Teaching Music in the Middle East - Marc Thayer

Written by Marc Thayer, Symphony NH Executive Director

This summer marked my 10th anniversary teaching violin in the Kurdish Region of northern Iraq - a region referred to by residents as Kurdistan, reflecting their eventual hope for independence. For two weeks in July 2017, I taught at the YES Arts Academy with my previous employer, the Association of American Voices, who founded the academy in 2007.  The weather is dry and hot during the day, reaching 120 degrees, but very nice when we enjoyed dinner outside with water misters above our heads.  

The Citadel in Erbil

The Citadel in Erbil

This year we worked in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region about an hour east of Mosul.  There is a good amount of development going on downtown in the center square next to the old bazaar and on the Citadel up on the mount, the oldest part of the city, which has been inhabited for the past 6,000 years.  

Students at the YES Arts Academy travel from all parts of the Kurdish region as well as Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.  The students from Mosul have amazing stories from the past five years while dealing with ISIS.  Most of them were imprisoned at some time for being musicians or for having a SIM card for a cell phone, and all have had their instruments taken away from them.  One student escaped to Baghdad, another hid his instruments in the ceiling of his house, and a third buried his instruments in his parents' garden, which did not end well for the instruments.  All are relieved to have relative freedom back now, but there’s not much to go back to in Mosul. Through it all they persevered and continued to make music, compose and play with small ensembles.  

Students rehearse at the YES Academy in Erbil

Students rehearse at the YES Academy in Erbil

There are talented musicians in the group, and they have been welcomed here by the Kurds - something not typical.  Historically the Kurds and Arabs have been antagonistic and suspicious of each other, both wanting to control the oil in this region, but this war in Mosul has brought them together against a common enemy.  I heard one Kurdish student tell an Arab from Mosul that Mosul would be proud of him after a small performance of his own music.  At an open mic event, the students from Mosul dedicated a song to their Kurdish hosts.  It was a very beautiful slow song about hope in a region where there often is none.


On the first day of orchestra auditions, I was gratified to listen to teenagers from another city, Suleimanya, and they played quite well.  When I looked on the music stand, I saw photocopies of music with my markings - for bowings, dynamics, etc. - on them.  They are taking lessons now from a former student of mine who spent one year studying in St. Louis and is now back teaching in Iraq and performing commercial music and videos.  Most of the best teachers have left the country, so it’s good to see some strong teaching growing out of the YES Arts Academy.

After a short two weeks in Iraq, we moved on to Beirut, Lebanon, where we presented the 9th annual YES Arts Academy in August, 2017 thanks to support from the U.S. Embassy.  The program took place just north of Beirut at Notre Dame University.  This year over 80 Lebanese students, 42 from Syria, 3 from Jordan, 3 from Egypt and 2 from Kurdish Iraq attended. The Syrian students have many stories from their home cities, though most are students in Damascus where life continues somewhat normally. Many of them hope to continue their studies somewhere in the West.

Students learned stringed instruments including guitar, as well as piano, voice and composition. The strings programs include a young beginners class, an advanced class, and a baroque ensemble, which I started a few years ago.

This year the baroque ensemble performed Vivaldi's The Four Seasons in a Romanesque church in Byblos that was built in 1115, which is quite a contrast from the Four Seasons, written in 1721.  The soloists included two students from Syria, one from Lebanon, and the last movement, "Winter", featured another violin teacher who performs regularly with the Baroque Ensemble in Portland, OR.


The food is wonderful here and the little villages throughout the hills are picturesque, with views of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as 20 degrees cooler than the coast.  On a day off, we visited one of the cedar forest preserves; the cedar tree is the symbol of Lebanon and is prominent on their flag.  The tree lives only at high elevations, and some of them are more than 1,000 and 2,000 years old.  

After the long flights and the dehydrating weather, I appreciate ice cubes and hot showers, a cold drink and the delicious food, but most of all, the people are generous, kind, sincere, expressive, gentle and sincerely appreciative of what we can do together on stage.  The generosity of these students and families is humbling, and the general perceptions of these countries and people by the rest of the world are sadly out of balance.  They take nothing for granted and appreciate the opportunities they are given.

It is exhausting work and never in ideal circumstances, but the students are the most grateful that I have worked with anywhere in the world.  They value the opportunity to make music and find any way they can to learn more about their instruments, perform with other people and have a chance to make their lives richer through these experiences.