Dr Ben Oosthuizen is a doyen in music education in South Africa. He steps down from his role as the Director of Music at St John’s College as he retires after 37 years of distinguished service. During this time, he has made a profound and positive contribution to the college, music students and music education in South Africa.
Dr Oosthuizen's journey at St John’s College began in 1986, and over the years, he brought tremendous dedication, creativity and innovation to his role. One of his most impactful achievements was introducing a comprehensive Prep programme in 2012, a development inspired by his visit to Whitgift College and Dulwich College in the United Kingdom. This programme provided instrumental and voice lessons for St John’s Preparatory School students, significantly enhancing the quality of the music programme for younger students. The positive impact on the College’s overall music standard was undeniable as these young musicians transitioned from Prep to College.
It wasn’t long after starting in 1986 that Dr Oosthuizen combined the Prep Choir with the College Choir. This produced one of his favourite memories of his time at St John’s. "It was my aim to unite the two choirs. The combination of trebles, altos, tenors and basses opened a significant repertoire for St John’s College. It was a wonderful experience to see the faces of the pupils the first time all four voice groups sat in a rehearsal and experienced this sound."
He went on to introduce a successful instrumental programme: "In my ‘early’ days, there were some instrumentalists, and I was determined to grow this programme with the appointment of heads of sections: keyboard (piano and organ), strings, woodwind, brass and later contemporary music. This paved the way for the formation of wind bands, big bands, jazz bands and, eventually, the symphony orchestra in 2013."
Musical talent on campus was further enriched by the College scholarship programme. For years, he was committed to discovering and nurturing previously disadvantaged youngsters with music potential by offering music scholarships at the College.
Today, St John’s College offers a diverse range of instrumental programmes, including orchestral instruments, lead guitar, bass, and drum, as well as voice lessons.
Asked about his proudest moments, Dr Oosthuizen points to the students who manage to balance their academic and sporting commitments with music activities: "They do this with great enthusiasm. It takes enormous energy from our pupils to organise themselves between the demanding academic programme and a very busy sporting programme, to include individual music lessons as well as ensemble playing. I am very proud of the boys who manage their busy schedules to include music activities.
"It’s rewarding to watch these young musicians master a new work, to perform for parents and friends, be that Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s St John Passion, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Mango Groove’s Dance Some More. Our musicians recently became superstars for 15 minutes — the symphony orchestra joined Mango Groove on stage at our Light on the Night concert, a performance which was part of the College's 125-year celebrations this year."
Dr Oosthuizen is an accomplished musician – on piano and clarinet – in his own right. He holds a Licentiate in Music with a specialisation in Choirmastership and obtained his Doctor of Music degree from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in collaboration with Norges Musikkhøgskole (the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo). Through visitorships to schools and universities in the UK, Norway, Latvia, Japan and Australia, he was exposed to a variety of excellent teaching and performance methodologies and created a music department structure relevant to South Africa.
His passion and drive inspired other teachers at the school. Over the years, he restructured the music department based on his learnings, which now includes 12 full-time staff members and more than 30 visiting teachers. The St John’s College music department has become a hub for teacher training through masterclasses, workshops and conferences, attracting international musicians to assist in various areas of music education, such as voice training, choral conducting, aural training, jazz improvisation, violin and cello teaching, piano performance, and accompaniment sessions. Dr Oosthuizen says these teachers contribute greatly to the department’s success, and he is heartened to watch them pour their energy into music education.
Dr Oosthuizen's passion for music began in childhood when he first discovered its magic. He fondly recalls visiting his grandparents to play his grandmother's piano and being captivated by its sound. He began piano lessons in his prep school days, later picked up the clarinet and always loved singing in school and university choirs.
For young people interested in music, Dr Oosthuizen has a valuable message: "There are two types of people: those who want to play an instrument or sing, and those who have to make music as it becomes an expression of yourself. If you choose an instrument that does not 'fit,' don't give up the music road of discovery – try another instrument. Every human being can sing and play an instrument; it’s a question of finding an opportunity with the right instrument and pursuing a daily practice routine."
As Dr Oosthuizen bids farewell to St John’s College, his legacy in music education will continue to inspire generations of young musicians.
"We are truly grateful to Dr Oosthuizen for his unfailing dedication. His vision and passion for music have left an indelible mark on the institution, its students and the broader musical community. His retirement marks the end of an era, but leaves a legacy of musical excellence and a commitment to nurturing young talent," says Stuart West, Executive Headmaster at St John’s College.
Dr Oosthuizen leaves the music department in the talented and capable hands of Mr Hendri Liebenberg.