In 2015, a colleague in Boston invited me to Ramallah, Palestine to spend two weeks working at the Al Kalmandjati School of Music. This organization, I was told, was founded in 2002 by a Palestinian violist named Ramzi. Without knowing much about Ramzi or the school of music, I set off to work with the flute players, pianists, and singers as a part of their annual summer music camp. The week before the trip, however, I got an idea to also work with the students on a collaborative project composing music together.
So on a hot August morning, our international teaching team arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and loaded into a van to start the trek across the dusty, rocky hills toward Ramallah. As soon as we stepped out of the van, we were greeted by dozens of young, smiling faces running to hug the teachers they recognized from summers past. Just before the workshop began, I could see in most of the teachers’ eyes that they were incredulous that we would able to create a piece of music in only 4 days with a group of students who had such a range of ages and backgrounds — some knew how to read music, others didn’t; only half of the group spoke English and I had only learned a few Arabic words.
When the composition ensemble was finally all assembled, I looked out at a group of students who seemed to be as doubtful as their teachers as to their ability to compose. That first day, I focused on doing fun and silly improvisational activities to show that there were no mistakes in composition, only discovery. Slowly, over the next few days the students opened up to me and began to trust their musical instincts. Then, on the third day we were working together on a part of the music where we had gotten stuck as a group the day before. In this part of the piece, we were using a line of poetry that described peaceful Palestinian villages. But we all agreed that the music seemed unfinished. I asked the group what they thought might come next, and one girl who had been quiet the past few days raised her hand. With everyone’s eyes on her, she softly spoke: “I think we should turn to violent sounds because nothing here stays peaceful for long.” Her words carried much weight and the other students nodded. So we began exploring how, with sounds, we could depict the violence that they’ve experienced in their community.
On the last day, it finally felt like we were a cohesive group of composers there together. The group decided to end our piece with a song, so we went into composing lyrics. The kids chose as their subject for the song the Al Kamandjati School of music. When it came time to perform, I had tears in their eyes hearing them sing the words they wrote, “Its life, it’s music” and “this is my second home.”