Music at Papatoetoe High School is shaping young lives beyond the classroom

Photography Caitlin McKone

Music is a passion at Papatoetoe High School – especially now that songwriting is an official NCEA subject. Here, current and former students talk about how learning to craft a song has enhanced their education and their lives beyond the classroom. 

“Theory is important, 100 percent, but at the same time, practicality is what gets you out there,” says ex-Papatoetoe High School student Rebel Reid. We’re sitting in the school’s music department, where music bellows out of every room, drums are being bashed and pianos being played. The school’s strong focus on music inspires many students to pursue careers in the art. For Reid, who still calls Papatoetoe home, her roots in the school propelled her into the music industry. Now, at 30, she’s a musician in Auckland band Vallkyrie. 

This year, the school embraced a new NZQA standard – penned by Play It Strange CEO and former Split Enz member Mike Chunn – that allows songwriting to be taken as an NCEA subject for the first time. Louise O’Neill, head of the music department, says the focus on songwriting has been “fantastic” for students. “Our students are telling a story, and it’s a story that deserves to be heard,” she says. Here, past and present students talk about how studying music has shaped them. 

Sam Allen, 26 (above) 

Ex-student and now singer-songwriter

How would you describe the music you make?
Probably acoustic singer-songwriting, but I’m starting to dabble in the more beat-driven music now, because I’m a little bit bored with the acoustic-y, singer-songwriter type stuff.

What was the music culture like while you were at Papatoetoe High School?
Incredible. There was a passion and I was so lucky to go to that school, because it just seemed like everyone was actually involved and interested in making music, the teachers pushed us and shit.

Who were you inspired by at school?
I was inspired by John Mayer back in the day. I also started getting into reggae, because I was in a reggae band with eight other Samoan boys and I loved it, I fell in love with the groove. It was just so much fun and it made me realise that the whole point of music is just to enjoy yourself. But I mean, the teachers definitely inspired me because I wanted to do well for them. It’s always good having teachers that want to see the best in you and bring out the best in you by telling you how great you are, or telling you that they believe in you.

That’s really interesting because a lot of kids want to do the opposite and rebel against their teachers. Do you think the teachers were a bit more relatable?
Completely. Well, I feel like the teachers are musicians themselves, and actually want to see the next wave come through. There was never any, ‘I’m teaching you’, but ‘we’re learning together’. It felt like a community more than anything else.


Blessing Siau 

Year 13 student at PHS, singer

Do you hope to pursue music once you leave school?
Yeah, that’s plan A, but there’s also a plan B – I haven’t decided yet. Plan B is to do business studies at Auckland University.

Have you grown up around music?
My cousins always played for church bands and I’d get involved in that, and I still play now for the church.

What are your lyrics usually about?
Usually they’d be about things I’m going through, because it’s easier to write about what you’re going through; it just comes naturally. The lyrics will just come. Something meaningful.

What have you gone through lately that you’ve written about?
I think this was last year, but it was mostly about school – making the most of my last year because time is short. Back when I was younger I didn’t really enjoy it but now it’s getting to the point where you have to go out into the real world.


Rutaiwaiomana Ueta 

Ex-student of PHS, currently studying a Bachelor of Music majoring in jazz at Auckland University

Is studying at university quite different to school?
Yeah, in school we studied a lot of classical stuff, and in jazz we use a lot of that – but in some areas it’s really different.

How did school inspire you to go to university and pursue music?
I kind of found out in high school that music was my passion. When I started at Papatoetoe, I had no idea what I wanted to do but there were so many opportunities for us students and I met a lot of people along the way. It influenced me to do my own thing, listen to music, write my own music and I wanted to do that once I left high school, which is why I took on jazz. Jazz is really challenging and it can teach me a lot more than what I know now.


Tim Randle

Music teacher at PHS, who helped write NZQA’s songwriting achievement standard

Can you tell me about the significance of the new NZQA standard?
The new songwriting standard looks at that beautiful marriage of the lyric and the music, and now we have the tool to holistically assess that. And with that is having more structured teaching programmes based around that.

How will it do that?
Most music programmes had this focus completely on the music side of things, and the lyric side of things was completely ignored, which is going to be to the detriment of songwriting in the end, so this brings an increased focus on the holistic output. I guess the area of weakness in the past was the art of lyric writing in particular, so bringing that in is a positive thing. Music is a mode of connection. Art decorates space, music decorates time.


Joshua Fernandes 

Year 13 student at PHS

Would you like to pursue music professionally in the future?
I would like to, but I feel at the current level I’m at, it’s probably best to keep music as my hobby.

So long as it’s still part of your life in some way?
Yeah, over the past four years, music has been a pretty big part of my life. It’s helped me have an outlet with things that I couldn’t say normally. Songs have given me another option, given me another route to go down.


Mike Chunn   

CEO of Play It Strange trust, which encourages high school students to pursue songwriting

Why are you so passionate about songwriting? I’ve been in the game for a long time, and every band I’ve been in has written its own songs. It’s obvious that every single New Zealander, every day, will hear recorded songs. It’s an integral part of life. So why aren’t people talking about writing songs instead of just hearing them? There is this sort of fear of it. I just thought, in school we’ve got art and there’s no boundaries on art – you could use small pieces of sheet metal or oils, or sacks as canvases – but in the music curriculum, there was no mention of the word song.

