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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2012

Note-worthy: Von Haugg plants trees in Tanzania along with a love of music

Sometimes seeds that are planted take a long time to grow.

A Berne native, Michele Von Haugg, has made it her mission to plant trees on the other side of the world — in Tanzania. These are blackwood trees, known as mpingo in Swahili. The mpingo grows slowly, taking three decades to reach maturity.

Its wood is used, among other things, to make musical instruments, like the clarinet that Von Haugg plays and treasures.

Formerly a clarinetist with the Air Force Band, Von Haugg traveled to Tanzania two years ago with a dozen donated clarinets in her suitcase and taught native children to play. She plans to return again in May to teach more children and to plant more trees.

Von Haugg is raising awareness and funds this month for her Clarinets for Conservation project with two concerts — one in Guilderland and another in New Scotland. And she’ll also be teaching children at the Berne Elementary School, where she first learned to play the clarinet.

As a child, Von Haugg who is now 34 dreamed of being like Jane Goodall, the British primatologist who spent decades studying and living with chimpanzees in Tanzania. “I’d sit in a tree and talk to the squirrels,” she said. “I read all her books. Her spirit, her words, her worth brought me encouragement as a child…I didn’t have a good home life. She was my idol in every way. I wanted to be in the forests of Tanzania. I wanted to help protect and educate about our natural resources.”

Her senior year of high school, Von Haugg had what she called a “magical experience.” She accompanied a choir with a string group. “I never heard classical music before…It rocked my world,” she said.

She went to Schenectady County Community College with the idea of being a conservationist; she planned to go on and get a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. “I was paying for college on my own,” she said.

But she found a “phenomenal music staff” at the community college and went on, instead, to Ithaca College for a degree in music education.

Afterwards, she auditioned with the Air Force Band and spent the next decade touring — the first four on active duty and the last six with the Air National Guard Band.

She played in the concert band, with a chamber group, and with a clarinet quartet. Locally, she played at Proctor’s in Schenectady and at the Palace Theatre in Albany. “I had a lot of solo opportunities,” said Von Haugg.

She played everything from jazz and swing to classical music and marches.

The Air Force Band, Von Haugg said, serves a recruitment role as well as doing community outreach and education.

“The bands are the cheerleaders for the American armed forces,” she said.

She used her degree in music education, giving master classes for high-school bands as part of the chamber group, and giving master classes at colleges as part of the clarinet quartet.

Von Haugg went on to earn a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory. At the same time, she worked in outreach, reading with inner-city kids. “I started thinking about how to be a performer, an educator, and to be part of sustaining our Earth,” she said.

Seeds come to fruition

She was inspired by a film, The Tree That Makes Music, featuring Sebastian Chuwa, the head of the African Blackwood Conservation Project. The son of an herbalist and traditional doctor, Chuwa grew up raising plants for his father’s medical practice. He went on to study in Kenya and then London. Returning home, he became concerned about threatened trees, and created indigenous seedbeds of trees like blackwood to be planted by nature clubs he has founded.

“He’s a world-renowned botanist,” said Von Haugg. “That was another seed that was planted, and marinated in the back of my mind.”

While she was in Boston, Von Haugg took clarinet lessons from Dr. Robert Spring. “He’s known as The Dragon Tongue,” she said. “He taught me things I hadn’t known. He looked at me and believed in me.”

She entered the doctoral program at Arizona State University and worked as a teaching assistant for Spring.

In the fall of 2009, Von Haugg had an awakening. “I woke up in the middle of the night and the light bulb went off. All the seeds had been planted,” she said. She knew then she would go to Tanzania to plant blackwood trees and teach children to play the clarinet.

“I paid for it myself,” she said. “Most of it is still on my credit card.”

Von Haugg arrived in Tanzania with suitcases full of books and a dozen donated clarinets.

She rode a bus with chickens and goats to arrive in Moshi in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. There, Elizabeth Chuwa, the wife of the botanist, took her from school to school to meet teachers and students.

The schools they visited all had Mali Hai — which means Living Things — programs, conservation clubs founded by Sebastian Chuwa.

Von Haugg settled on a high school that is just a 30-minute walk from a conservation project in the middle of downtown Moshi. “It’s a protected plot of land, like Central Park in New York City,” she said. “A hundred years ago, a water table was created, surrounded by strangler figs…Their roots go deep into the ground, which encourages the water.”

She went on, “Fresh water is a huge issue in Africa. Students in Tanzania spend two hours a day getting water…They travel to a water spigot with buckets on their heads…The spigots come from the water table…It’s a hand-to-mouth way of living. They have no ovens, no stoves.”

