A Language for the Unspeakable

In describing a situation of conflict, words detailing traumatic events can be hard to find. The thoughts and feelings evoked by the conflict may remain dormant for many years when no language of words exists to reflect upon the experience! How do we create a language for the unspeakable?

Professor John Paul Lederach of the University of Notre Dame explains how to create a language for the unspeakable, among other conflict transformation topics, in his recent radio interview  with NPR reporter with Krista Tippett, “The Art of Peace.”

To listen to the full podcast, please click here.

The highly praised work of Professor Lederach deserves a closer look for its encouraging contributions to music intervention theory that empowers youth and transforms conflict. This is apparent in his compelling interview.

After discussing the abstract of creative process in peacemaking, Lederach points to a very common human behavior that is within the realm of the familiar: habit. It is the shpilkes* of human behavior, where an individual constantly repeats a cycle of actions sans conscious decision. Routine may get a bad rap as signaling a lack of change or imagination, yet what if we alter our thinking of what constitutes routine? Ledearch gives an example in the interview of what he jokingly says to his colleagues about attending mass,

“Imagine for a moment if the funding agencies were coming here to Notre Dame and were inquiring about your behavior that they are noticing, which is that you keep doing mass, some of you every day, most of you at least once a week- is there something that is not effective about how you’re doing mass?

With this example, Lederach identifies a repetitious human action that is not linear with steps 1, 2, & 3. Rather, it is ritualistic and circular. Instead of thinking of a circular motion as inert going no where, he describes it as “a deepening.” Imagine a corkscrew. Its shape is circular but not static. Lederarch continues by stating that music or sound falls into this category of ritualistic, circular “deepening”. This is where we can find a language for the unspeakable.

There are many ways to define what music is on the basis of its multiple identities. One fact that musicians, educators, and theorists can agree upon is that when the sound is, as my mom calls it, pulled out from an instrument, the body of the instrument vibrates. In particular with string instruments, if you place the bow on the string (let’s say at the Frog which is at the bottom of the bow) and pull a long down-bow stroke rubbing against the string until the bow’s tip and then take the bow off the string, you can see the string vibrating in a circular motion. If a person placed their fingers on the backside of the instrument during the stroke of the bow, he/she would feel the instrument slightly vibrating. The vibrations give feeling.The repetition of doing this movement over and over again creates sounds of consonances and dissonances forming melodies and motifs in a piece of music.  The ritualistic practice of playing the instrument every day actualizes a circular pattern of action or habit.

Lederach claims that violence numbs an individual “destroying a person’s capacity to perceive themselves as an integrated part of a whole.” (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) Playing an instrument, singing, raping, humming, etc., creates a means of expression that can not only help a person awaken through feeling, but as well find a means to express experiences and emotions for which there are no words. Lederach calls it a “whole body experience” that “connects the mind and the heart” towards healing and reconciliation. (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) This holistic approach creates a language for the unspeakable.

You can guess what the next two books are on my reading list!

  1. The Moral Imagination– John Paul Lederach
  2. When Blood and Bones Cry Out– Angie Lederach & John Paul Lederach

“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Living. NPR. KUHF, Houston, Texas, 12 Jan. 2012. Radio.

*Shpilkes is a Yiddish word that describes the nervous movement that one does unconsciously when speaking in front of a crowd. For ex.: the unconscious swaying back in forth from one foot to the other while speaking in front of the classroom.

Beyond Closed Borders: The Power of Music Seeps Through

Our world is full of borders separating countries, cutting-off communities, and preventing the free movement of basic goods. How secure are these borders in a modern world? Rather than taking down borders and building bridges through dialogue and transforming initiatives, governments seem to focus more on developing advanced security systems, to their rationale, to protect and create a sense of safety.  With the advent of the Internet and its mass usage in creative ways, do borders and security systems still live to their purpose or have they grown archaic in our tech-run world?

Young Palestinian musicians in Gaza may have a word or two to say about this matter and through the Internet, their voices are heard.

Gaza, located next to the State of Israel and Egypt, is a 360 square mile densely populated area that is completely closed off to the rest of the world besides two border crossing at the Erez Crossing with the State of Israel in the north and the Rafah Crossing with Egypt in the south. Currently governed by the Islamist group, Hamas, Israel and Egypt have shared responsibility for enclosing the area since 2006. Besides the basic calorie by calorie necessities to live and so often celebrity politician visits, the siege on Gaza does not allow much to enter nor much to exit. Unemployment is high. Basic food items such as flour and water can be hard to come by. The sewage and electricity systems are in need of repair and not always fit for use creating public health concerns.

Despite all of these problems that instill fear and desperation in many, let’s listen to the voices of young Palestinians who are empowered by music education taught at The Gaza Music School.

It was damaged by an Israeli bomb – but the Gaza Music School is quickly becoming a symbol of resilience.
The Independent

It is late afternoon and in a room darkening by the minute because of an all-too-familiar power cut, Shaden Shabwan, just 10 and a study in concentration, plays a Czech folk tune on an upright Yamaha piano as her teacher wills her to avoid mistakes. It is test day for piano students at the Gaza Music School, where Shaden is in her second year. Across the corridor, her classmate Abdel Aziz Sharek, also 10, is just as focused. Accompanied on ouds and tabla, he dexterously picks out a mesmerising classical longa on the qanun, the zither-like instrument that has been central to Arab music for a millennium or more. Abdel Aziz takes his regular studies as seriously as he evidently does the music. “I want to be a doctor,” he explains. “But I will keep playing. I will be in a band at the same time.”

