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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

From the page to the stage: MusicUnitesUS with the Waltham community

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Features

02290813.jpg02290802.jpg“I bet you’ve never heard an Iraqi love song,” Yuval Ron of the Yuval Ron Ensemble, continued. The Iraqi musician then proceeded to play one for the kids during a MusicUnitesUs performance in the ‘05-‘06 season. It was through this experience that a group of young children’s eyes opened and ears stretched.

Most young children would respond to his statement with an honest no as all they possess are cloudy images or associations they’ve seen on TV in passing, or statements they’ve heard their parents utter.

For some, seeing is believing, and you could also say that hearing is understanding, if you’ve heard of the Music Unites Us program at Brandeis University, founded in 2003. As their website says, the mission of MusicUnitesUs is to “further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music.” The program’s Intercultural Residency Series, World Music Series, and Public School Education Program are part of the three tiers of the program, which Music Unites Us founder and director Judith Eissenberg believes “mutually support each other.”

Who hasn’t heard a song and been moved by the lyrics, the rhythm, or the message? MusicUnitesUs seeks to foster understanding and embracement of diversity through the arts. In a time where the world is quick to assign identities and lump labels on ‘the enemy,’ music stands as a uniting force. It’s something we all can relate to, whether our taste is for rock, hip hop, or classical. “You have to watch out what you hear second and third hand. It’s not only more truthful, but it’s more interesting to hear it from the person themselves. And that you can trust more, and music is a narrative, it’s an autobiography,” said Eissenberg.

Over 1,000 Waltham public school students visit Brandeis each year as part of the Public School Education Program. The performances during this program reinforce social studies lessons the students study in school. As part of the most recent performance, students were invited to take part in the performance and were treated to a got a performance by the Lydian String Quartet, an idea which came from Lynne La Valley, a director of Waltham public schools. Eissenberg described how the children were thrilled to watch their peers perform, and deemed La Valley’s idea “brilliant.”

On Feb 15, the Lydian String Quartet gave two performances to fourth graders from Waltham elementary schools in Brandeis’ Slosberg recital hall. The program was divided into two sections as to fit all the students invited.

Stephen Goodwin and Lynne La Valley assisted in organizing the trip. Goodwin described in an e-mail what the program has offered to students.

“Over the years MusicUnitesUs has uniquely exposed young people to the music of the Civil Rights era, drum rhythms of kidnapped slaves, songs of Latin American revolutionaries, as well as the ideas and instrumentation of all cultures in the Middle East,” he said.

“I have always appreciated this program for its integrated nature… and the manner in which it serves as a much needed gateway to the larger world for the children of Waltham.”

As part of the education element of the program, Eissenberg works in conjunction with the department of education and lesson plan writer Shipley Salewski to design lessons fitting to the curriculum specific to each group of students. Eissenberg decides which musicians will be coming and then works with Goodwin, to work out what grade level is appropriate for the lesson.

The program, Eissenberg described, “always tr [ies] to emphasize an issue of social justice in the lesson plan as well as use the arts to find out more about history and society and cultur[e] in terms of that particular region and culture.” She meets with the teachers to go over lesson plans, often giving them CDs to go along with the lesson so that “the kids are prepared with the fundamental background of the groups that are coming or the theme of the program.”

Currently teaching in San Francisco, Salewski, who joined the program in 2005, plays her role as lesson planner via long distance. Working with experienced members of her profession has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“What a tremendous treat for me as a relatively young teacher to be able to work with the really tremendous public school teachers in Waltham who are so good at their craft, and so eager to work with the program,” she said, “and on the other end, to work with these amazing musicians from around the world …for me it’s just been a total treat and I feel very very lucky to have gotten in on the close to the ground floor to have been involved for a few years now.”

Salewski explores how the chosen musicians and their work can “illuminate certain aspects of their curriculum that might not be already richly explored,” and reflects on “”what the musicians can bring, what the students already are learning, and where we can sort of add some richness and depth to the curriculum that they already have.

Salewski believes that incorporating music into the student’s lessons gives them “several different pathways into a discussion.” She described her role as a “facilitator between the teachers and musicians,” emphasizing how the teachers assist her in assessing what types of lessons would work best for their classes.

Teaching the lessons in a way that is accessible to the students is an important aspect of the planning process. Salewski described how the most recent plan dealing with immigration included a drawing of a house which asked students to discuss what they’d like to take with them if they were to move anywhere, ranging from across the street to around the world. Through having the students pinpoint the objects most important to them and then envisioning the immigration experience, Shipley hopes to “develop an empathy for the experience, [and] also hopefully develo[p] an empathy for the many students of Waltham who are themselves immigrants, [thereby] developing a shared experience of what that experience might be like.”

