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What is Music?
February 26, 2018   Palestine

Today I had the opportunity to see Halimeh active as a music workshop leader. Six years ago and already in possession of a degree in Special Education, Halimeh followed her first training with Musicians without Borders in Bethlehem. Since then, she has joined our deaf drumming group, recorded Rap & Sign music videos, participated in several more Musicians without Borders trainings, successfully finished the Music as Therapy Distance Learning Course and lastly, traveled to the Netherlands in October 2017 to follow MwB’s Training of Trainers.

Our donors are usually interested in outcomes, results, beneficiaries, sustainability. Can music really make a change? I wish all donors could have been with us today to have seen with their own eyes: yes! Music can make a change! Not only for Halimeh, but also for the children she works with.

The first music workshop I joined today was with four deaf kindergarten students attending the school for deaf children from the Red Crescent in Ramallah. Halimeh had the children clearly prepared for my visit because none of the children seemed distracted or bothered by this strange woman in their classroom. When I entered, they were warming up, standing behind their chairs and making sounds, clapping on the different parts of the chair, treating the chair as a musical instrument. Each child got a turn in leading a sound, which was copied by the group. This technique of letting a child lead was repeated several times during the workshop, and each time upon conclusion it was applauded by Halimeh, creating a proud smile on the child’s face.

We continued with simple musical instruments – bells, shakers, guiro and sticks – and played several games. One of the boys with some challenging behavior was treated in a very gentle way by Halimeh: making sure that he was not disturbing the other children with his extra movements and energy, and setting borders in order to keep himself, the children and the instruments safe, she gave him the freedom to express himself. While such a boy could easily become the ‘trouble maker’ in a classroom, here he could feel accepted and loved. This became especially clear during the last activity, in which we made movements with a long circular elastic belt. After each child acted as the leader and had his/her movements copied by the others, the boy jumped in the middle of the circle. I was observing what Halimeh’s reaction would be, since this could possibly lead to some chaos in the classroom. I expected other children could join in, or he could become too wild and upset the other children who were still holding onto the belt. Then suddenly the boy started pointing at one of the little girls, obviously copying Halimeh and giving the girl a turn to be the leader. He gave some more turns to us, clearly communicating, pointing his fingers, directing his body towards the potential leader and making eye contact. Then he added two new signs: one for stopping the movements and one for waiting. The game changed into only one person being allowed to make movements, without the others copying. He created some variations by letting two children make movements at the same time, and then he suddenly stopped moving. It seemed as if he was distracted by something, he was staring at a spot outside of the circle. I expected Halimeh would stop the activity now, but she gave the boy the time he needed. After some moments, his attention came back to the circle and he had a invented a new game: he added signs for high, low and middle, and we were making movements with the elastic belt according to his signs: high in the air, close to the ground, or in the middle on our legs.

For the boy, I firmly believe that this last part of the workshop was an empowering experience. He was not only leading the game, he also invented the rules, he created the game. There was a reaction to his signs, his peers ‘listened’ to him carefully, and he was in full control. But he also received smiles and laughter, he was clearly doing a  great job and the other children loved his leadership.

Were we making music? Maybe not in the conventional way. But for these children and Halimeh, this was music: there were dynamics (loud/soft), speed (fast/slow), intensity, emotion. There was a positive connection between each group member, and although there was no talking and almost no signing, communication took place through the music. All children were included and had the opportunity to be creative and express themselves. The children were accepted, by the leader, but also by each other, which was possible because of the safe space created by Halimeh.

In the second workshop for first graders, the children played rhythms and learned to sign a Mother’s Day song. But that’s a story for another blog post!

Due to the vulnerable nature of the workshop, I did not take any pictures. The picture shown is from another workshop by Halimeh with the same children.

Fabienne van Eck is the program manager and music coach of Palestine Community Music, and gives music workshops in refugee camps, isolated villages and hospitals. Fabienne is also the artistic director of Sounds of Palestine, a program for children in refugee camps that combines music and social work.

Topics: Palestine