Friday, September 28, 2012

Old Acquaintance

I met my teenage self the other day,
She stepped out of the note-books that I'd kept
And looked at me accusingly.  Except
In trivialities, there was no way
I'd played the part that she had meant to play.
Hers was a mind unwilling to accept
That dreams could fail, or people prove inept,
Or good intentions suffer feet of clay.
My struggling protestations seemed uncouth,
Contrasted with the simple clarity
With which her innocence expressed the truth.
The only sign of progress seems to be
That whereas I admire my clear-eyed youth,
Her understanding couldn't stretch to me.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Fired by music

We've marvelled before at the power of music  . . . its ability to lift us up, invigorate us, and give us the motivation to succeed.

Such is the potency of music that I'm beginning to wonder whether Genesis was mis-translated.
What if, instead of: 'In the beginning was the Word . . . ' it should have been:  'In the beginning was the Note . . .'?

Listen to the moving story of The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq and see if you agree with me.

You may have you heard of this orchestra, which made its recent London debut at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, but do you know how it came into being?

Four years ago, Zuhal Sultan, then a seventeen-year-old Iraqi pianist, was fired by an all-consuming passion.  She dreamed of creating an orchestra of young musicians that would help to rebuild the shattered culture of her country.
"What could be better," she says, "than Iraq's youth sitting on one stage, people from different parts of the country, showing a fantastic example of the unity that the country can achieve?"

The orchestra she dreamed of has finally achieved reality.
And everything about her orchestra is unique.

Since the invasion in 2003, western musical instruments have been hard to acquire in Iraq.  What's  more, should a musician need to carry his instrument in some parts of the country it has to be disguised . . . and many instruments, amongst them the cello and the french horn, are not easy to disguise.
To add to these difficulties, it is wisest to undertake practice in the privacy of your own home, and, for your protection, the music needs to be played at a subdued pitch.

Then, if all these hurdles have been successfully overcome,  what is possibly the greatest challenge still remains.  With a dearth of music tutors in Iraq, many fled during the fighting, how can a would-be musician learn to play?
There is only one solution.
Those determined to succeed resort to the only source of tuition available  . . . they learn through the internet.

Faced with all these problems in her homeland, it is even more remarkable that Zuhal Sultan's persistence won through.  Yet her dream has been achieved . . . The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is a reality.
But surely there is there no other orchestra in the world that goes in search of its musicians on the internet?
No other orchestra that auditions all potential players on YouTube?

Under the baton of the Scottish conductor, Paul McAlindon (recruited in 2008 through a small ad. in "The Glasgow Herald"), the orchestra finally came together.    In the summer of 2009, thirty-three young Arab and Kurdish, Armenian and Assyrian Iraqi musicians met for the first time in the Kurdish town of Suleymaniyah.  Here, for a two-week period, they played classical music together.  Working intensively with their music teachers from the UK and the USA they finally performed a concert which took place in The Palace of Arts, Suleymaniyah.  It was a huge success.

The orchestra went on to receive acclaim last year in Edinburgh, this year in London, and has plans to visit France in 2013.

But my words won't convince you of their talent, we'll let them demonstrate their artistry for themselves.

How . . . ?  On YouTube, of course!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Welcome to the web!

Have you a spare moment to share some ideas?

Last week I took part in a thought-provoking workshop.  As I and the other participants left we were offered a tray covered with blank, white cards.  Each person was invited to take one.  We were then told that there was something written on the reverse of the card, but we were not to look at it until we reached home.

Fired by the event, I was eager to discover what was written on my card.  Would it challenge me to action . . . words like 'Community Service', or 'Solar Power'.  Or might it be something aspirational, such as 'Love', 'Joy' or 'Gratitude' . . . ?
I turned the card over and, with a keen sense of disappointment, read the single word: 'Web'.

'Web' . . . ?  How was that supposed to be of help?  I wasn't a spider
There was, of course, the Worldwide Web, the benefits of the internet . . . there was also the web of connection between friends and family, the community and the wider world . . . but, all in all, I felt disappointed.

It was only later that the full implications of 'my word' began to sink in.  And this is what I'd like to share with you.
'Web', I've discovered, is a far more insightful word that I'd originally thought.

