As a music educator and therapist, I spend my days teaching young children how to hold their violin bows, express their emotion, work through trauma or find inner support through music.
It is wonderful and rewarding work, but working behind the scenes to instill discipline and knowledge on a daily basis is not usually newsworthy. This spring, however, something extraordinary happened. Twenty of my violin students from the Sound Mind School of Music and Wellness Center teamed up with local artists from Duke University, the Middle Eastern community and the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian-Universalist to play a benefit concert for Syrian refugees, and opened up to a new cross-cultural adventure.
When I first dreamed of a social justice fundraiser involving my violin students, I was worried about a backlash. I expected to encounter Islamophobia and thought I might lose business. I wondered if students might find Arabic music too “foreign” sounding and not want to participate.
Instead, I found that conservative families in my studio were nervous about being associated with the pro-choice and same-sex marriage positions of the Unitarian church and wanted to pull out.
I was also accused by fellow teachers on social media of overstepping my boundaries. They scolded me for not just focusing on the music and demanded to know, “Since when is teaching children a forum for your political agenda?” Most of my colleagues were too busy to collaborate, and I was left wondering if there was enough community support for this effort.
As the concert day arrived, with the support of the Standing on the Side of Love committee, the eloquent sounds and open hearts of Eric Pritchard, the Habibi Band, the Jabr family, and innocent young violin students, something magical happened in that little community church in Chapel Hill.
In a beautiful sanctuary with glimpses of tree branches and greenery peeking through the windows, we changed the world a little. Not by raising millions of dollars, but by white, Indian, Korean, Syrian, Armenian, Palestinian, Colombian, and Jamaican children and adults listening to each other, playing together, singing Arabic words of peace and hope, and sharing the music of Bach, Brahms, Fairouz and Dalida.
When Arabs are being forced off of airplanes for talking to their mothers in their native language, when black people are murdered for no reason, in a country where immigrants are labeled as criminals – singing Arabic words and sharing the stage with those who are different from us is a radical act. I am so grateful to the volunteers, sponsors and community members that made this concert happen. I am so proud of the students, families and fellow musicians who not only made the world more beautiful last weekend with the spirit of their music, but kindled a greater sense of humanity in all of us with their courage and leadership.
The world needs teachers, therapists, artists and people from all walks of life to be brave, to cross the borders and be willing to go to the other side. If we want a world of justice, peace, and harmony, it is our responsibility to create it, to lead our children there, and pay attention to a larger social and cultural context in everything we do. It’s up to us to see the whole child in front of us and fill our lives with beauty and the arts.
Some people may say it is naive to think that a little concert in North Carolina can make much of a difference. However, as the renowned cellist Pablo Casals once said, “perhaps it is music that will change the world.”
Sangeeta Swamy, Ph.D., is an award-winning violinist, licensed psychotherapist, and board-certified music therapist. She is the founder of the Sound Mind School of Music and Wellness Center in Durham.