In 2006-2007 I grew up. Before that year, I had finished my Masters in Instrumental Conducting after a Bachelors in Violin, and had just finished a 6 month self-organised opera project Maria de Buenos Aires. I needed a job. I reviewed the website musicalchairs.info daily and finally stumbled upon something that I was ecstatic to apply for and do: conducting two orchestras, 1 choir, and teaching violin and flute all in 1 place - the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. I didn't look at the flag, and applied. When I got the job, I realised that I would be moving to Pa. les tine. I was 25 years old. That was the year that I grew up and lost my stupid American naiveté.
In these series of blog posts I'll be sharing the email updates that I sent to my friends, family, and colleagues at the time.
UPDATE 1 - sent September 2006
Finally, here is the update of what is happening with me in Palestine! Sorry it has taken me so long . .
Well, let’s start from the beginning. I arrived in Tel Aviv in this massive and very clean airport which probably has cameras in every corner with an extreme sense of not knowing what in the world I was doing, what was going to happen with me, and into what kind of mess I was getting myself into. But luckily, I stepped two steps out of the baggage claim, and was relieved to immediately see a nice young man holding a sign “Ms. Hebe.” And so, I was driven to a church/hotel where I spent the rest (4 hours) of the night, and the next morning BAM we had the big teachers meeting for the Conservatory year. I had totally not prepared, didn’t know what to expect, and was somewhat amused to see some of the older teachers with looks of extreme concern and worry and frustration on their faces, all which came out in the meeting. I made some obvious mistakes and assumptions about the conservatory which I am now paying for harshly, such as the level of the students, the participation of the teachers with the orchestra, and the organisation of the administration. Just like everything in life, things always happen better when you do whatever is needed yourself!
However, I am getting much more acquainted with what exactly I need to do and why, and now the conservatory is realising how to give me the tools I need to get the job done, and so slowly I am able to build my network and try to make something that all the kids, their parents, and hopefully eventually Palestine can be proud of.
I have a beginning orchestra of kids who at first were completely unruly and undisciplined and who had absolutely no concept of tempo. Must be my fault partly. They are now they are working diligently and even with motivation on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and some Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Advanced Orchestra is a case of issues. There is such an extremely small pool of advanced students who are able to participate, and they all live in the 3 cities (Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Ramallah), and so coordinating rehearsals keeping in mind holidays of 3 religions (Muslims, Christians, Jews), difficulties of getting across checkpoints, parents complaining about taking time away from school, and then their own lack of preparation, has made the rehearsal process thus far a NIGHTMARE. After changing the program several times (currently they are preparing several mov’ts of the Mozart C minor Mass, Bach Orchestra Suite #1, and we will do Schubert Unfinished), meeting with the parents, and myself coming to my own solution, now I am traveling to each city for individual lessons and sectionals with each musician every week, and then every month we will have retreats in Birzeit for a weekend where they will come together and play as an “orchestra.” Improvement has been drastic, . . some of them are extremely motivated, diligent, and intelligent, and those who have really put the time in with me have made me very proud and excited that they improve so exponentially. With all of the difficulties imposed by religious traditions (fasting in Ramadan), religious and political conflict and oppression, the drive of these kids when encouraged is amazing, and their curiousity and willingness to learn is wonderful, relieving, and definitely motivational for myself as well.
Then comes my favourite group: the Jerusalem Chorus. . which actually has nothing currently to do with Jerusalem. I think in the past they were based there. . but then with the Israeli restriction of mov’t, and the fact that they were mostly a Ramallah based group, we now do all rehearsals and concerts in Ramallah. It is a completely amateur group, mostly 30-60 years old . . . at least 25% learn by ear rather than read . . and I simply LOVE the challenge and the joy of working with them. At first they were worse than my beginning orchestra on discipline. . they were used to being conducted by a marvelous old lady named Salwa who suffered/s from MS, and who obviously lacked the energy to keep this unruly group within bounds. They said they always started at least ½ hour late, there was a lot of talking and laughing all the time, and general good spirit without really paying attention to actually rehearsing and making a good quality musical product. They were there for fun. Now, Ha ha, I have come into the picture.. . . we still have fun! We start by having our fitness expert (one of the older men who teaches fitness at a school) do some stretching and exercises, then we do singing warm-ups .. and then we actually rehearse and learn the pieces . . something that I don’t think they were used to before . . matching vowels, dynamics, phrasing, . . and they are wonderful! Some of them can’t sing exactly on pitch yet, and the sopranos have trouble with the high notes, but with every week that passes, they are opening up more, and the pitch is eventually getting there . . our big success thus far is the Credo mov’t from the Mozart Mass, which they are beginning to sing with real life and good sound. Other than that we will sing some traditional Palestinian songs and some Christmas carols.
