Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Musical kindergarten offers future to Palestinian children

By PM collaborators - September 27, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Culture]
Tags: [culture] [Education] [school]

It took me a while to find the Edward Said Musical Kindergarten. It slouches on a battered Ramallah side street, just off the main road to Nablus. Most people looked blank when I asked for directions. To get in, I had to drag back a rusty latch that opened the garden gate. 

Behind, is the kindergarten: stout and yellow, with a concrete wall protecting it from the stray cats prowling on the street. A few trees provide some shade. Much of Ramallah looks like this. But if the building looks nondescript, what happens inside makes the kindergarten completely unique. 
The most striking thing about the school is its educational ethos. As the headmistress, Fida, explains, the kindergarten is not a “music school” in the typical sense. 
Other schools in Ramallah teach music. But the kindergarten, with its twenty-five pupils, is different: “We have lessons with two teachers, the music teacher and the subject teacher together in the classroom. We [teach] the alphabet and numbers through music.” Everything the children do, Fida continues, “is connected to music.” 
After getting up their strength at snack time, gorging on fruit and drinking water, the children showed me what Fida means. Before I could even sit down, they sang a song welcoming me to the school in Arabic. 
With a piano providing dramatic accompaniment, the children then learnt about the seasons. In 'winter’ they burrowed into the floor, while in 'spring’ they jumped up and spread their arms like trees in blossom. Sunrise is explained, meanwhile, through the use of gradually rising scales. 
The children are also encouraged to express themselves by playing the instruments neatly stacked in the corner of the music room. Tarek, a shy boy with a messy brown fringe, told me he loved playing the bell. He wasn’t joking: the noise from his instrument filled the room, until a teacher told him to stop. 
Asked how she developed this system, Fida remained typically diffident: “We improved with experience.” Still, this thoughtful approach has proved popular elsewhere. Another kindergarten, with the same approach to teaching children through music, has opened in Berlin.
The school’s globetrotting founders help explain the broad reach of Fida’s methods. The kindergarten was established by the acclaimed conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, a man famous for promoting musical education around the world.
Barenboim also collaborated with Mariam Said, a major force in the Palestinian artistic scene and the widow of the hugely influential Palestinian writer Edward Said. Indeed, the centre was named in honour of the philosopher. 
With Barenboim as their sponsor, it is unsurprising that many of the children at the kindergarten go on to study music later in life. The youngest children first learn the flute as they need “small fingers” to play, Fida explains. 
This is part of a broader resurgence in Palestinian musical life, starting in the early 1990s. If Palestinians wanted to hear live classical music in the 1960s and 70s, they had to travel to West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Much of Palestine’s popular music was imported from Egypt and Syria. 
Things are quickly changing, and the Edward Said Musical Kindergarten is just one example of this transformation. The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music was established in 1993; alumni of the Conservatory have performed all over the world. Meanwhile, the Palestinian rap group DAM have become famous for their scathing attacks on the Israeli occupation. 
But if the kindergarten is an example of Palestine’s revived culture, Fida maintains that it is not “the most important thing.” Rather, the crucial aspect of her work is that music “solves a lot of problems in children.” 
“It is difficult to live [In Palestine],” she begins. “Children here know about the occupation, about soldiers; they hear bombs. Through music it’s the same as medicine. If one of the children is shy, we can use music to change this in [them]. Sometimes the children can’t talk to you about their problems. But music relaxes them.”
The positive benefits of the kindergarten are obvious in other ways. Before, Fida says, children would tell their parents that they “wanted guns” to play with. But after two years at the Edward Said Musical Kindergarten, many would ask for musical instruments: “we want flutes, guitars, pianos!” 
Fida herself is not immune from the kind of suffering many of her students face. Her family fled their home on Jaffa Street, in West Jerusalem, during the 1948 war; the building is now a pizza restaurant. 
Nonetheless, she is passionate about the power of music to improve the lives of Palestinians. Young people have “found a new way” to cope with the occupation beyond throwing “stones and rocks.” It is now common for “guys and girls to play music in the street. These are new ideas.”
“The situation in Palestine is crazy, you can’t imagine,” she chuckles. “In Palestine, today you are in a wedding, tomorrow you are in a funeral. This is how it goes here.”
“Sometimes you walk in the street and you say 'what is this? A lot of music? Just last night two guys died! How can they play music?’ But if we didn’t do this, if we keep only feeling sad and angry, our problems would become even bigger.” 
“And you see we have children, we have life, and we need to control our lives – to deal with it.”

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