Tag Archives: teaching

September 4th, 2014

I arrived at the square in front of the mall and stopped to unsling my trumpet and drums. With an hour until my next class, I had time to relax and observe the city center. Because Friday is typically reserved for prayer, Thursdays tend to see the most action in Nablus. People streamed in and out of the souk to my left, and at its mouth the fruit carts were waiting in the streets with their produce arranged in colorful, eye-catching designs.

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Right in front of me, a man tending a sharwarma stand suddenly burst into song, one that I recognized from weddings and parties. After a month and a half in Nablus, I now know Palestine’s Top 40 by heart, because we hear the same tunes every day: in the taxi, on the street, in restaurants, and from our students. It’s not uncommon to hear wedding songs sung in cafes or political songs chanted at weddings, nor is there a particular age associated with mainstream music: you could easily find a child and his father and his father clapping together and singing the same thing.

As I sat listening, a boy selling coffee ran up to me and rapped his knuckles across the skin of the djembe on my lap. I laughed and held it up for him to play, causing him to take a break and set the tall copper pot on the ground. I don’t know his name, but I see him all the time, badgering pedestrians to buy from him, as he used to do to me. Now when he sees me, he forgets the coffee and comes to play the instruments I’m carrying. His dad, a rugged man wearing stained cargo pants, sells coffee too, and one time he saw his son playing and rushed over immediately. I was worried, thinking he’d yell at his kid for getting distracted. Instead, he halted right in front of me, rubbed his five o’ clock shadow, and unzipped my trumpet case. I was too surprised to protest initially, but started to get up until he told me in broken English, “No worry, is safe.” I was still wary, but couldn’t help smiling as he turned it over in his hands, puzzled but amused, and trying to get a sound out of it. Finally, he handed it back, beaming. I’m a regular customer now, though I keep a closer eye on the trumpet.

That kind of behavior is commonplace here; in my experience, Palestinians are very forward and form connections with people quickly, especially internationals. This is why we’ve been so relentlessly busy: every night there’s a dinner, or a rehearsal, or a party, or a wedding. It’s as if our activity level is inversely proportional to the days we have left in Nablus; sleep has become optional, and the waking hours whip by in a blur. This past weekend I visited Jericho, Ramallah, and the Dead Sea, returning each evening to the group at Sama Nablus. Last night, they threw a barbecue bachelor party for one of Nidal’s cousin, and Nidal himself brought his oud. He strummed and sang some of the songs I keep hearing everywhere, while his brother Odai danced behind the grill. At some point, Abu quieted everyone down and asked his girlfriend to close her eyes and stick out her hands. When she did so, he placed a sparkling silver and diamond ring right in the center of her palm. That’s another wedding, and another reason to come back to Palestine.

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That night I didn’t come home until two in the morning, and then stayed up playing oud until I heard the call to prayer at dawn. I woke up late the next morning and dashed to the cultural center, arms full of percussion instruments. Nidal was supposed to bring his oud for a nice final activity, but cancelled at the last minute, leaving us to face our students without a lesson plan. The kids were already excited because they knew it was their last class with us, and I could feel their energy bubbling until it reached a boiling point ten minutes in. Then all hell broke loose: all 20 of them charged Giulia and I, arms outstretched for a drum. There were only seven, so the rest of the hour was a chaotic mess as kids chased and pushed each other, while those with instruments drummed so loudly that their little hands turned red. I couldn’t hear myself shout over the din. Rather than intervene, our translator shrugged and said, “It’s better to just let them do what they want.” Already sleep-deprived, I decided that a coffee after class was nonnegotiable. But as I walked out of the cafe with my cappuccino, some guy slammed into me and knocked it out of my hands. I watched, horrified, as it hit the sidewalk and burst like a water balloon. Defeated, I found my usual spot at city center and sat, brooding over the coffee, the class, and the lack of sleep. Someone tapped my shoulder, interrupting my thoughts, and when I turned I saw the coffee boy, holding out a fresh Turkish brew. I took it, but he didn’t charge: just tapped the drum on my lap and kept walking.

