Making classical music accessible to everyone

Hayden Afele Nickel, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumnus, is the winner of the Iosefa Enari Memorial Award. Hayden hopes to use this award to teach and inspire the next generation of Māori and Pasifika musicians.

A man demonstrating how to use a violin to a group of children.

When violinist Hayden Afele-Nickel got a call from Creative New Zealand saying he’d won a major award, he told them he’d call them back. He had a kids’ music lesson to teach, after all.

Hayden, a Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumnus, was recently announced as the winner of the Iosefa Enari Memorial Award for an emerging Pasifika classical musician at the 2023 Arts Pasifika Awards in recognition of his work making orchestral music education more accessible to children across Wellington.

He has a conjoint degree—a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Education and Psychology, and a Bachelor of Music with First Class Honours in Classical Performance from Te Kōkī—New Zealand School of Music. Alongside his work performing regularly with groups such as Orchestra Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Orchestra, Hayden is the artistic director and a senior tutor at Arohanui Strings, a Lower Hutt-based music education charity. Arohanui Strings is based on the El Sistema programme, which aims to help children in high deprivation neighbourhoods reach their full potential through group music lessons. Since Arohanui Strings was founded in 2010, at least 4000 children in some of the region’s most economically challenged communities have received musical instruction through its programmes.

Hayden got into the violin at a very young age, completely by chance. “My older sister has autism and Down syndrome, and my parents wanted to let her try music so that she could express herself in a way that wasn’t verbal. I just happened to get dragged along to these lessons and my parents noticed that the violin was the instrument I kept trying to snatch off my sister,” he explains. “The second stroke of luck was that a violin teacher called Heather Miller would come to my school in Naenae and take children for Suzuki method lessons, so my parents signed me up for those. And then my family was approached by a lovely older couple who saw me play at church and wanted to pay for my lessons. It was a series of what I call lucky stars that lined up to get me started out.”

He continued learning the violin through high school, but it was a gap year in Europe that really cemented Hayden’s desire to turn his love for the instrument into a career.

“It was never my ambition to become a musician—violin was always just something I enjoyed and was good at. I went to Germany on a gap year after finishing high school, and was busking in the streets and really loving being immersed in this place which had played such a crucial part in the development of the violin as an art form,” says Hayden. “It was this time away from my academic journey that allowed me to sit down and really think about what actually spoke to me as a person. I was being exposed to so many new people in a language that was fresh to me—music was a way of communicating and understanding people when the words failed. So I just knew: I loved music and I was ready to commit to it.”

Returning to Aotearoa, Hayden embarked on a music degree at Te Kōkī alongside a BA in Education and Psychology. While at university he volunteered for Arohanui Strings’ holiday programmes, and in his final year of study was asked by the organisation’s programme leader Margaret Guldborg to join the teaching team.

“What I’ve ended up doing as a career is the perfect intersection of what I studied,” says Hayden. “I was able to understand myself and the style of teaching I liked best—I’m good at the group teaching format, so it’s great to be able to pursue that with Arohanui Strings.”

Hayden says he’ll be using some of the $7,500 prize money to investigate a new musical direction. “I’m branching out a bit from classical music towards electronic stuff, and I’ve recently got an electric violin. It’s quite a different way to make music, for me,” he says. “Classical music has been around for hundreds of years but it’s just a tiny part in the grand scheme of music as an art form. I would like violin to be seen as an instrument for making all music rather than just classical—that’s why I’m trying to pivot my teaching to help these children understand that they can play anything they want on any instrument they choose.”

Getting to know a lot of successful Pasifika artists has also been a beneficial side effect winning the award, says Hayden. “The networking has been a big advantage, but it’s a shame that these people making Pasifika-inspired classical music weren’t on my radar when I was growing up,” he explains. “They’re clearly out there, so I feel as though a lot more could be done in terms of making connections to ensure young, creative Māori and Pasifika people are inspired to continue on that pathway.”

Hayden sees his teaching work as a valuable way he can personally help bridge that gap. “Classical music is tricky as it is, and even harder to navigate and make a career of as a brown kid,” he says. “If my teaching can support and inspire the next generation of Māori and Pasifika musicians to achieve that, then I’m happy.”