All performances are free for the invited schools, and everything is provided except money for busing. Eissenberg expressed her joy at hosting the students, saying it’s an “honor to have them.” She added, “every time those school buses unload and those kids swarm off and come into the building, everyone’s excited. It’s just wonderful.”

Eissenberg described how initially when she began to think about the program, she “didn’t want just a field trip event, and I also didn’t’ want it only attached to the music program. I wanted it to be a deeper kind of an exploration of the arts through culture.” Eissenberg’s work as an artist has instilled her with the belief that “the artist affords a special interest that’s deep and personal in culture and there’s something that we all share in our desire to make music and art.” To Eissenberg, art shows us our similarities and differences on a “really positive and deep level.”

According to Eissenberg, music affords us the opportunity to understand each other. “That’s the big motivation for me,” she said. “And because I’m an artist, that would be through the arts. And I do think the arts have something to do with identity and culture and values…I don’t see it as separate from culture, that’s why I wanted [the program] immersed in the social studies program.”

She explained how we no longer have a choice to relate with our neighbors. “We have to engage [and] need to confront our differences in a more positive way. We need to be interested and value them. Of course what we have in common also can be a positive or negative thing.” Eissenberg believes we need to find a “platform [through which] we can engage each other in a positive way to go forward. She believes the arts offer this since they “often show what’s beautiful about us and what we value in positive ways.”

Seeing the children’s reaction to the performance was particularly interesting to Eissenberg, a mother of a ten year old herself. Though dealings with groups of ten year olds require an extra amount of stamina, the energy of the children was contagious, and their enthusiastic presence was much appreciated.

“I was exhausted with the kids, you never know how it’s going to go over,” she said. However, Eissenberg was deeply impressed by the young student’s knowledge of stage etiquette, as they knew exactly when the pieces were over and when to applaud. It is a presence like this which is rewarding to any performer. “One thing a musician really needs is to know someone’s out there responding and with them, or it’s just a drag, and this was never a drag,” she said.

As part of the residency program, chosen musicians from around the world stay on the Brandeis campus for several days during which their program takes place..

In March, Music Unites Us will host Jiebing Chen and Yangqin Zhou, in a residency called

Chinese Modulations. This title reflects the theme of how the Chinese culture has influenced and been influenced by

other cultures throughout history. The 3 day residency will feature concerts, film theater, a photo exhibit, open classes and discussions, as well as workshops in calligraphy and music. Eissenberg believes students gain a deeper understanding through experiencing creative expressions within a cultural context. “It is that creative impulse that gives me the greatest hope…whether it is a love song or a brushstroke, we are capable of seeing the beauty of the other through art. And when we are moved to create, to make something together, we are less likely to destroy. Brandeis’s MusicUnitesUS is a model of how to bring together the hearts, minds, and bodies under one one roof, appreciating what we have in common and savoring how we are different. I’d love to see MUUS lighting up the imaginary map in my mind, with universities across the country hosting these sorts of residencies, sharing the artistic visions of cultures throughout the world.”

MusicUnitesUs not only touches the lives of Waltham elementary school students, but also offers Brandeis students the chance to become involved. Phoebe Roberts ’09 interns with the program as a dramaturge for the production of The Orphan of Zhao. She is participating as part of an internship in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies. As part of her role, Roberts researches the play and any “relevant information pertaining to it, in order to provide a context in which the audience can understand and interpret the play.” Roberts uses this information to create a study guide for local ninth graders which they will use to “examine the play as a cultural learning experience.”

Roberts described in an e-mail how the artists from the upcoming Residency Performance, Jiebing Chen and Yangqin Zhao, will provide the musical accompaniment to the performance of The Orphan of Zhao. She deemed the presence of the performers as “crucial to recreating the traditional style of Chinese theater in which this play was originally performed when it was written during the Yuan Dynasty.” She said she is “most interested in urging the students to see what they can deduce from this play of the way the culture it represents thinks, especially as compared to how average American students might.”

Roberts added that “I would like to get them thinking about what the action of the story tells about the values of a culture that is both ancient and foreign– what is most important to them, what do they consider the substance of right and wrong.”

Roberts described her experience thus far with the program as “challenging and work-intensive,” adding that she feels it is helping her to improve her research and interpretation skills with the goal of inspiring new ways of thinking. “My goal was to gain experience in these areas, and I feel I am definitely learning, and well as helping others to learn,” she said. “The greatest strength of the program lies in how it introduces the cultural experience to so many and enriches the cultural education of the children.”

Eissenberg is grateful for the support which Brandeis University has afforded her, and has hopes that more universities will host programs such as MusicUnitesUs. She would also like to reach out to another Boston institution, and hopes that in the future, more Brandeis students will become involved in the program.

“Brandeis has been a tremendous support and host ever since the idea has started,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful program and I feel really grateful and lucky to be able to direct it in such a free and expansive way which I’m given at Brandeis as a faculty member.”