Eye level or high art? Music projects in crisis regions

Changing the world with music and contributing to peace and reconciliation: Countless projects around the world pursue this goal in order to create at least a little bit of an "ideal world" in crisis areas. What are their intentions with which they pursue certain understandings of music and culture? Are they adapting to the traditions and conditions of the respective countries, or are they transferring a Western understanding into another society unchanged? What effects do the projects have in the regions directly? Marion Haak-Schulenburg, research associate at the Chair of Music Education and Music Didactics at the KU, examines the roots and effects of the concept of music using the example of two institutions that are active in Palestine. Her project is in line with the professorship's focus on "Community Music" that links musical projects with issues of inclusion, cultural participation and social justice. The KU also offers a Master's degree program in "Inclusive Music Education/Community Music” – the first of its kind in Europe.

Haak-Schulenburg initially studied music and English in Berlin at the University of the Arts and the Humboldt University to become a teacher. After her first State Examination, however, she was offered the opportunity to work at the music school of the Barenboim-Said Foundation in Ramallah, Palestine for three years. The foundation goes back to the famous conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-born literary scholar Edward Said, who founded the renowned "West-Eastern Divan Orchestra" in 1999. The ensemble is composed of Arab and Israeli musicians and thus acts as a symbol of the possibility of coexistence and peace in the region. The starting point for the music school was the limited opportunities for Arab musicians to pursue professional training. However, the school also welcomes children and young people and offers them lessons in orchestral instruments and piano.

While working in the music school, Haak-Schulenburg established contacts with the Dutch organization "Musicians without Borders" that trains multipliers worldwide for musical work with children and young people. As a result of this connection, she founded children's choirs in Ramallah and various villages as well as the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. An important part of the repertoire was not classical music, but Arabic songs, rhythms and dances. "These children mostly grow up under poorest conditions and have a poor school education. You just don't find them in the classical music classes of the Barenboim-Said Foundation", says Marion Haak-Schulenburg. These contrasting two experiences led the researcher to ask the fundamental question of her doctoral thesis: From which roots does the respective understanding of music of such initiatives arise and what effect does it have?

"In Palestine, there are many projects that want to offer people in difficult situations access to culture. However, most of them usually have European-influenced culture on their minds – without critically reflecting whether the offer makes any sense at all. If you then look at the target groups, there is usually only a certain part of the local population that has a Western orientation, including Europeans or Americans who work in the region", explains Haak-Schulenburg. As she found out in on-site interviews, this also applies to the Barenboim-Said Foundation's classically oriented music school, which only advertises its offers to private schools. Its students come from families of the academically oriented middle and upper classes, predominantly attended Christian schools and even pursued several hobbies – unthinkable for children attending state schools. "The music school, however, sets itself the far-reaching goal of contributing to social transformation in Palestine. But it's not enough to hope that music will fix it and relying on the fact that Beethoven's Fifth always has", says Haak-Schulenburg. There is no doubt that the music school is doing meaningful work for its students. However, the tradition of an autonomy of the arts also includes an attitude of hegemony.

This understanding of music, which focuses on the work, also has an impact on the funding of corresponding projects: A Berlin youth orchestra project with refugee children, for example, was denied continued funding after six months because the results were not artistic enough and the nature of the project work was too social. "Classical music education aims to teach music based on a curriculum – involving formal skills, such as reading music. Community Music, by contrast, wants to create music together with other people – free of prior knowledge and skills", explains Haak-Schulenburg. A teaching intention with educational value is in the background here; it is more about collaborative work. "It's time to revise this hierarchization and bring an expanded understanding of art into thought processes about and funding of artistic and educational practice.”

The organization “Musicians without Borders” engages in ongoing scientifically based evaluation – particularly with regard to individuals with the aim of following their development. In the process, participants develop greater resilience in the face of crises because they have learned to think and act creatively through music. “They have learned to make their voices heard and use them. They have crossed the line of fear of being heard. They have experienced that a group can be a source of strength from within. Furthermore, they are more hopeful, are less inclined to be involved in violent actions and are more prepared to approach each other in dialog”, says Haak-Schulenburg.

With all the hope and work for a better world, people should also develop a critical awareness of when initiatives declare their own ideas and patterns to be the norm. "With my work, I want to help music projects that really want to make a difference in society become aware of what concept of music they are pursuing. This does not exclude classical music at all, but it does presuppose a different form of access", emphasizes the researcher. What is absolutely necessary, she says, is direct exchange with a variety of contact persons in the region: Where is it sensible to act and where not? Eurocentrism is so deeply anchored in us that some questions are just not asked. "For example, it was only through the interviews in Palestine that I realized that the term music is usually associated with instrumental music there. Singing, on the other hand, counts as poetry in their traditional understanding.”

The Professorship of Music Education and Music Didactics organized its first international "Community Music” winter school at the end of last year, where students and researchers from Canada, England, Ireland and Germany exchanged current research results in this subject area. An own YouTube channel pools contributions from the event. Among them is also this video interview with Marion Haak-Schulenburg: