The following post was written by Christopher Thibdeau, the Conductor and Master Teacher of Bridge Boston, an El Sistema-inspired music program. At Bridge Boston, Christopher teaches over 300 students that are often the most economically and socially disadvantaged in the city: 20% have been homeless, 20% have received support from the Department of Children and Families, 22% receive Special Education services, 39% are English Language Learners, and all are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Through their studies in music, the students learn how to persevere through challenges, to hold themselves to high standards, and to achieve in ways they may not have expected.
One of the most incredible life experiences I have had was last year when I was invited to be a guest artist at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, Afghanistan. During my ten day visit I was overwhelmed with experiences, learning about the culture, history, music, and language of the Afghan people. I had the privilege of teaching cello to the students at ANIM and was also able to work with a few of the conducting students including Negin Khpolwak, Afghanistan’s first-ever female conductor.
It is hard to put into words what that trip means to me, so I will not attempt to do so here. Instead, I will share a few things among the many that I learned during my time at ANIM.
First and foremost, the visit put human faces to a conflict that prior to my travels seemed distant and a world away. Getting to know my students, the faculty from all over (including Mexico, Russia, India and France), and a few of the locals, I understood that the Afghan people simply want peace.
In regards to teaching music, I was surprised at how helpful solfège was to communicate across the language barrier. The students at ANIM used fixed do which allowed quick and easy communication when discussing specific notes or passages. It was also wonderful to observe the Afghan folk songs and traditional instruments. The large ensembles integrated the traditional instruments with the western instruments including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, creating a unique sound.
Finally was the pure and simple joy of teaching. During one of my conducting lessons with a student named Zarifa, I was able to see her have a “lightbulb” moment where a concept clicked. It was amazing to be halfway across the globe and see the same look of delight!
The beauty of the music was juxtaposed against the violent conflict in the country. No one has a greater understanding of this than the founder of ANIM, Dr. Ahmad Sarmas, who opened the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in 2010. Five years later this came close to costing him his life; on December 11th, 2015 a suicide bomb attack left him almost deaf with eleven pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head. The Taliban claimed responsibility and named Dr. Sarmast specifically, accusing him of corrupting the youth of Afghanistan.
Despite this attack Dr. Sarmast has continued his vision for ANIM. “Music and music education is the most powerful force, but a very soft power. I see in our orchestra tomorrow’s Afghanistan. An Afghanistan which embraces diversity and creates equal opportunity for everyone. A most beautiful mosaic of Afghan ethnicity.”
The ten days flew by and before I knew it, it was time to return to the US. It was difficult saying goodbye to the students but I did so with the knowledge that they are in good hands. The teachers, staff, and musicians of ANIM are building a future for Kabul and Afghanistan and the students are dedicated to the promise and hope of tomorrow.
I hope it is not too long before I am able to return.
(quotes taken from The Guardian, May 25th, 2015)