When the Moshi students saw the clarinets Von Haugg had brought and realized they were made from the mpingo tree, the reaction was “absolute shock,” she said.

“The clarinet comes from the black heart of their national tree,” she said. “It’s the most valuable wood on the planet.”

Makonde carvers make figurines and animals from the wood, which tourists buy. “They are a small, elite group of artists,” she said. Von Haugg described one carver who spent three 10-hour days carving a tiny elephant of mpingo wood.

“So it was a shock for them to see a clarinet with all these perfectly bored holes and with all these silver keys…They don’t comprehend lasers or machines that shape a clarinet.”

Wind instruments were new to the children of Moshi. Popular music in Tanzania includes a lot of American hip-hop and East African pop. “There are no wind instruments,” said Von Haugg. “A local brass band would drive through town on the back of a truck.”

The Moshi children were eager and quick learners.

“It was absolutely magical what they did in six weeks,” said Von Haugg. In a month and a half, her Moshi students learned what her upper-middle-class students in private lessons in America had taken three years to learn.

“They don’t have anything else,” she said of her Moshi students. “The kids at home have video games and sports and music class. These kids have gathering fuel and water. They don’t have books or chalk for the chalkboard at school. They have a hole in the floor to go to the bathroom.”

She said of the music lessons, “They ate it up.”

“I taught in the Western European classical style.” The new clarinet players started out with simple tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

“I had them learn the Tanzanian national anthem….Tanzania gained its independence in the 1960s, and they have a lot of national pride,” she said.

Although Von Haugg had brought only 12 clarinets, 30 students came to class every day. “The others would watch,” she said.

By the sixth week, they had learned enough tunes to put on a program, and were accompanied by a native drummer.

The students also planted trees. In addition to mpingo trees, they planted other indigenous varieties, including teakwood and the neem tree, which is used for bio fuel, as well as avocado trees. “They have diminished greatly and are highly nutritional,” said Von Haugg of the avocado.

Return trip

Von Haugg plans to return to Tanzania in three months, on May 2. She has planned three tours, for fund-raising, awareness, and education.

Another clarinet player and educator, Scott Horsington, serves as the assistant director of Clarinets for Conservation. The two began performing together during their studies under Spring, The Dragon Tongue, at Arizona State University. Horsington lives now in Rochester and works as a diving coach for the State University of New York at Brockport.

“He’s an amazing clarinetist,” said Von Haugg.

Later this month, Von Haugg will be visiting students at her old Berne-Knox-Westerlo elementary school where she’ll read books like I Planted A Tree and combine geography, conservation, and music in her lesson.

Von Haugg plans on using a large world map to talk to the students about where they were born and to show them where the clarinet is born.

She’ll tell them, “You need your heart to live, and the clarinet comes from the heart of this tree.”

Von Haugg fondly remembers her teacher Marlene Tiffany who, after 36 years, is still energetically teaching at Berne. Tiffany remembers Von Haugg as being smart and “as cute as a button.”

She’s eagerly anticipating Von Haugg’s visit to the school. Tiffany’s second-graders, as part of the curriculum, study life cycles, including that of trees. As well as the science curriculum, Von Haugg’s teaching will complement the language arts, music, and geography programs, too, said Tiffany.

“These are the things that make education come alive,” she said.

Tiffany also said that, with recent budget cuts, “I told her there’s no money to come to our school. She said, ‘Money is never an object.’”

In May, Von Haugg will take her teaching to Tanzania. This time, she’s bringing 20 clarinets to teach 20 new students, and she’ll have them plant 500 trees in an eight-week period.

The students that she taught two years ago, she said, are still playing, and texting her, asking for reeds. “They don’t have electricity, but they have Facebook. They call me Madam,” she said with a laugh.


On Sunday, Feb. 12, at 3 p.m., Michel Von Haugg, founder of Clarinets for Conservation, will play with violist Tania Susi in an Afternoon of Classical and Contemporary Works at the Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church on Route 20 in Guilderland. Featured composers include Max Bruch, Gerald Finzi, Rebecca Clarke, and Eric Mandat.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, at 1 p.m., Von Haugg will give a lecture and recital with Scott Horsington, assistant director of Clarinets for Conservation, at the New Scotland Presbyterian Church at 2010 Route 85 in New Scotland. The concert, also presented by the New Scotland Cabaret Singers, will feature music from the 1940s swing era.

Admission to both concerts is free but donations are gratefully accepted. All funds will go to Clarinets for Conservation.

—By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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