This reflection on the 2014-2015 Music Bridge program was submitted for publication to Integrate NI – an independent, non-partisan organization established to celebrate cultural diversity in Northern Ireland.
There are many paths one can follow towards peace and reconciliation in a historically divided society. Sometimes the path can end abruptly and other times an alternate path emerges where one wasn’t before. This year, the Music Bridge program has established itself on the map of reconciliation projects across Northern Ireland. The program is a joint initiative of Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, a multi-ethnic arts and cultural center in Derry-Londonderry and Musicians without Borders, an international network organization whose mission is to use music to bridge divides, connect communities and heal the wounds of war. The Music Bridge program trains musicians, social workers, music therapists and youth program facilitators in the principles of community music, leadership and nonviolence as well as builds the capacity of local organizations to facilitate cross-community work. Throughout the course of the year, the Music Bridge trainees have led music workshops across Derry-Londonderry, reaching mixed groups in primary schools, special education programs, at-risk youth centers, hospitals, and community bands. Within these workshops, Music Bridge trainees have found that music, rather than the dialogue-based approach that is frequently used in reconciliation work, has created the ideal atmosphere for participants to develop their self-confidence and build stronger connections with their peers.
Amanda Koser-Gillespie is a Music Bridge trainee and founder of Second Line NI, which has introduced New Orleans jazz and street performances known as ‘second lines’ to promote social cohesion and enrich arts and cultural heritage practices in Northern Irish communities. As part of the Music Bridge program, Koser-Gillespie and her fellow trainees led a number of workshops with P7 students as well as students from the Autism Spectrum Disorder Unit at the Model Primary School, an integrated elementary school in Derry-Londonderry. Through engaging the students in a variety of musical activities which emphasized student creativity and cooperative learning, the trainees were able to illustrate the concepts of nonviolence and peacebuilding through the language of music. Following the series of workshops, Koser-Gillespie noted some remarkable changes in the students:
I was amazed, absolutely amazed at the freedom in which the students moved amongst each other…When we first began working with them, they kept away from each other and would not hold hands. There were clear groups of children sitting in cliques, never mingling with others. Yet now, they sit as a large group…The shift in special awareness and personal boundaries seems to have melted. The children act more as a large group rather than many small clusters.
The success of building strong connections between the Model Primary students raises the question of how such outcomes can ultimately create larger scale effects within Northern Irish communities? The workshops have enabled the students to feel more confident and to appreciate differences amongst their peer group at a critical time in their life where their own identities are being formed. These workshops have been thoroughly endorsed by Michael Bradley and Mr. Morrison, two teachers from Model Primary. According to Morrison, the encouragement and lack of cynicism present in the workshops was refreshing in his experience living in a “naturally cynical society.” In this setting, the use of music, which has also played a contentious role between Northern Irish communities, has been transformed as a platform to embrace the differences within a group while giving each participant a unique voice to express themselves. These voices hold the key to promoting these peace and reconciliation throughout society in the long-term.