Standing side-by-side, but in what reality?
by HANNAH NICHOLAS
1st year MM Viola
For the past month, I’ve been so swept up in life at NEC that I have not taken a moment to simply sit and reflect on my recent experience with the students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Their residency at NEC marked the end of a brief tour of the United States, following Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. In anticipation of their stay, I organized a side-by-side rehearsal between string players from ANIM and string players from the NEC Chamber Orchestra. The impact from their visit still lingers with me: for the first time, I felt that my own hazy, albeit intuitive, path in music had found definition.
On the morning of our joint workshop, I arrived early to set up in Keller Room. The plan was to rehearse Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which ANIM students were currently working on for school. When I walked into the room, I found Julia Yang, one of the cellists in our group, and a video cameraman, who gave no introduction and quietly continued to set up his equipment. I briefly panicked – what if no one from ANIM showed up? The last I had heard, four string players would be attending; they play together as a string quartet. Just a few moments later, players from both schools shuffled into the room. A crowd of young Afghan students and their teachers filled the audience, with stragglers standing in the back, as the rest of us tentatively approached our stands. The concertmaster, Hojat, looked confident and collected, probably much more than I did. Soon we were in full gear, conducting a rehearsal not so drastically different from our usual – deciding on bow strokes, tempo, and character, and demanding clear cues and togetherness.
We worked hard that hour, taking apart one spot at a time with a bit of humor and teasing interspersed – the eyes of the audience glued on us the entire time. There was an air of collective pride and satisfaction after our final up-to-tempo run-through of the first movement of Eine Kleine. The audience’s cheering elevated our excitement. But what heightened the experience was that this joint musical endeavor allowed for our two very disparate cultures to work together in a natural, personal way.
In the second half of our workshop, the members of NEC Chamber Orchestra remained on stage to perform a well-known work – Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Not a single student from ANIM had heard it before; just a few were familiar with Tchaikovsky and mentioned his symphonies. We talked for a good while after the performance, and I blurted out a naïve question: did anyone want to be a professional musician? Hojat answered, politely explaining that he loves violin and plans to continue playing with his rock band, but there are no professional orchestras in Afghanistan. There is no “music scene” like ours in the United States, no path for musicians resembling anything remotely close to what makes up our world at NEC.
The many layers of this visit – that we could relate to one another and then within moments our newly formed impressions could be shattered by a stark reality – reveal how narrow our perspective can be in struggling to sum up a culture based on brief interactions—or often none at all.
During the last ANIM concert, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, I stood up with rest of the audience for the last piece and joined the performers in singing an Afghan melody. I cried while I sang, from the warmth and emotion in the completely packed hall, and from the nostalgia that the melody recalled, at once familiar and utterly foreign.