The Art of Listening

It was June 2008 and the UEFA European Championship was in full swing. In soccer-obsessed nations like Israel, this event is second in importance only to the World Cup, and signs of soccer mania were everywhere. The Israeli Chamber Project, which I had just helped to found, was in its inaugural season. We were on tour across the country, with our members rushing from rehearsals to concerts to master classes while still trying to catch a glimpse of the games whenever possible.

On this particular day we were headed to Shfar’am, a predominantly Muslim Arab city in northern Israel with significant Christian and Druze (an offshoot of Islam) minorities. The founding members of our ensemble are Israeli Jews, so it was a tense place for us to visit. Only a few years earlier, an orthodox Jewish man opened fire on a bus in the same town, killing four Israeli Arabs before being restrained and killed himself by an angry mob. And just in case we needed a reminder of how out of place we were, the German flags displayed on many homes and businesses in support of Germany’s national team at the Euro delivered a not-so-subtle message by seeming to purposely recall Israel’s most painful national trauma.

Israel is small – about the same size as New Jersey – with a population of about 8.5 million. Despite that, Israeli society is fractured along many fault lines: native versus immigrant, religious versus secular, Jew versus Arab, geographical center versus outer periphery. I viewed my own experience – being raised as a native-born, secular Jew in the capital city – through this very particular lens. I can’t say that I had any orthodox Jewish friends or even acquaintances growing up, and any Arabs I knew in more than a superficial way I had met later in life during my studies abroad.

The possibility of breaking through some of the strict cultural divisions that had figured so large in my own life was one of the things that most excited me about working with the Israeli Chamber Project.

The possibility of breaking through some of the strict cultural divisions that had figured so large in my own life was one of the things that most excited me about working with the Israeli Chamber Project. The seven other founding members of our group came from similar backgrounds. Some of us knew each other from our primary school days, and others met through enrichment programs for young musicians in Israel’s major cities. All of us had spent time abroad pursuing our studies, with some even relocating to the United States or Europe. In creating our ensemble, we wanted to bring chamber music to Israel’s diverse, culturally vibrant communities in cities big and small, central and peripheral. We did not have any illusions about our work bringing about world peace, but we did believe in bringing music to parts of the country where access to the performing arts was limited. Through that experience, we hoped to connect with people who would otherwise remain strangers to us.

And so I found myself in Shfar’am, unsure what to expect from the day’s events. We were headed to a pre-college music program called Beit Almusica. Our goal was simply to offer guidance and, hopefully, inspiration while sharing the beauty and artistry of some of our favorite repertoire with an audience of students who were likely unfamiliar with it. Whether our intentions would be well received or if we would even be able to stick to music despite the historical tensions were open questions in my book.

As it turned out, any feelings of being unwelcome or out of place vanished as soon as we entered the school. The conservatory’s director, Amer Nakhleh, welcomed us with coffee and sweets, in keeping with traditional Arabic hospitality. He then introduced us to some of the staff, teachers and students with whom we would be working.

Beit Almusica prides itself on providing instruction in both Western classical and traditional Arabic music. Its atmosphere was that of a grand experiment in multiculturalism. Students carried violins and cellos through the halls, but I also spotted ouds – Middle-Eastern lutes – and darbukas, traditional goblet drums. The faculty is diverse, including local musicians who specialize in Arabic musical traditions as well as Russian-born classical musicians who fled to Israel as part of a massive wave of immigration following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Add to that mix our own ensemble, and this tiny conservatory on the Israeli periphery turned into a cultural crossroads.

Politics – or what the locals referred to as “the situation” – did not enter the discussion…

In the lively master classes that followed, each member of our ensemble worked with a few students on our individual instruments. It took only a few minutes for me to become completely absorbed in the details of phrasing, sound, character and technique with the handful of young pianists that played for me. They seemed equally engaged, asking lots of questions and sharing their challenges. Some of the local teachers sat close to the piano rather than out in the hall, eagerly soaking up feedback and offering encouragement to their students. Politics – or what the locals referred to as “the situation” – did not enter the discussion, and I couldn’t tell if “the situation” was even on anybody’s mind. It certainly wasn’t on mine. Instead, it seemed like we could have been anywhere, with music as the only context for our interaction.

We closed the day of master classes, as we often do, with an Israeli Chamber Project concert, in which we hoped to further inspire students and demonstrate some of the concepts discussed during the lessons. Parents and siblings arrived for the performance, filling the small concert hall. I was moved to see flyers with our ensemble’s name printed in Arabic, a small but concrete symbol of the connection we had all forged. On our way out the door, two young brothers whom we had coached in classical violin and viola pulled us into one of the classrooms to offer a memorable finale. They gave us an impromptu performance of Arabic music that impressed every member of our ensemble with their assured navigation across such distinct musical styles.

Driving away that evening, I found that the sight of the German flags didn’t trigger quite the same painful reflex. Despite the emotional buttons that town locals presumably intended to push, the day’s interaction left me hopeful about our ability to transcend deep-seated suspicion and mistrust. We had chosen instead to come together through what is perhaps music’s greatest lesson: the art of listening. 

That transformative experience has played itself out again and again over the past decade, not only in the Israeli Chamber Project’s outreach work across Israel, but also in places as disparate as Beijing and the Bronx. And as meaningful as our main stage concerts have been, it has been these experiences that have often proved to be the most uplifting. They have shown me that by offering the gift of music, and through it the deep listening and presence required from both performer and audience, we can begin to bridge our divides: of culture, of economy, of language and religion. We can help to heal decades of violence and hostility – and bring us all a little closer together.

Assaff Weisman

Pianist Assaff Weisman is a founding member and the Executive Director of the award-winning Israeli Chamber Project, with which he has toured and recorded since 2008. …more 

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