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September 1st, 2014

“It’s September 1st,” Giulia casually mentioned as she walked by on her way to bed. 
I jerked up, startled. I had fallen asleep on the couch, using my journal as a pillow. I checked the time: three in the morning. It was indeed September 1st. 

With only ten days left, our coordinator assigned us a kindergarten class, in addition to our older kids at the Cultural Center and Askar camp. Out of all the students we’ve taught music to, the oldest of which are 17 and 18 years old, these five year-olds are easily the most well-behaved. And so enthusiastic! We could have them play musical statues for half an hour and they wouldn’t get bored. 

At the Cultural Center, we have to try a little harder to engage everyone, especially the older students. I have this exercise I really like, where I split the class into four groups and give each one a sheet of manuscript paper to write music on. This time, without thinking, I grouped all the older kids together… including Ameed, who tends to prefer joking about the songs we’re singing than actually singing them. I slid him a paper and a few pencils, and turned away to help the younger ones figure out their rhythms. But we were interrupted only a few minutes later by the loud stomps of “We Will Rock You” by Queen, Arabic style. Unsurprisingly, Ameed was leading the chorus, slamming the tables until the other groups started covering their ears and complaining. I went over to him. 

“Ameed, c’mon, write something. It’s easy.” 
He sneered. “Bidoosh. Mahib el musica.” Meaning, “I don’t want to. I don’t like music.” Which obviously wasn’t true, as he was rocking out pretty hard a few seconds ago. I sat down next to him. “Okay, Ameed. Write that song down.” 
He looked at me, then at the blank piece of paper, and back to me again. “Queen?”

I nodded. “Queen.”
He picked up a pencil, then set it down. I watched as his expression changed from derision to honest perplexity. “Ma baaraf keef.” I don’t know how.

So I showed him. We spent about five minutes working over the basics, while the other groups finished their compositions. After helping him write a bar, I walked back to Giulia, who had started playing the freshly minted pieces on her flute. They were pretty basic tunes, but musically correct and kind of catchy. As she was blowing the last note of the last piece, Ameed came dashing through the cluster of students, clutching his paper. I smoothed it out and scrutinized the muddle of eraser marks and pencil lead. Then I looked up at Ameed, who was intently awaiting my review. I smiled. “Messy, but this is unmistakably “We Will Rock you.” Then I let him lead the entire class in the song, clapping the iconic beat that is beloved of rebels even halfway around the world. 

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(Our CCC kids. Ameed’s the one in blue)

August 20th, 2014 (Last day of First Schedule)

Halfway through our placement, Project Hope is shifting all its volunteers’ schedules. School is starting up again in Nablus, so we can’t have morning classes anymore. If we’re lucky, we’ll still have the same kids. For all the obstacles we face with teaching here– including the language barrier, the problems in Palestine, and the fact that they are, you know, children — they’ve made so much progress in these last three weeks that I’m reluctant to give them up for a fresh new batch of students. 

Until now, Giulia and I have been teaching at the City Cultural Center and Medical Center in Nablus, a women’s center in Askar Camp, and another in Sebastya. Each class has its own difficulties and personality. There seems to be a trade-off between behavior and enthusiasm; at CCC and Sebastya, for example, the kids are usually pretty well-behaved, but they get bored more easily, so we have to work harder to keep their attention. At Askar and the Medical Center, the kids are crazy. I always leave with my ears buzzing, and the Medical Center is where the fight broke out a while back. But when they focus on an activity, they put an amazing amount of energy into it (here’s a link to the Medical Center kids singing Al Kufiyya for us). 

We tried to make the last day memorable while simultaneously reviewing everything we’ve gone over up until that point. With the older kids, I wrote out some staves and had the compose their own music. It was pretty basic stuff, but they were able to come up with 10 or so bars of song, which Giulia and I then played on her flute and my trumpet. 

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After going over rhythms, notes, and dynamics, and singing “Tik Tik Tik Ya Musleiman” and “Oh! Alele”, we took group pictures of each class. Sometimes, we let the kids try out our instruments. Most of the younger ones could eventually get a sound out my trumpet, and a few managed to jump registers, which is actually way more than I could do the first time I picked one up. It made me want to buy them all instruments; some would seriously make great musicians, if they just had the resources to get started. 