And finally, I have many flute and violin students, all of whom make me extremely happy . . I never thought that I would want to be a teacher, but it is really a joy, . . especially teaching flute. I have one little girl, Nai (which means flute), who is ten years old and plays with a huge sound, with vibrato, and thus far has a very good natural sense of phrasing, . . we played a Bach piece the other day . . I accompanied her on the piano, and I was bursting with happiness at the end of the pieces . . to think that music so wonderful can come out of a great child, born amidst a chaotic world challenged by internal strife, political oppression, and difficulties at every turn . . and yet something so extremely beautiful, confident, and emotional was pushed and born into the air for a few minutes!
At the conservatory, we have a crazy mixture of international teachers. . some of whom I really like, and others who I am now becoming to realise that I don’t want anything to do with them. Recently a wonderful flutist came to join the team, R- L-, who used to play with the Paul Winter group .. this lady is really great to talk to, work with, and learn from. I am extremely glad that I have a such a great teammate who has taken over my Ramallah flute students. Every which language is spoken within the teachers . . Russian, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, German . . what a mix.
There is so much news that I should add about my experience just being in this place .. but there is no way to add all of it. My brain has been so trashed with emotions and experiences over the past month that I can’t even imagine from what mindset I came from.
For the first month I was living in the Sawanee neighborhood in Jerusalem, on the side of the Mount of Olives. Tension central between creeping in Israeli neighborhoods and struggling Arab neighborhoods. I had to walk 40 minutes every day to go to the conservatory, and through a terrible neighborhood where the kids were the biggest problem. . kids that only understood parent’s frustration, soldiers with guns .. etc. Kids in Jerusalem especially have a problem because the teacher/student ratio becomes worse and worse, the teachers haven’t been paid in I think 8 months, and they get out of school at 1pm .. so from 1pm until 10, if their parents are working, they are making havoc on the streets. HOWEVER, I took the very smart initiative after a late night upsetting experience that caused my to bawl my head off (pent up emotions tend to build up within me and erupt for hours of crying once a year) for an entire night, and moved my butt to Ramallah, where I currently live in a fantastic one bedroom apartment overlooking a beautiful valley, and in a very good safe neighborhood.
In one sense it was very good for me to live in Jerusalem . . the constant upset made music all the more worthwhile . .
Now we get to some more issues . . . guns are omnipresent here. Soldiers at all checkpoints have huge guns. At least 70% of the Israeli soldiers that I see are small skinny women with perfect hair and guns that are at least ½ their size. Small kids play with plastic guns in the streets . . a real irritation to me. . . and the fact that these mothers buy this for their children . .
Ramadan! What a month! All of the Muslims fast each day, and then they get together with family, friends at the “iftar” (breaking of the fast) to feast every night, then go the the Mosque and pray, and then more celebration. Every Friday, the Muslim day of rest, they try to go to Jerusalem to pray, and usually the Kalandia checkpoint is a complete mess of thousands of people who are not let through.
Kalandia . . . the refugee camp between the checkpoint and Ramallah, where the road is simply DREADFUL .. full of pot holes and pits .. and although many international donors have offered funds to fix the road, it is an impossibility due to Israel zoning restrictions. Makes learning Arabic on the bus ride through the checkpoint an exercise of the eye muscles. When the bus gets to the checkpoint, you have to go out, walk to the pedestrian entrance, go to a stall type entrance, wait in a sort of cattle pen with the others with your visa ready to show, .. then when you are allowed to be checked, you put your bag in the x-ray machine, walk through the metal detector, usually get yelled at to show your id and visa, and then if all is well (once I bought a kitchen knife and left it in my bag by mistake. . BIG mistake) you can go through, walk out and step hopefully into the same bus you came on.
The economy is hanging at very thin threads here .. people are extremely relieved and happy when they have a foreign renter . .. very glad to get the extra cash, and my landlady is an old spectacularly nice lady who really takes care of me. However, the lack of money flowing through makes people desperate for business. . . anytime I walk anywhere I immediately get many many honks from taxis .. and if I walk through a bunch of them, it’s a hilarious chorus of “taxi taxi taxi” . . imagine now an Arabic accent and the “i” very “eeeeee” with the voice going up considerably . . really a hilarious sound when in chorus, . .they should make a cell-phone ring out of it. Well . . it takes getting used to, but really, there is no danger here from the people themselves, even with the situation. Considering the lack of governmental oversight such as a court system, people have high moral standards stemming from cultural tradition, and therefore, I do not fear walking through the streets alone with my wallet and passport . . that being said, of course one must always be on guard. . but it is a much different guard then say the attention are care you have to have in an American city, where you know that theft is completely possible and inevitable if you don’t watch out.
Living with the Arabs .. there is no better time in my life to experience this than now, and I’m not only learning a lot about things that never concerned me directly before, but I’m growing to appreciate and sympathise with a culture that before was completely foreign and unknown to me.