In a relentlessly sunny educator THEO PANAYIDES finds a woman inspired by Obelix for whom music is a reason to live

‘Love’ says the sign on a door in the old house in Strovolos that hosts Amalgamate Music Education (AMusEd is the handy acronym); ‘Dream’ urges the sign on another door. The walls are studded with inspirational sayings, like this one from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Maria Demosthenous might second that emotion – but that’s probably the extent of her agreement with the German philosopher. Nietzsche, after all, was a gloomy type who finally suffered a mental breakdown and spent the last decade of his life certifiably insane (even with music, life turned out to be a mistake). Maria, on the other hand, is relentlessly sunny.

That sounds like a dig, and it shouldn’t. ‘Sunny’ can sometimes be a euphemism for being a bit naïve and head-in-the-clouds, it’s true – but Maria is one of those positive people who also work long hours and do loads of different things. She runs AMusEd, the music school in Strovolos, where she also teaches piano – but she also runs Erasmus courses which she writes and proposes herself, organises corporate team-building events, teaches infants and special-needs kids, collaborates with migrants and helps them connect to wider society. Meanwhile she’s also a full-time single parent and also a kind of “psychotherapist to all my friends”, precisely because she’s so sunny.

Her role model – by her own admission – isn’t actually Nietzsche but Obelix, the inexhaustible comic-book Gaul who fell in the magic potion when he was a baby. “I have so much energy. You can see me at eight in the morning or seven at night, I have the same energy.” Another of the signs on the wall sums up her frequent dilemma: ‘More Ideas Than Time’. The school teaches piano, drums, cello, violin, clarinet, recorder, guitar and ukulele – but also on the way is a gospel choir and an African drum circle, as well as non-music courses teaching Cypriot dialect and creative writing. Above all, the vibe in the place – even on a Sunday, with no students present – is loose and lively. I check out one of the classrooms (the one with the door saying ‘Dream’) and notice a whiteboard on the wall, for kids to doodle and express themselves between sessions. On the board is a rough approximation of a rabbit, with a plea in a child’s scrawl beside it: ‘Do not rub out’.

profile2Maria herself is 42, imposingly tall, with light-brown hair and mild grey-green eyes. She’s an extrovert, a doer – but not what you’d call a performer, happy to be a bridge between people. She’s an organiser but not necessarily a leader; she doesn’t seem ruled by ego, or a will to power. She’s a natural teacher, in fact she was always a teacher: she was teaching music in primary school at the age of 22, fresh out of college in Greece, then high school at 24, just a few years older than her pupils – and her style, like the vibe in the music school now, was creative and easy-going. She was the young teacher, the crazy one, the hippy, the enthusiast. She didn’t make the kids listen to Bach and Mozart – the emphasis was always on getting them to play music – and they were free to get up and work with friends, or even leave the classroom if they felt like it. That was in Kilkis, near Thessaloniki, where she lived for about a decade; those first pupils are now in their 30s, yet she still keeps in touch with many of them.

“They learn how to live in the community,” she says significantly, trying to explain why she didn’t try to rule the class with discipline. “When we go to a cafeteria, let’s say, with friends, do we get permission to talk? No. If I interrupt you, then I’ll realise ‘Oh, I interrupted’ – so it’s a social thing. Classrooms should be like this, to develop kids for the future.” Maria is notably community-minded, adding that she tries to build a community even at AMusEd (her teachers are from all over, including a Palestinian and a Turkish Cypriot); her most salient feature is perhaps her openness, “I have this thing of ‘Everyone is welcome’.” That’s part of her natural rapport with kids, who are also very open – but in fact it’s not just kids, it’s all ages: “I’m a person who can get along with anyone”.

Easy to say, of course – and easy to be open in theory, but you can’t be open with absolutely everyone. There does seem to be a sort of emergency switch in her personality, a defence mechanism cutting off those who threaten her wellbeing. “I don’t have toxic people in my life,” says Maria simply. “I’ve learned how to protect myself”. If someone is toxic, “there’s no space in my life [for them]. Even if it’s a very close friend – gone”. Her divorce (in 2016, after 10 years of marriage) seems to be the only real sadness in her life so far – but in fact it was a conscious decision and she doesn’t consider it a sadness, more a liberation. “I didn’t have a happy family. My kids” – two daughters, now 14 and 12 – “had never seen us as a happy couple… So I said ‘Better stop it here’.”

