Friday, December 20, 2013

Farewell to Jamaica

I had been warned about the rainy season storms before coming to Jamaica, but nothing prepared me for my first experience of a torrential, Caribbean downpour. It must have been during my first week in Kingston, and I remember standing by the window in awe as the building was hammered by sheets of driving rain. And now, on my very last day in Kingston, the rain is once again coming down in buckets. As I stood by the window, the last three months seemed to come into focus in a new way.

Conducting the orchestra
Living and teaching in Kingston was a true cultural experience. Although Jamaica is influenced by the seemingly inescapable spread of American pop culture, the country has such a specific and irresistible sense of style. One friend said to me, "you know, everyone wants to be like Jamaica," and in a way, he might be right. Looking beyond the many day-to-day challenges, I was struck by one aspect of Jamaican culture that I found to be truly remarkable. Everyone, and I mean everyone, loves music; it's so vital to the culture that it's almost a prerequisite for living. They particularly love their own home-grown artists, but their overall, deeply fundamental connection to music seems to transcend genres. For Jamaica, music is not a cultural extravagance or a leisure activity, it is a part of being, it is something elemental. This kind of relationship with music is something I will take with me when I go.

With two of my cello students, Devoy and Micah
Just a few weeks ago, I played a little concert for the kids in which I performed several Afghan folk song duets with Kim Mai, my wonderful girlfriend. I could see that the soulful melodies of Afghanistan captured their imagination and set their toes tapping. Just yesterday, I caught one of my students crouched over his cell phone, he was listening to a recording of our concert he had made on his phone. As I listened closer, I could hear him humming along to one of the Afghan folk songs. It was a moving moment for me, and in a very personal way, it seemed to bring my journey full-circle. Who knows where I will end up next, cello in hand, ready to discover similarities, not differences. Wherever it is, I hope to share and revel in the ultimate human language, music.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Big Concert

This past Saturday, NYOJ presented a big concert in collaboration with the Spanish embassy. The embassy flew in a wonderful Spanish conductor, Hugo Carrio, for a week of intense rehearsals with the orchestra. Hugo has spent the last six years conducting ensembles and teaching in El Sistema in Venezuela. As a teacher, it was a wonderful opportunity to see an original Sistema faculty at work. Our students responded to him with energy and excitement as you can see in this short clip from the performance:

The concert was a resounding success, with many different ensembles, from percussion groups to string quartets, showing off their progress. This article in The Gleaner describes the concert and mentions a little bit about my work arranging Jamaican folk songs for the orchestra.

Post-concert group picture
It was so moving to hear my arrangements of the two folk songs, Hold 'Em Joe and Wata Come a Mi Yeye, played with such feeling and commitment. I was especially touched when I saw several old Jamaican ladies in the back singing along and swaying to the music.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Largo from New World

Our first concert is in just a few short weeks! I've arranged several pieces for the concert (from full orchestra, to string quartet, to percussion ensemble) including Dvorak's Largo from the New World Symphony for small string ensemble. Kim Mai and I introduced it only a few weeks ago, and the kids have picked it up quickly and eagerly.

The purpose of the arrangement is to combine our senior strings playing melodic parts, with our new beginners playing open string parts. This gives the beginners the "El Sistema experience" of playing in a large ensemble almost immediately after starting the instrument.

This video also speaks to three of our main challenges, attendance, punctuality and retention. The group should actually be twice as big, but for one reason or another, half the kids are missing, their instruments sitting untouched in the storage room.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Greetings From Kingston!

What a month is has been! It has been an absolute whirlwind of teaching, cultural discoveries, new friends, new landscapes and rainy October downpours. Despite the consuming teaching schedule, I've been able to absorb different aspects of Jamaica bit by bit. From the breathtaking views of mountainous junglescapes, to stunning sunsets, to torrential thunderstorms, the natural beauty is both staggeringly vivid and refreshingly wild.

But, it's a place of extremes and contradictions. The downtown area in which I teach five days a week is definitely tough and worlds away from the well-guarded mansions that dot the mountain-sides above the city. One of the schools, St. Andrews Technical High School, is bordered by a maximum security prison and several violent ghettos. There is a constant turf war in these neighborhoods as rival gang-lords called "dons" battle for control. The police have very little power in these areas and there's no telling when violence will erupt. Because the dons have so much influence, local politicians have been arming their gangs in exchange for political support. It's a terrifying situation. It's even more frightening to imagine children growing up in such an environment. In fact, some days the kids won't risk coming to school because of a possible threat of violence in the neighborhood.

