Monday, October 17, 2016

Durga Puja in Chittaranjan Park

I recently got to experience the magic of Durga Puja, an annual Hindu festival in South Asia that celebrates the Hindu goddess Durga. It's also the most significant socio-cultural event of the year in Bengali Hindu society. It just so happens that I live in a neighborhood of South Delhi called Chittaranjan Park (or CR Park), home to a large Bengali community with many Kolkata-style street-food stalls, Bengali sweet shops, fish markets, temples and cultural centers.

Interestingly, CR Park was established in the early 1960s under the name EPDP Colony or East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony, and later renamed after a prominent freedom fighter named Chittaranjan Das who was a leading figure in Bengal during the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1919-1922.


During the holiday, many enormous pavilion-like structures called pandals are constructed to house elaborate sculptures of the goddess Durga. From what I could tell, there appeared to be a pandal nearly every block! Apparently, planning committees work all year to design and build unique depictions of the Goddess and there is a friendly competition to see which sculpture is the most creative, unusual or beautiful. There is also plenty of good eating, including all sorts of delicious Bengali sweets!


I had a fantastic time wandering from pandal to pandal and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the festival. Being one of the only foreigners, I got a lot of curious looks, but I was never excluded or made to feel uncomfortable. It was also impressive to see families dressed in their finest attire and women wearing stunningly ornate and beautifully tailored saris. Only downside was traffic, which went from bad to worse! Now on to the biggest holiday of the year, Diwali, which starts in a few weeks!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Welcome to India

After an extremely satisfying, but very grueling month teaching in the Middle East, I really needed to go back home and decompress, but no...I flew directly to India! I have been in Delhi, my new home base, for just over one month now. At first it was difficult, because I was exhausted from the previous month and I had no energy at all to venture out into my new surroundings. And for anyone who has been to India, you know from experience that it takes a lot of adjustment at first!

Auto rickshaw ride with my cello to my first lesson
So you might be wondering, why? How? What?...India? Very good question. As a recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant, I moved to Delhi to study Hindustani music and to explore musical and educational intersections between North Indian and Western classical music traditions. This is a process that started a year and a half ago when I first decided to apply for a Fulbright. I first became fascinated by North Indian classical music while teaching music and living in Kabul. Afghanistan's musical heritage is deeply linked to India, and the two cultures study many of the same classical instruments including sitar, sarod and tabla. One of my ultimate goals while I'm here is to develop a cross-cultural pedagogical method for strings, with a special focus on improvisation. I will also be working with a number of different NGOs that offer music classes to children from underprivileged backgrounds who would never have access otherwise.
Honoring the Gods
I imagine that every blogger who has ever moved to India has written about the FRRO. The FRRO is a government office where foreigners must go (within weeks of arriving in the country) to register their presence as a foreigner in India. I spent much of my first month trying to satisfy the employees of this office. Ultimately, it took four visits, each visit more bewildering than the last, to succeed. The Fulbright office in Delhi did everything they could to prepare me for this process, but it still wasn't enough. We were all scratching our heads by the end, contemplating the mysteries of Indian bureaucracy.

Delhi streets
Celebrating Ganesh on his birthday

After finally getting registered at the FRRO, my next responsibilities included setting up a bank account, figuring out to pay my bills, where to shop, and how to get around. Luckily I live in a really lively, bustling area of South Delhi where I can find practically anything within steps of the apartment. But everything takes patience, practice and sense of humor and often the most basic errands can turn into accidental adventures or perplexing ordeals.

Concert of Hindustani vocal music
Very few foreigners live in my neighborhood, so I tend to get a lot of curious looks, especially when I have my bright blue cello case on my back! I've nearly caused a dozen car accidents as drivers will stare at my cello as they drive by. Here's a funny story--a few weeks ago I was waiting by the side of the road for a cab, when a wandering cow approached me. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there waiting for the cow to make a "move" (sorry, I had to). After a brief moment of inspecting my cello case, the cow came closer and gave my case a long, slobbery lick! Luckily, my cab showed up right then to rescue me.

Humayun's Tomb through the trees
Being absorbed into the flow of life in Delhi is truly an experience. While confusing and difficult at times, it is far more often unexpectedly charming. And the combination of complete cultural engagement with the study of this unique musical tradition, provides a fascinating context in which to immerse myself. I look forward to sharing more with you as my journey unfolds!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Catching up

Has it really been almost three years since my last post? Wow. I can you tell you now, I really regret not keeping the blog up to date! So much has happened and I have a lot of catching up to do. I felt that the blog had come to natural conclusion after leaving Kingston, but looking back, I see that that was really only the beginning.

