Orientation: Friday, June 29 – Duhok, Iraq
It is hot and dry in Duhok. I am in the Hotel Mondeal and a wedding celebration is taking place in the lobby below my room. Sounds and smells subtly spice the night air in northern Iraq.
I had the pleasure of meeting two veteran students of the American Voices annual summer program in Iraq this evening: clarinetist Dilan Muhammed, 21, 5th year, and cellist Bashdar Karim, 19, also in his 5th year. Both of these students receive the instruction available in the country through the Institute of Fine Arts, Department of Music in Iraq.
Apparently they continue to place a remarkably high value in their brief two weeks with the American Voices faculty each summer. “It was the first time I had ever seen a serious wind ensemble or full jazz band,” says Dilan of his first year.
It is also the emphasis by American Voices on instrumental technique and literature which exceeds that of the locally available instruction that brings them back. Both have developed their capabilities to play most recently in a Kurdish orchestra visiting Vienna, and the Sulimany Symphony Orchestra inside Iraq.
“So,” I asked, “do you want to be professional musicians?” “Yes. It is my dream.” These words, spoken by Bashdar, rang as authentic as any sound I’ve ever heard—these are among the most committed students I have met.
The diplomacy goes two directions I quickly discovered as they began to teach me of the idiosyncrasies of tuning in Kurdish music. This has long been a fascination of mine. I now know something of the use of the Phrygian mode with its raised third scale degree, and have confirmed that the second scale-degree is indeed raised also, ever so slightly, to produce one of the most haunting and particularly Middle-Eastern sounds in all of music.
Bringing in their instruments, Dilan and Bashdar sang and played their native strains, memorized as a cultural stamp, for me in my hotel room, an audience of one. I begin teaching theory and composition on Monday but for now they are wrapping me around their finger as I look forward to learning more tomorrow.
Teaching, Day One: Sunday, July 1 – Duhok University
To fully appreciate the pleasure of teaching Iraqi music students, one must imagine the following: a music professor walks across the commons finding him- or herself peacefully, but relentlessly, assaulted by young college-aged students asking questions like, “Can you tell me about the Dorian scale professor? And the Phrygian?…” “Can you please teach me contra-point sir?” “Who, Dr., invented modern notation?”
Several gather behind the bold inquisitor to hear how the American teacher will respond. Everyone hangs on every word and any pause is an opportunity to say “Thank you, thank you.”
Now imagine that I’m not making this up—all day long and a teacher has little time for any break in the pattern to have a drink of water. It is a dangerously high boost of self-worth but no less a realization of the responsibility attached to teaching. The moral of this story is, Iraqi students have a voracious appetite for learning and a teacher must be ready.
Facilities are the problem that anyone might have predicted. There are pianos being moved by enthusiastic quintets of students through hallways, messengers delivering news of a broken air-conditioner, perplexed faces and hand-gestures in every direction and one need not enquire because that would only slow one’s own errand pursuing a special power supply that, word on the street is, Ari Kawa can get for you.
Funny thing is that this all adds to the camaraderie that makes the program work. It is here among Iraqis, Kurds, Arabs, Americans, and even Spanish, somehow, all for one and one for all.