Playing With Wolfgang: Unexpected Results
Victoria Bell is a former student of mine. She was active in all the piano related activities around our state and participated in countless masterclasses, competitions, recitals, and ensembles. I remember a rehearsal where the piano ensemble conductor asked all the students to introduce themselves and tell what school they attended. We heard, “I’m Mary and I go to Washington High School,” “I’m Joe and I’m a Junior at Verde View High,” and so forth all around the room. Victoria was last. “Uh”, she said, “Actually, I’m still in Middle School.”
Victoria went off to a prestigious University where she did not major in music. But, as piano teachers know, the fruits of piano study are not measured by whether someone gets a degree in the field. They are not measured by how many competitions you placed in either. You never know when or how what you have taught will flower. Victoria found that all her talents came together at a time and in a way that was totally unexpected. Please enjoy her post.
The first time I visited the music department at Kabul University, it felt a bit like coming home. Although the characters in the scene were unfamiliar to me, everything else was what I had known for ages: A small group of girls carrying violins greeted me with timid Salaams as they scurried off to class. Someone was playing a Bach Minuet down the hall on repeat. Moments later, I would participate in a choir rehearsal and warm up with young men and women who had lived entirely different lives from me up until that moment of shared experience.
I had arrived in Kabul a few months prior, and adjusting to life in Afghanistan had provided plenty of excitement and distraction for my curious mind. But as a lifelong musician, having no musical outlet in those first months had been wearying and stifling. Helping out at the music department became an important, life-giving part of my time in the beautiful but war-torn country.
Afghans have a rich tradition in ethnic music. Local buses and taxis blast beautiful Afghan melodies playing on the radio; in many homes, the television is always on the music channel; and Afghan weddings are known for the long hours of dining and dancing with family and friends.
Despite these obvious cultural ties with music, generally, their relationship with music is more complex. For historical, social, and especially for religious reasons, the enjoyment and particularly the study and performance of music is still a very contentious topic in Afghanistan, as it is in many other Islamic countries. Islamic scholars have debated for centuries whether music is permissible and there is not uniform agreement among them.
During the five years that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, music and dancing were strictly forbidden. Whereas in America, most children have opportunities to explore music from a young age at school, in Afghanistan even now, those opportunities are not available either in or out of the classroom for most children.
For all of these reasons, it is quite amazing that there is a growing music department at the most prestigious university in Afghanistan. Most of the music students at Kabul University received no musical training prior to attending university. As a result, many first-year music majors start with the very basics, learning for the first time how to read music and tune their instrument. However, the department has been growing, and now, many top graduates have been hired on as teachers.
My days at the music department included some teaching, but most of my time was spent in choir where I played the piano accompaniment for four movements of Carmina Burana. Choir is a mandatory class for the western music students within the department, but due to a norm of lateness and absenteeism within the culture, at no point during my time in Kabul was attendance ever at 100 percent. This bothered Ms. June, the foreign teacher and conductor, to no end, but in a true testament to her devotion to teaching, she never let her exasperation get in the way of making progress in class. “Where is Ahmed?” she would ask, and order a few students to track him down.
Every class, in a scolding yet loving tone, she would explain how essential it was to show up for class before walking the students through the Latin lyrics as well as the importance of dynamics in various sections of the piece. Her strictness paid off, and I could see that the students noticed and respected their teacher for her dedication. I’ll never forget the looks of exhilaration after a particularly excellent run-through of O Fortuna when everyone had felt the drive and drama of the piece. The atmosphere was brimming with wonder. “That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?” Ms. June asked, and everyone nodded, faces bursting with uncontained smiles.
Artistry, musicality, and really “having an ear” for the music are concepts that many students still do not fully understand by the time they graduate after four years, and by international standards, these music students are not too special. But in a country that has been grappling with instability and war since 1978, I saw these students as the hope for Afghanistan.
Studying music, on an individual level, teaches discipline, fosters creativity, and is a productive way to release extreme emotion. In a society where men and women typically subdue their emotions and rarely show how they truly feel, music is an obvious outlet of expression.
Studying music, at a group level, teaches cooperation and teamwork, fine-tunes the ear to hear how different parts fit together and complement each other, forces the individual to become a crucial piece of a larger gestalt, and produces something beautiful and usually impossible for just a single person. In a country where ethnic tensions throughout history have not only left deep scars but continue to clearly divide the country in politics, geography, and other areas of society, music is one of the few facets of life that can bring factions together and diminish–instead of widen–the divide.
Kabul University music students are on the receiving end of a lot of opposition both on and off campus. Various professors of required classes in other departments are known to fail entire groups of music students for no obvious reason, forcing students to retake exams a number of times before finally giving out passing grades. At home, many students, especially female students, face criticism from family and friends urging them to switch majors because studying music is seen as quite scandalous among more conservative circles.
Despite these obstacles, students continue to pursue their musical dreams, and through their persistence, the deeply-rooted cultural and innately human attraction towards music is slowly being normalized in the country’s institutions of higher education.
There is a power in the sharing of music that is perhaps more poignant in a place like Afghanistan, where so many forces—well-intentioned and not—seek to stamp out self-expression and creativity. But, in an unassuming corner of the university campus, students are learning to pour freely into a passion of their own.