Let's pursue this and see where it takes us . . . from the moment we're born we start spinning our own unique web.  Not a physical web, but one comprised of thoughts, emotions, and actions.
That web grows day by day, forming the intricate pattern that we call our life.  Not only that, we catch things in our web . . . ideas, fears, suppositions.  We tangle others up in our web by our claims and our so-called needs.
If it is designed to snare, our web will be destructive.  If, on the other hand, we are spinning and weaving with the welfare of others in mind, from the knowledge of our intrinsic unity, then it can be wholly beneficial and supportive.

Let's look at the broader picture.  On a social and institutional level, wouldn't you agree that a web is a far more inclusive and communal structure than a pyramid?
A pyramid can distort the perspective of the person at the top, it's a draughty and exposed position to hold.  It can also fuel the self-centred ambitions of those looking up from below.  With a web, all are level.  In a circular formation all are equal.
Again, with a pyramid disproportionate attention is given to the summit, whilst the base offers little more than foundational support.  With a web, equal opportunities for participation are offered to every strand.

May I share one final thought?
A most satisfying instance of synchronicity took place the other day, just as these thoughts were bubbling to the surface of my mind.
I was listening to an online talk by Susan Collin Marks, Senior Vice President of 'Search for Common Ground'.  In case you don't know, this is an outstanding international organisation that works to transform the way the world deals with conflict.
Susan Collin Marks had spoken movingly, and with great insight, about her work as a peace-builder, and the talk was drawing to its close.

"In conclusion," she said, "I'd like to quote a saying from my home country, South Africa:  'When spiders' webs unite, they can stop a lion'."

Tell me, have I spun a convincing argument?  Has my thread of ideas caused you to pause in your tracks?

Welcome to the web!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Liberated by music

Tell  me, how is it that music has the ability to make its way straight to the heart?
How can a subtle combination of notes and instruments touch us so deeply?
Not only that, how can music liberate our spirits in the way it does?

Can you answer those questions?  I can't.
What I can do is to share a moving story that was featured recently in the Radio 4 series, 'Soul Music'.

At the start of the Second World War, a group of six hundred women and children were evacuated by ship from Singapore.  Their plan was to return home to the UK, but the escape was doomed to failure.  Shortly after setting sail, the ship was captured by the Japanese and all its passengers transferred to a prison camp.  Here they were interred for the duration.

How to maintain courage and hope under such conditions?
With nothing to entertain their children, and little energy to expend, the imprisoned mothers decided to sing.
They sang each day . . . they sang all the songs they could remember.  But the stock of songs ran out . . . and little sense of achievement was gained by constantly repeating those they knew.

It was then that one of the mothers, a professional musician, had an inspired idea.  They might have no instruments in the camp, but they did have their voices.  What if she could create a vocal orchestra, an orchestra that could give voice to classical music?

The music she chose to launch her experiment was the Largo from Dvorak's 'New World Symphony'.
The decision made, it was then a question of creating her 'instruments'.

After studying the voices of her fellow prisoners, the musician selected those she thought most suitable to be her stringed instruments, her woodwind, her brass and her percussion.
Eager to participate, the women and older children carefully absorbed the scores she prepared for them.
Were they to be clarinets . . . or violas . . . of even french horns?  Would they be needed to sing . . or hum . . . or even, perhaps, whistle?

It was two years since any of them had heard live music when, after much study and practice, the prisoners felt ready to give their first performance.
As the camp authorities banned any gathering of large groups, the 'orchestra', whom starvation had rendered too weak to stand, sat on upturned wooden boxes in front of their huts.  Here, under the guidance of their inspired arranger and conductor, they hummed, whistled and sang their way through a unique rendition of Dvorak's famous symphony.

As one of the participants was to say many years later:
"We were captive, but the music was free . . . it gave us freedom.

Do you see what I mean about the liberating power of music?

In tribute to those courageous women, let's conclude by listening to the orchestral version of that famous Largo.

As we listen, just ask yourself the question:
"What might I be?  Am I a violin . . . an oboe . . . or even a trumpet?"
Then . . . why not join in . . . ?