Are there parts you remember about your own high school experience that fostered or shaped your music career? It was all about The Beatles. Tim Finn and I, and my brother Geoffrey, we were the ones doodling away in the music rooms, but the school itself took no interest at all. It wasn’t until Split Enz formed in 1973 that things really took off, because we were lucky enough to have a guy called Phil Judd in the band who wrote the songs, in essence. I just felt that everybody should be doing it. There’s nothing to stop you from writing a song.


Raneem Caco 

Ex-student of PHS, hip-hop artist known as Caco the Rapper

What are you up to now?
I applied for uni last year and got accepted into all the spots I wanted, but ultimately I decided I was going to hit the ground running with music and do it full-time.

In what way?
I finished up an EP on my birthday that I have on Spotify now, and I’m working on an album right now.

What’s your EP called?
Leap. So yeah I’ve been making a tonne of music, working a tonne and doing live shows a lot and really just pushing my brand out there as much as I can.

How are you funding it all?
Most things I just do for free. If I need a beat I don’t have to pay for it because I’ll just learn how to make the beat; if I need to mix I’ll just learn how to mix. It’s a one-man show at the moment.

How would you describe your music?
Definitely hip-hop, a bit more old school than new school though. I feel like with this album that I’m working on, it’s definitely going to be more new school vibe.


Timo Morisa

Ex-student and now music teacher at PHS

You left this school in 2008 as a student. What brought you back as a teacher?
I’ve always wanted to come back and teach at my home school, to serve the community that once served me.

How do you bring out the best in your students?
I’m all about more action, less talk. Because I have a bit of a performing arts background too, a lot of my lessons are practical. Even if it’s a theory lesson, I’ll be clapping beats and moving around, and we’ve been doing listening diaries – listening out for different instruments and different voice sounds and arrangements of vocals so it’s quite a kinaesthetic way of learning. It’s not so much just writing and talking but a lot of movement, which I think has helped a lot with my kids. Especially the ones who are highly musically talented, but more academically challenged.


Belinda Hopman (below left) 

Current student of PHS, piano player and singer

Have you always played the piano?
It was the first instrument I learned before I started singing. I’ve been playing since I was five.

How does your arm affect your ability to play?
I was born like this [shrugs].

Do you want to have a singing career?
I know how difficult it is to get into that field and get recognition, but it would be my dream.

What are your plans for next year?
If everything goes well this year, I might record some songs next year, but I do plan to go to uni and do music and probably psychology.

What do you think of the songwriting NCEA standard?
It’s amazing to be able to use lyrics I wrote two years ago and have them assessed and gain credits for that, instead of just keeping to the instrumental side of things.


Brittany Andrews (above right) 

Year 13 student and head girl at PHS

You leave school at the end of this year. What are your plans?
I’m more interested in health sciences, but whenever you go into a field like that, it’s always good to have your creative side there while the other side is more focussed. I’m glad I’ve been able to take music, especially the songwriting standard, of course.


Rebel Reid 

Ex-student of PHS, and guitarist in rock-hip-hop band Vallkyrie

What was it about Papatoetoe High School that inspired or helped you with your own career?
I think it was the love for the students. [Our teachers] drove these kids to go further in their lives and they saw a future in music with everyone, so they hand-reared you to make sure you didn’t give up. In my seventh form year I was thinking of leaving school, but Louise was like “no, don’t, you’re going to do this thing called Play It Strange, you’re going to do Pacifika Beats”, and if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be doing music now.

What did Play it Strange do for you?
It gives you that first window, displaying your own type of music to other people. So they literally gave you this whole new world that you didn’t know about. There was a hunger for it. You wanted to go to these competitions, you wanted to win, make Papatoetoe proud.

Who did you look up to at high school?
I really wanted to make my teachers proud. You didn’t want to upset them, because if they got upset – they’re not afraid, they’re south Auckland – they’re not afraid to yell at you. They were the only teachers that actually cared about our future. They’re kind of like a parent, so if you make them disappointed, they give you that silent treatment, you feel guilty for the rest of your life.

Who are your musical inspirations?
Mine was Spacifix, we were all trying to do the same sound of Spacifix but different. Nesian Mystik was my other one. Coldplay was my international.

What genre is the music that Vallkyrie makes?
It’s definitely a fusion between rock, pop and hip-hop. No reggae in our sound, but reggae in our heart. I grew up with a lot of rock and pop. But this school made me love reggae, because everyone was like, “peace and love”. It was a hippie era, everyone loved each other, it was like a big commune.

What do you do full-time?
I work full-time at the Manukau Rock Shop, and we do gigs here and there, but now we’re just finishing our album. So, it’s music from 9am to like, 1am.

Louise O’Neill

Music head of department at PHS

How do you afford things like the recording studio at the school?
It came from our budget that we were given for the redevelopment of the block, so instead of buying things like chairs for our office, desks in the classrooms and extra computers, we put the funds into the recording studio instead. So we reallocated money that was given for furniture.