This post is by Hannah Ross.
Looking up and seeing unknown constellations while breathing in unfamiliar scents of the African night is something I’ll always remember. After months of meetings and fund-raisers, I had finally arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, where I, along with five other Juilliard School students, would be conducting a performing arts workshop in music, dance, and drama at the Umoja Youth Empowerment Centre as part of the Arusha Arts Initiative.
Umoja offers a yearlong program for teenagers and young adults, ages 14–26, who have had little schooling but wish to continue their studies to further themselves in the world. Two Juilliard students, who wished to introduce the performing arts where they’re not readily available, created the arts initiative. After discovering Umoja, they and four other Juilliard students hosted a two-week arts workshop in May 2009. It was such a success that Umoja invited them back this year.
As part of the team, my job was to relate the art of music to 40 students, most of whom had never seen or heard a viola in their lives. However, my goal of the two weeks was not to teach them how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on viola—I wanted to give them tools to fully develop their potential. I was hoping to induce their curiosity, inspire creativity, and make them realize that their own individual voices are the most important things they can offer our world.
In a country filled with poverty and the repercussions of widespread HIV, I honestly expected the students to be downtrodden and discouraged, as so many of them have lost family members to the virus. I was thrilled to discover quite the opposite. As soon as we walked through the gates on our first day, the students cheered and hugged and thanked us, without even knowing our names and before we’d taught them anything. I figured it was merely the excitement of the first day, and that by the end of the first week, our novelty would have worn off.
How wrong I was.
Each day, the students came ready to partake in any activity we had to offer them. One involved listening to an array of different music, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to a Shostakovich string quartet. Some students drew pictures of what they heard or saw in the music, while others verbally explained their ideas to the class. Hearing and seeing the various takes on the pieces was mind-blowing to the students, and to me. It helped the students realize that while all of them have different opinions and ideas on the same subject, no individual’s idea is more important than any other’s.
Their determination and eagerness to learn and try new things was so inspiring. It made me realize that a person can do anything as long as they have the motivation and optimism to try. This is something I definitely plan to adapt into my musical education. When I find myself unsure of how to do something, I often end up avoiding it until I absolutely have to address it. Simply trying something with the knowledge that one will eventually be able to do it is a key part of being a musician, but it’s often lost in the frustrations of practicing.
I’ve been to many summer music festivals, but before Tanzania I hadn’t had much exposure to outreach programs that involved teaching. The importance of learning to become a good teacher is overlooked by a lot of conservatory students. But we aspiring and professional musicians would not be where we are now if it had not been for our ever-persistent teachers. Still, stepping into that unknown realm of being the person in charge was quite a new experience for me. In Tanzania, it was interesting to see things from the opposite perspective.
Our two weeks culminated in a benefit performance for Umoja. The students performed drama skits, sang songs, and danced alongside performances given by me and my fellow Juilliard students. The array of sounds and sights that flooded the night air, from a Tanzanian anthem to Lady Gaga, was brilliant. We raised nearly $1,400 (two million Tanzanian shillings) for Umoja, but the most rewarding part of the night was seeing the transformation the students had made in just two weeks. The few shy ones had emerged from their shells while the more outgoing ones enjoyed the limelight of being onstage and the applause that rang loudly from the audience.
Knowing that I was a part of such an extraordinary project is the most gratifying feeling in the world and I look forward to returning next year.
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