Monday, August 20, 2012

Rollin w/ Bolen in the Waco Trib

Prof. Bradley Bolen was featured today in the Waco Tribune for his work with American Voices:

Baylor music instructor teaches in war-torn countries


When Baylor University music professor Brad Bolen was offered a chance to teach piano lessons to young students in Iraq, he had more than a few reservations.

“My first thought was, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Bolen said of the offer from American Voices, a nonprofit group that hosts music and arts programs in countries across the globe.

“My second one was there can’t possibly be any people there at the level that I’ve worked with my whole life to help or who could have that much familiarity with Western music.”

But what he found instead was a country full of charm despite its civil struggles.

And he was inspired by students who didn’t let the wars around them deter their focus on nurturing their musical talents.

“I can’t think of very many places where I can win that many kids over so fast and feel like I’ve inspired them and really changed their lives,” Bolen said.

Now, Bolen wants to create a greater opportunity for the young musicians to expand their studies. The Baylor School of Music has started an American Voices Scholarship Fund and is seeking donations to help students from the country study music at Baylor.

Dean William May said the school of music has had some students from the Middle East before, but never anyone from a war-torn county. He thinks bringing some of Bolen’s pupils will add a deeper perspective on the value of higher education.

“We’re talking about putting examples of people who’ve literally risked their lives to do what they want to do, not because Mama’s sending them to college,” May said. “That’s a kind of student intensity that our American students don’t comprehend until they see it in action.”

May said the students will need more than just tuition support. The scholarships will be needed to help with everything from housing and clothing to school supplies and medical care.

“Oftentimes they come to us needing to go to the dentist,” May said. “Those kinds of things we don’t think of in terms of students coming because we sort of expect them coming with some level of support from home.”

Bolen recently completed his third summer teaching in American Voices’ Youth Excellence on Stage, or YES Academy. The program has taken him to Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon for two-week intervals to introduce classical piano music and techniques to young pupils from around each country.

During his first camp in Iraq, Bolen had four translators in the room as he taught 15 to 20 students that included Christians and Muslims, Kurds and Arabs.

On the first day, he had each student play a piece of their choice to demonstrate their skill level. As one girl played, a mouse would crawl across the worn piano, then flee back to its hiding space when she stopped, he said.

After this continued for a few minutes, another student went over and began playing Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” a piece famously used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a mouse crashed his recital.

“Instantly, everybody started laughing, and everyone knew what he was referring to,” Bolen said. “I knew right away we were going to have fun after that.

“I also realized that what we were doing was helping this very diverse group of kids that would not ordinarily work together in their own country, come together and break boundaries within their own culture.”

Bolen said he also experienced a culture shock of his own in discovering that Iraq wasn’t quite the chaotic country he pictured it to be.

He found that the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq was calm and welcoming, and visitors could travel easily and enjoy normal tourist activities like sightseeing or dining out.

“I quickly learned it wasn’t all I thought or feared,” Bolen said. “People get preconceived notions about things until they go there, and I think I was just as guilty of that as anybody.”

Danger persists

But Bolen acknowledges there has been some danger in his work. The YES Academy canceled its programs in Iraq and Syria last summer because of a rash of civil uprisings, opting only to go to Jordan.

This past summer, some of the lessons took place in Kirkuk, a city on the southern edge of Kurdistan that long has been the center of conflict between Arab and Kurdish groups.

Soldiers accompanied the instructors in a caravan to and from the lessons at the Kurdistan Save the Children center. The group also had to change cars each day and switch routes to make sure they would not be followed, Bolen said.

Three days after the lessons wrapped, a series of attacks broke out in the city and a bomb struck the police station next to the children’s center.

Bolen later learned that none of his students had been hurt, but 42 people were killed during the bombings and the center was damaged.

“Quite frankly, the university and I, at the beginning of all this, were pretty nervous,” May, the music school dean, said. “We’re talking about a pianist entering a war zone, and that’s not the kind of place pianists usually go.”

Bolen said he often was amazed at the students’ resilience to continue their music studies despite the circumstances.

Once, a student from Syria contacted Bolen on Facebook to talk about his progress in violin lessons. The student told Bolen two bombs exploded outside his window as he practiced just a few minutes before their chat.

One of his pupils, 16-year-old Mohammed Akmed, attended the YES Academy in Iraq in 2010, driving six hours from his home in Baghdad to make the lessons. His father owned a pharmacy that was destroyed in a firefight between American troops and insurgents.

That same summer, Mohammed participated in a regional piano competition in Syria at the same time Bolen’s group was in the country starting piano lessons. Mohammed rejoined the program in Iraq again this summer.

Bolen said he’d like to see the students have a chance to come to America and focus on music without the distractions of war.

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