Back in the piano room, Sara Akel plays two études by the Austrian composer Carl Czerny and a Bach Polonaise, with such confidence that you would never guess, if you shut your eyes, that she was only 12. Sara prefers music to academic subjects at school. “I really love it here,” she says. “The teachers are so nice and talented. I’m really looking to be a professional musician.” In Gaza? “Why not?”

It’s a fair question. This centre of artistic excellence may conflict with Gaza’s popular image. But it is already nurturing a young musical generation worthy of its peers elsewhere. Each of the 52 boys and 73 girls come three times a week after school for two sessions of learning an instrument and one for theory. While many have never touched a musical instrument before, they have all passed competitive tests of ear and rhythm to get in.

Among several Gaza prizewinners who performed in the last national Palestinian music competition by video link – because students cannot leave the territory – a seven-year-old qanun player, Mahmoud Khail, came first in his age group. This April the school will become the fifth full branch of the Edward Said National Music Conservatory – the leading Palestinian music institution named after the nationalist writer and music lover who died in 2003.

But the school is also a powerful symbol of Gaza’s resilience. It was founded three years ago at Palestinian Red Crescent premises in Gaza City’s Tel el Hawa district with finance from the Qattan foundation and the Swedish government. The first crop of students gave their first concert on 23 December, 2008.

Four days later, Israel’s military onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza opened with an aerial bombardment which landed a direct hit on the Preventative Security HQ and damaged nearby buildings including the school. Director Ibrahim Najar, a music graduate from Cairo University and a maestro of the qanun, was in the building at the time. He suffered only cuts and bruises and came back two days later to store the instruments in the school’s innermost space, the bathroom.

But then on 14 January, Israeli troops entered Tel el Hawa. The PRCS building was hit, and the school and several of its instruments, including the precious piano, were destroyed. Thanks to the US NGO Anera, replacements were brought across the border despite the Israeli-imposed blockade, including two brand new pianos, and the school was up and running in new premises.

That the school offers European as well as Arab classical music is thanks to a group of musically qualified east European women among the sizeable number who married Gazan men travelling to the former Soviet bloc for study. Yelina Lidawi, a North Ossetian, graduated from Rostov Conservatory and taught music in Vladikavkaz before coming to Gaza with her husband in 1999. Yet, having no piano, like her pupils (unlike Abdel Aziz, who has a more transportable qanun) she depends at home on a digital keyboard. In all of Gaza, with its population of 1.5 million, she estimates there are probably only half a dozen pianos. Gracefully acknowledging the talents of her charges, she points out that “we make a very strong selection. Last year we had to choose 40 pupils out of 250 who applied”.

Although tuition is at present free, many pupils are middle-class by Gaza standards – often with professional or academic parents. But beside running a scholarship programme in its existing centres to ensure that no talented pupil is excluded by poverty, the Conservatory has a growing outreach to more deprived, or culturally conservative areas.

Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said Conservatory, tells of an encounter on a recent trip to Gaza. At a school in Bureij, chosen for one of the network of choirs the conservatory also runs in Palestinian refugee camps across the region, the headmaster told him about two 11-year-old boys whose behaviour and academic achievement was so poor they were on the point of expulsion. “They both happened to have nice voices and joined the choir,” Mr Khoury says. “The head said their personalities had changed; they had something to show for themselves. He said: ‘I want to thank you for that.’ That made my day.”

Musically speaking, Edward Said’s name is best known for the West-Eastern Divan orchestra he formed with Palestinian and Israeli musicians in 1999 with the conductor Daniel Barenboim. But the conservatory that bears his name doesn’t work with the orchestra, believing in a cultural boycott of Israel until the 44-year-old occupation ends. Acknowledging that he differs both from Mr Barenboim and the late Said about this, Mr Khoury asks: “What is this orchestra telling the world – that Palestinian and Israelis can play together? We know that.”

The stance did not stop the conservatory-run Palestine National Orchestra playing an inaugural concert in the mixed Israeli city of Haifa last January. The target audience was Israeli Arab but Jews – and Israeli TV – were welcome. Mr Khoury had declared: “Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state.” After all, Israel’s birth in 1948 came 12 years after the formation of the orchestra which became the Israel Philharmonic.

Back in the Gaza Music School, 20 or so young voices resonate from a lecture room this chilly winter afternoon, softening to near inaudibility before rising to a crescendo as they run through their scales. Ibrahim Najar is at the piano coaxing his solfège class to extend their vocal range. Afterwards the pupils talk music. “I used to like the piano but I preferred the qanun,” says Adnan al Ghalban, 11, from the southern city of Khan Yunis. “It talks better than the piano.”

Feras Adas, a café owner’s son, explains how he first started to play a cousin’s guitar. “I learned from him but I made lots of mistakes before. Now I want to be a big musician in guitar.” Asked if, with talk of a fresh Israeli invasion, he fears the music school could be bombarded again, he has his own nine-year-old take on the power of music to transcend borders and battle lines. “I think it will not be hit,” he says cheerfully. “The Jews like this kind of thing.”


Welcome to the music intervention site! Here we will explore the methods of using the power of music  to create a pro-social effect in youth programs and how grassroots organizations are currently fostering these techniques globally.

Music or “sound” is a living force in every culture, religion, and nationalistic tradition. It can define the individual, and yet embrace the collective connection between an individual within a wider community(ies).

Music education is continually recognized in the neural sciences and in sociological studies as a beneficiary attribute to improved academic and personal achievement, heightened understanding of social interactions and conflict resolution, and actualized “risky” situations like performances in front of family and peers.

The intersection of youth empowerment, music education, and conflict transformation has yet to be fully explored on a theoretical level, though already conducted at a grassroots level internationally. Further investigation is needed to create sustainable and adaptable music intervention curriculums based on theory and practice that can mobilize youth to instill change in their communities.