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We had a good thing going. Not to toot our own horn, but only two months ago an embassy representative approached us saying she had heard we were “the best project in Kosovo.” (So maybe yes, to toot our own horn a little bit.)

Mitrovica Rock School worked: the project had shown that music can create new paths to mutual understanding, even in a highly complex post-conflict environment like Mitrovica. Students of the school, young people from the divided town’s Albanian and Serb communities, found a place where politics could be shut out and where ethnic identity was secondary. What matters at the Rock School is what you can do, what you like and what you’re like.

And while the project worked, we worked to understand why. Lots of things were important: the skilled Mitrovica musicians who led the project; the long-term nature of the program; Fontys Rockacademie’s unique approach to band coaching and the kind of learning environment that created. And most importantly: travelling together, hanging out together, and making music – together.

And then we stopped being able to come together.

Mitrovica Rock School has had tough years before: we’ve faced years of under-funding, and years where the situation was too unsafe to do anything in public. The team is used to making things work when circumstances are not ideal. So online lessons were up and running one week into the first lockdown.

But over the months, the enthusiasm with which students and teachers had thrown themselves into the world of online education waned, giving us pause to reflect on which needs we can still fulfill, and how we can continue to bring people together in meaningful ways.

Here are some lessons that we take into 2021.
  • Travelling is good, but we don’t need to travel as much as we thought. We could increase our impact – and reduce our carbon footprint – if we only travelled when we really needed to, and with smaller teams, to leave more time and energy for local activities.
  • A strong local team is crucial. Much of what we have done this year was possible because of strong local partners, and years of close collaboration and capacity building. Nothing that this project has achieved could have been done without a long-term approach, and that includes all of 2020.
  • Lack of digital access is just another form of economic inequality – and it needs to be tackled. Economic inequality has always been an issue at Mitrovica Rock School. Only in early 2020 did we open an “instrument library” so that students without an own instrument could fully participate. This year we have had online classes held by a teacher on a phone with a student also on a phone, making it almost impossible for each to see what the other is doing. MRS was able to help some with internet vouchers and even devices, but a more structural solution is still needed.
  • Going hybrid. We’ve adopted flexible, hybrid working forms, responding to what is possible in times of lockdown and relative opening up. When activities need to be online, it’s important that participants have an active role, for instance by centering them around creating and recording new music.
  • Local vs. international expansion. We found that the more local the activities, the more sustainable they were during the pandemic. When travel, even to nearby North Macedonia, wasn’t possible, in-person lessons could continue in Mitrovica itself, albeit with distancing, masks, and all the other measures we’ve come to know so well. In 2021, Mitrovica Rock School hopes to include more youth from Mitrovica’s own Roma community, making the program truly inclusive of Mitrovica youth of all backgrounds. This is a shift away from previous plans to invest in international partnerships, but it is a good development to come out of a bad situation: Mitrovica’s Roma community is extremely isolated and underserved, and we have the model of the wonderful Roma Rock School for bridging another kind of cultural divide.
Shift in focus: audio engineering

Going into 2021 – without taking anything away from the kind of year 2020 was – we’re riding on a stroke of luck: from mid-2018 through 2020, the project Music Connects invested in the Rock School’s audio engineering capacity. The aim was to make audio recording more accessible. Since the rise of home studios in the past two decades, musicians worldwide have been writing, recording and producing music together without ever meeting in person. But economic inequality meant that the Western Balkans, with its huge pool of talented musicians, could not fully participate.

Where most young Mitrovica musicians previously lacked the gear, the software and the know-how, this gap is now being bridged, and provides a wonderful opportunity for Mitrovica youth – whatever their background – to continue to write their original music. Together.