I had to think about saying yes to this when Marc Thayer first called. You hear about danger in Iraq, and I know I made my family nervous. However, I would do it again, without hesitation.
Some of these students first began their instruments alone, with only YouTube as a guide and no feedback. Can you imagine what self-motivation that would require? How do you know what excellence is? How can you go beyond a certain level? (Some students, like those in the West, justify excesses in interpretation with “[Famous Soloist] plays that way.” This is an extension of the same problem. I tried to impress on them that in Classical music, the composer is the first authority, and deviations and changes must only come from your study of the piece. By all means, steal ideas from other performers, but only if you understand why they’re done and how they affect the performance.
The conducting class was also important and I hope it makes a difference. For some class meetings there were twenty students, for others only a handful. I think they now have a better idea the influence a conductor can have on performance and will bring this to their future work. I also suspect that the Kurdish translation of Italian terms will do some circulation in that part of the world for at least a few years! (Arun, one of the concertmasters, did most of the work there!)
However, my personal trip, and the program as a whole, is not simply about musical performance. It’s about transformational change. Lives are changing in deep ways, and access to the world is expanding. I’m told Iraqis must be have a specific purpose, and be granted a visa from their government, in order to leave the country – none of the meandering travel we can enjoy in the West! Now some of these young musicians will travel to France with the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra tour to France next month, and others are pursuing studies in the US because of these connections.
Whether they travel abroad or not, this generation of students are already teaching new generations of young students, and raising standards, expectations and hopes across many of the cities and towns in Kurdistan. It was an honor to be a part of it.
I’d like to thank a few people. I appreciate the gentle prodding of Hunter’s President, Jennifer Raab, and our Communications director, Susan Konig, to get me to blog about this. The daily reflection has been helpful, and I thank you, dear reader, for reading it, and hope that the mistakes and omissions were not too egregious! I’m thankful for John Ferguson, for running this whole thing, and Marc Thayer for inviting me. Also, my faculty colleagues are all brilliant and I was honored to be one of them.
The staff of the YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy went above and beyond what staff are expected to do, and reacted to changing circumstances daily with impressively measured calm.
My former music department chair, Ruth DeFord, donated some of her large collection of violin and viola music: this will make a big difference. While there’s IMSLP, of course, teachers and students are sometimes at a loss in picking repertoire and studies to play – these editions will make a difference. Brielle, Hunter’s acting Music Department Secretary also helped when I was making the parts for the orchestra, which I have left in Iraq by future orchestras.
Two composers I have worked with in the past, Jennifer Bellor and Piotr Szewczyk, kindly agreed to allow me to perform their works in Iraq. I actually brought music for twelve or so pieces, and I selected from this repertoire once rehearsals began. If I return I hope to play Jennifer’s beautiful “Echo’s Lament,” some day, and maybe the remaining movements of Piotr’s piece.
Without the unhesitating support of my wife, Karen Birch Blundell, I could not have gone. She agreed to be alone with our toddler daughter, Elizabeth, for the two weeks I’ve been gone, traveling together from NYC to her family in Connecticut, then down to North Carolina and beginning the festival where she teaches. I simply couldn’t have gone had she not taken this on.