she says. “How will I ever know if I don’t try?”

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