For every sobering facts about life in Kingston, there is something beautiful and life-affirming. There is a wonderfully infectious energy and a love of life, especially among my students. They are certainly an unruly bunch of kids, perhaps due to their schooling or lack of parental involvement, but they are full of life and have lots of spunky attitude. It's easy to tell that they're accustomed to disorder, but the encouraging thing is that they in fact crave order, structure and clear standards. Over the last month, I've noticed a marked difference in their classroom behavior as they've grown accustomed to my rules and expectations. Also, the more comfortable they become with the repertoire I've arranged, the more I realize how passionately musical the kids are.

A few recent experiences stick out and I'll try to recap them briefly. One day, I was standing talking to some of my colleagues after class, when a girl sprinted past me, her school uniform completely covered in flour. A second later, I was accidentally pelted with flour as her pursuers aimed and missed. Confused, I asked the Jamaican violin teacher what on earth was going on. It turns out that on your birthday, you get "floured", which means getting completely showered with flour by friends.

Our first day exploring our new backyard, we discovered that in fact every tree, bush, plant had some kind of fruit, both familiar and extremely foreign. There's the familiar mango, banana, lime and coconut trees, but there's also the breadfruit (cantaloupe-sized fruit that you bake and fry and that tastes like a potato) and ackee (a bizarre lemon-sized fruit that opens naturally to reveal three prongs of egg-colored fruit). After cautiously eyeing these unfamiliar fruits for a few days, we've started picking, preparing and eating them. I still haven't decided whether I like them or not.


Working with an El Sistema program is very challenging. It is good work, very hard, but very satisfying too. I suppose the most complicated obstacle for any Sistema program, and ours is no exception, is how to balance ideas of social justice with concrete standards of musical excellence. How do you use after-school music as a healing force, while also setting high standards? How do you use music as something fun and positive to do after school instead of getting involved with a gang, while also making no concessions for students based on their background, family, or financial situation? It's a huge issue and most problems circle back to it somehow. But it's an interesting and worthwhile challenge, and grappling with it has helped me to develop principles I believe in and can stick to.

Thanks for reading, more soon!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New Adventures

Dear readers, I am back to continue my blog! I left you a few months ago with what seemed like a final chapter. And it was, for my time in Afghanistan...

I still miss Afghanistan. Intensely sometimes. Sometimes in the middle of the night, or when I'm practicing cello, or when I'm all alone and lost in thought. I can never predict when I will be hit with brutal force, by a memory, a smell or a feeling that reminds of that heartbreaking and extraordinary country. Yet now, after five months, it's all starting to seem like a vivid dream. It's hard to even picture myself there, or to remember how it felt exactly. I do hope to go back one day to rediscover the country and its many beautiful mysteries. Hopefully soon.

However, new adventures await! I am excited to announce that I will be embarking on a new journey and starting a brand new chapter. In a few weeks, I will be moving to Kingston, Jamaica to join the faculty of the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica!

NYOJ is a unique and important program serving disadvantaged youth in challenged areas of Kingston. Working towards social change and community enrichment, the organization offers after-school music instruction, ensembles and classes. Their method is based in part on Venezuela's El Sistema, a transformational movement which has taken the world by storm. I am honored and excited to both share what I have to offer, and to learn about the people, the culture and the country of Jamaica.

Please look for my first entry (with pictures!) about Jamaica within the next few weeks. Like Afghanistan, it will be a fascinating journey and I do hope you will join me as I discover Jamaica. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Closing Note

Monday, March 18th, was my last day in Afghanistan. I am now writing this last, and final blog entry from New York City.

My last evening in Kabul was spent at the Afceco orphanage where many of my students live. I watched TV with the kids and asked them about their recent trips back to the provinces to visit family. We then had dinner and drank tea. I was excited to meet several new girls who had been transferred from an orphanage in Jalalabad. I tried to talk to them, but the war-stricken looks on their faces told the whole story. I was also able to see Nazira, one of my most dedicated cello students and to give her one last hug. It was the best possible way to spend my last evening in Kabul. The strength and beauty of these girls renewed my hope for a better Afghanistan.

One of my last weekends in Afghanistan was spent in Panjshir, a spectacular valley tucked away in the mountains north of Kabul. In my seven months, it was my only excursion outside the city. And it was one of the best trips of my life, because I saw a different Afghanistan. I saw children playing in the streets, men working in the fields and fishing in the river. I saw a true, touching and authentic country, certainly harsh, but also hopeful. This short trip cemented a feeling that had troubled me for months. I felt trapped in Kabul and unable to see beyond the ivory tower of our little music school and its 170 students. Looking back, I only wish I could have done, seen, felt and helped more.