As some readers may remember, I started this blog when I arrived in Kabul to teach at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. It's hard to believe, but that was almost exactly four years ago. The experience was so profound that it set my life on a new course and as I look back over the last three years, it's easy to see that Afghanistan was a pivotal turning point in my life. What I have come to discover is that I am no longer content following the old-fashioned and slightly out-of-touch career-path of a "cellist" (and is that even possible these days?), and after my experiences in Afghanistan, I don't think I can ever return to imitating that life. Everything I witnessed there convinced me that now, more than ever, this increasingly globalized world needs education and communication through cultural exchange.

So here it goes, a concise-ish summary of the last three years teaching music in unexpected places!

Belize City, Belize
August, 2014

After returning from Jamaica, Mai and I moved across country and settled in Oakland, CA. I originally grew up in Northern California and I felt strong pull to return to the west coast. Around the same time, I was contacted by Kevin Schaffter, the executive director of MusAid, a global music education non-profit that assists musical institutions in under-resourced parts of the world. Kevin asked Mai and I to join him on a project to teach at the National Youth Orchestra of Belize. Without hesitating, we accepted the invitation.

Not sure what I'm teaching here...
Performing with Mai on a morning TV show

It was a productive project with many memorable moments! At the end of workshop, Kevin took us aside and asked if we were interested in joining the MusAid staff. We were delighted and humbled by his offer and happily accepted. We have now been working with MusAid for just over two years now and have helped launch teaching training projects, repair workshops and large-scale instrument donations all over the world.

Performing with the MusAid faculty
Conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Belize
San Salvador, El Salvador 
June 2015 & 2016

My work with MusAid continued with two trips to San Salvador to work with the phenomenal students of El Sistema El Salvador. I can't say enough about this incredible organization. Through their work offering a positive after-school outlet for kids, they have helped prevent the growth of gangs and drug-related violent crime. With a supportive community of dedicated teachers and staff, they have created a welcoming and creative environment for kids of all ages and backgrounds to learn music free of charge.

Teaching group cello classes (2015)
Performing at the Teatro Nacional (2015)
In 2016, I returned to El Salvador for another productive and rewarding workshop. This time I filled more of a supportive role as a program leader and logistics coordinator. However, I was able to occasionally sneak away from my administrative duties to have fun with the students!

Creative thumb position exercises! (2016)
Leading a Sistema Nucleo Workshop (2016)

Beirut, Lebanon
August, 2015 & 2016

During my time in Afghanistan, I had heard a lot about the organization American Voices and the executive director John Ferguson. John is one of the leading figures in the field of cultural diplomacy and has been doing this work for over twenty years. American Voices has been conducting cross-cultural engagement with audiences in over 140 nations worldwide, with a special emphasis on supporting youth in nations emerging from conflict or isolation. After departing Kabul, I reached out to John to introduce myself and express my excitement about his work. We had a nice phone call and not long after, he invited Mai and I to join the YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy faculty in Lebanon and Kurdistan. In Lebanon, we worked with students from all across the Middle East, including Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Kurds, and of course, Lebanese. In addition to the usual stuff, I also taught composition, which demanded a lot of creativity on my part!

With the great scholarship students from Egypt (2015)
Leading the orchestra in a fiddle medley (2015)
Rehearsing for a faculty chamber music performance (2015)
In 2016, John invited Mai and I back as faculty for the YES Academies in Lebanon and Kurdistan. It's impossible to put into words how meaningful the experience was for both Mai and I; teaching music in that part of the world has a uniquely resonant way of reconfirming my belief in the power and importance of the arts.

With the hard-working Baroque Ensemble (2016)
This fabulous cello section! (2016)
Youth Philharmonia dress rehearsal (2016)
Post-concert smiles (2016)
Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, Kurdistan
August, 2015 & 2016

Conducting the intermediate orchestra in Sulaymaniyah (2015)
Beautiful day off with students in Eastern Kurdistan (2015)
Teaching composition (2015)
These guys came a long way in two weeks! (2016)
Finale performance with orchestra and dancers in Erbil (2016)
Group picture in Erbil (2016)
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
December 2015 & March 2016

In October of 2015, I received an email out of blue from John Ferguson asking if I like to go to Turkmenistan. He knows me well, and of course, I dropped whatever plans I had and said yes. The primary focus of these workshops is to expose the Turkmen students to American music genres and new styles and movements in composition, performance and song. It's quite a pleasure and challenge to work with students who are at a very high level technically, but who are also incredibly receptive to different concepts and approaches.

Conducting the National Conservatory Orchestra (2015)
Working on new styles with these talented cellists! (2016)
I am so excited to return to Turkmenistan for two more workshops in December of this year and in March, 2017!

What a relief, we're all caught up! Stay tuned for my next post, which will reveal where I am and what I'm doing these days! Until then, thanks for following.

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!