Her friends “wanted an excuse,” she sighs, “in Cyprus you always have to have an excuse. But I just wasn’t happy. ‘But you have two kids’ – yeah, but I wasn’t happy!” Being happy isn’t just a goal for a positive person, it’s a necessity; all this energy and initiative – writing Erasmus proposals, organising outings with her kids, making a YouTube video with the special-needs class while filling in as a substitute teacher at a state school last year – couldn’t really operate without first being content in her own life. It’s a bit like playing music: once you find the right headspace, you can jam for hours.

profile1Music is a universal language, of course. Her autistic students use it to express their feelings, even babies respond to it. This is not a music school in the narrow sense, muses Maria, “it’s a place where, okay, we teach music, but we also use music as a tool for other things.” They offer exams at AMusEd, of course – there’s about 60 pupils in total, from infants to adults – but “whoever steps in here, I want them to be happy… It doesn’t mean you have to be a very good musician. Music-making makes you happy, it helps your emotional development”. Playing music helps with team-building (hence those corporate events), helps hone life skills like concentration and multi-tasking: playing the piano means doing three things – reading notes, co-ordinating fingers, glancing ahead to what’s coming next – at the same time. Music is also how Maria has connected (not on purpose, it just kind of happened) with the burgeoning African community.

It began in 2020, via an Erasmus project that took her to Galata, a mountain village where asylum seekers are placed in government housing then left to their own devices. She met a Cameroonian musician called Isaac, who in turn inspired her to create the aforementioned gospel choir; then there’s Ibrahim Kamara from Gambia, a percussionist who’s behind the new circle-drumming project (there’s a free ‘taster’ session at the school on April 9). Maria isn’t an activist, nor is she necessarily against the idea that we’re getting too many migrants. That may be true, it might even be true that some are gaming the system – but “what I say is that everyone has their reason to move to another country. It’s not easy. Knowing their stories, I know that for most of these people, this was not their first choice. It wasn’t their choice to come and be asylum seekers.”

Some get cheated, lured with promises of getting a European ID in four months. Others just end up here. Ibrahim fled Gambia in fear for his life (Maria isn’t sure about the details; some religious or tribal dispute) and moved to nearby Senegal, intending to stay – then “he met some people travelling to Italy” and decided to tag along, ending up in Cyprus (via Egypt and the occupied north) without even really knowing where it was. “But what I care about – even if some do it on purpose – is that they’re human beings,” she declares. “I don’t care about their status. And we do things as human beings: become friends, share things, live experiences together. Simple as that.”

Is it really so simple? Some will disagree – but Maria Demosthenous is a sunny person, a positive influence. The intro on her Facebook page is telling: “Everything that happens is bound to lead you somewhere”. (“I go with the flow,” she tells me.) She puts herself out there, letting things happen and seeing where they lead. Have they never led to some big crisis?

“I don’t let myself have a big crisis. I mean, things that other people would be devastated, I just move on. I might feel bad, okay, I might be moody for some days, and get hurt – but I move on. I don’t stay in situations.”

There’s a hint of steel in that admission too, a bit like the way she’ll block toxic types when they threaten to overwhelm her. Being positive doesn’t mean being passive. She wasn’t exactly rebellious as a kid, but she made waves (she was the kind of kid who argued with the Religious Studies teacher about God’s plan for the Second Coming) – and the same is true now, all that energy and sociability being quite forceful when needed. Fortunately, it’s a force for good.

If there’s a single image to encapsulate Maria’s life and philosophy, it might be the end-of-year show at AMusEd every summer – though in fact it’s only happened once so far (the school opened in September 2019), and this year’s will hopefully include the gospel choir and African drum circle too. There’s a big backyard, where everyone gathered. “All the kids were out, they weren’t hiding in a room shaking [in anticipation of] when they’re gonna play, they were having fun in between.” There were drinks, and ice cream and pizza. All the special-needs kids performed too, which isn’t necessarily what happens at music-school shows – and maybe they weren’t all great musicians, but the point was inclusiveness and community. And of course Maria herself as… what, exactly? Their connector, enabler, cheerleader? In a word, teacher.

She did think about becoming a professional pianist, back in the day, but “the Cypriot father” was having none of it (her dad is in the aluminium business, albeit also an amateur musician himself). She doesn’t regret the decision: “I have more to give as an educator”. That said, financial security is a constant worry – especially post-Covid, as a single parent with two growing kids and university fees coming up. It takes all her energy to combine AMusEd, Erasmus, early-childhood education, corporate training and so on – and she’s also on the famous ‘list’ for a state-school position, still waiting for her name to come up after 20 years (she was No. 205 after graduation; she’s now moved up to No. 92, though she recently took an exam that should fast-track the process). Could she really go back to teaching in the state sector, after all the excitement of gospel choirs and unconventional music schools? She shrugs, as if to say ‘It’s a journey’.

She’s currently reading a book about ikigai, Maria tells me (Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life) – a useful Japanese word meaning ‘a reason to live’, a purpose in life. One might say she found her ikigai with music education, the obvious thread linking her many projects – but perhaps her real ikigai is something broader, the wide-eyed openness that draws her to all kinds of people, her joy in enthusiastic teaching that goes all the way back to the school in Kilkis. “I just feel that human beings are sociable, and we need people in our lives – we’re not loners, let’s say. And everyone who crosses our path will lead us somewhere”. Nietzsche meant well, but he got this one wrong. Music or not, life is never a mistake.