Certainly, I come back a tougher, wiser, older, and more compassionate person. I also come back deeply changed in ways that I have yet to understand myself. Before I went to Afghanistan, I often found myself wondering how the experience was going to affect me. And now I know. But at the same, I have no idea exactly. I do know that I understand the world, and my relationship to it, in a profoundly different way.

When people ask me about Afghanistan, I struggle to find even one word that feels right or true. I often talk about the "heaviness" of the experience, but that's not really what I mean. There's no simple way, or single story that can capture or somehow sum up Afghanistan, it's really beyond description. Maybe one day, I will be able to think about the country without wanting to cry. Maybe I will be able to digest and understand exactly what it's all about and what it meant for me, but for now, I don't know.  What I can say is that Afghanistan is both the saddest and most beautiful place in the world. And the same goes for the people. Every Afghan face will be etched into my memory; they are simply the most striking, fierce and dramatically stunning people I have ever known.

Lastly, I would like to thank all of my readers for their support and interest. During the last seven months I received many messages from followers of the blog and I am deeply grateful for all of the encouragement and positivity. I only wish I could've written more! It's very exciting to know that there's a whole world out there passionate about the possibilities of cultural exchange and musical diplomacy. Again, my deepest thanks.

As I started my first blog entry with a picture of my first glimpse of Afghanistan from the plane, so I will end the blog with my last view of Afghanistan's jagged and snowy mountains.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

At Last, Some News

It has been roughly a month and a half since my last blog entry. And, as you might imagine, there is a great deal to report. Life at the school has been extraordinarily hectic and my responsibilities have doubled. There were many events in the past six weeks that I wanted to write about, but I just couldn't find the time, energy or inspiration. So, I will attempt to recap two of the more noteworthy and interesting experiences I have had.

Two young ANIM students
During November and December, I was involved in the audition process for the incoming fourth grade class. I observed and graded what seemed like hundreds of little Afghan children, all desperate to come to ANIM and study an instrument. The little applicants were roughly nine to eleven years old and came from either Afceco, or from families living in Kabul. We typically asked them to start by singing a song of their choice. We then proceeded to go though a set of rhythm and singing exercises designed to measure musical ability. Some kids aced the exam, while others couldn't even follow our basic instructions. Some were exceptional in their grasp of rhythm, but turned out to be completely tone-deaf. Others could sing a beautiful melody and had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. It was a fascinating thing to observe. At the end of the exam we would ask what instrument they would like to study. Interestingly, the top four answers were almost always, piano (known here as "casio"), drums (known here as "jazz"), violin and guitar. Occasionally, a child would request one of the Indo-Afghan instruments such as rubab, tabla or sitar, but it was a rare occurrence. The truth is that most of the kids wouldn't be able define more than five musical instruments. So, as we gear up to start a new semester in March, I am eager to see which new students might choose to try this thing called a "cello."

Snowball fight!
Another story from the past month has to do with a remarkable pedagogical breakthrough. One day, while hanging out between classes with my colleague James Herzog, I noticed a book on his shelf entitled "Children's Songs from Afghanistan." I asked to borrow the book and showed it to several of my students to see if they knew the songs; unexpectedly, they knew every single one. Fikria, one of my favorite cello students demanded that I arrange a particular song for her to play. Despite being extremely musical, Fikria struggles with the standard repertoire for young cellists. We spent almost three months working on a Bach Minuet; she just couldn't grasp or absorb the rhythms, bowings or fingerings. So, when she asked me to arrange the folk song, I was curious to see what would happen. It was magic. She learned the piece quickly and with great excitement. Then, to my delight, she began recruiting others to play with her. Soon, she had formed a little ensemble complete with tabla, violin and piano; her enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing first-hand the results of assigning Afghan music instead of Suzuki, I began arranging folk tunes for my young string ensemble and for various other ensembles and individuals. I can say without a doubt, that it has been the single most important breakthrough in my time here thus far.

Kim Mai Nguyen (a visiting teacher) giving a lesson
ANIM's tour to the US, with performances in Washington DC, New York and Boston, is just two short weeks away! As you might imagine, the tour is getting a significant amount of press. Here are two recent articles, one from The Herald Tribune (my student Fikria was interviewed for this piece), and one from The World Bank.