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August 5th, 2014

I woke up this morning to Khalid practicing his piano nursery rhyme on the floor above me. It was 7:30 in the morning. The kid is dedicated.

We had two classes today: one at the Cultural Center, and the other in a town called Sebastya, about a half an hour away from Nablus. Both classes went extremely well. Our lesson plan was ironed our after its we piloted it yesterday, and the kids in both classes were eager and cooperative. They seem to enjoy vocal exercises the most, even if we’re just going up and down the scale, because that’s when they get to interact most directly with the music.

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It’s getting harder and harder to find time to write; each class takes at least two hours, between lesson planning, transportation, and the class itself. And of course, we now have Khalid to teach during the evenings.
At 7:50 pm he knocked on our door, ten minutes before the scheduled time. That’s actually huge, considering most people here are at least ten minutes late to just about everything (though I should mention that our students haven’t been late once yet). I was pretty tired, but I invited him in and we got started immediately. The funny thing about Khalid is that most of the time, he’s an uncontrollable ball of energy, but the second you put a piano in front of him he becomes this focused, perfect student. Yesterday, he only knew the piano keys by numbering them. Today, I taught him Solfege, and he immediately, intuitively made the connection between Do and 1, Re and 2, etc. By the time I sent him on his way, he was playing his nursery rhyme from memory, without numbers, and playing with new combinations of notes. I was grinning like mad for fifteen minutes; it’s unreal to witness this kind of progress, especially when you had a hand in it.

August 4th, 2014

We had our first class today, and as far as first classes go, I’d say we did alright. A little awkward in terms of flow, but that was to be expected, given the fact that we had about a day and a half to come up with our first lesson plan. This class was at the Nablus Cultural Center, just a few blocks away from Project Hope, and it’s probably where we’ll be teaching most often. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. Timing is pretty whack here; fashionably late is considered punctual, and I’ve learned not to trust the schedules we’re given. Our translator showed up fifteen minutes into the hour-long class, which meant Giulia, Tessa, and I spent that time awkwardly introducing ourselves in Arabic to a group of giggly eight year-olds.

But the nice thing about music is it’s literally the most basic form of communication, so it’s not hard to get across to these kids what we want them to do. It’s crazy how intuitive a four-four rhythm is, or even the Solfege scale (Do-Re-Mi). Imagine not knowing how to tell someone you want them to sing, but being able to successfully conducting them in choir to “O alele!”.

Back at Project Hope, we checked in and said hi to some of the other volunteers. Our coordinator gave us the day off, and since we haven’t had a free moment since coming here, we took the opportunity to practice a bit before heading back to the flat. I went out to the stone balcony with my trumpet and started playing. I knew it wouldn’t be long before one of the neighbors yelled at me to stop, but from that spot I could see all of Nablus in the valley below, and I wanted to take in the view as much as possible. Like I thought, the door to the neighboring balcony opened up just a few minutes later. A little boy ran out, leaned over the balcony, and started yelling, “Bekefi!” to the ground (“bekefi” means “stop” in Arabic). At first I was confused, but when I realized what he was doing, I almost gave myself away by laughing; the acoustics were making the sound from my trumpet ricochet off the walls and ceiling and finally down into the valley, so it sounded like I was playing from right under his building. We were only three meters away from each other, but he never even saw me.

That night, we went upstairs to meet our landlord and his family. We ended up staying for two hours, drinking tea and eating figs and talking politics. It’s impossible to have a conversation here without politics entering into it; the occupation is such a part of life in Palestine that politics are tied to everything from education to holidays to what you’re eating for dinner.

Before we left, the youngest son, Khalid, ran up to us with a tiny piano keyboard and asked us to teach him music. We showed him a nursery rhyme, and he became absorbed with it, practicing it over and over again as everyone else continued talking.

We were practically adopted by the time we finally made it downstairs. As Ahmad, the eldest son, put it, “I had only one sister. Now I have three more!”