Music for the Trees

Gary Sperl with students in Tanzania

How a vacation led to a new mission for KSO musician

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2007 rewarded Gary Sperl with a brand new passion in life.

The principal clarinetist with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Sperl visited Tanzania only with tourism in mind. Then he fell in love with the country and its people. “By the time my plane lifted off to return home, I was trying to figure out how and when I could return,” he says.

Fate was kind to him. Just three years later he learned of an opportunity to teach at the university there, and he was granted a sabbatical in 2011-’12 from UT, where he was an associate professor of music. The KSO also supported his plan. He spent a year teaching music history and music theory and introducing his students to Western music.

Just as his year wrapped up, Sperl learned about a new nonprofit—Clarinets for Conservation—working in Tanzania to teach students to play AND to teach them about a unique resource their country possesses. The mpingo tree, which is used to make reed instruments, grows there and had been clearcut. The organization’s mission included planting seedlings along with the music students.

“They were looking for teachers, and I raised my hand really fast.”

Since then Sperl has returned to Tanzania for two months every summer, barring the two COVID years. The nonprofit, which evolved into the Daraja Music Initiative, has planted more than 1,000 seedlings. “Some of them are twice as tall as I am,” he says. “The kids are excited. They’re taking care of the trees.”

“Every time I come back here,” he says, “I’m at my happy place. I like what I do. I like the culture. I feel a part of it when I’m here.” Sperl is in Tanzania until July 31.

The moral of his story: go explore something new. “You never know where it will lead,” he says.

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