Special-needs musicians to debut in Integrative Orchestra

Jerusalem Academy of Music and SHEKEL project with special-needs musicians to make its debut

MEMBERS OF The Integrative Orchestra prepare for their debut this week. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEMBERS OF The Integrative Orchestra prepare for their debut this week.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The newly formed Integrative Orchestra will make Israeli music history when it debuts on February 20 in a concert at 3 p.m. at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, since it is comprised of approximately half musicians with various special needs and half students from the prestigious academy.
This debut concert will be a festive community concert at the academy. The Integrative Orchestra will play pieces in very different styles, including songs by Idan Raichel and Yehudit Ravitz, as well as a Hebrew rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” the classic made famous by Louis Armstrong. The orchestra will perform some pieces with the Music Ulpan of the Eshkol Community Center Music Conservatory.
The instruments the orchestra features are as diverse as its members, including violins, guitars, percussion instruments and darbuka, pianos and singers.
Participants in the orchestra and their families are enthusiastic about how the group is fostering friendships and connections that go beyond the music. It was created in a pioneering partnership between SHEKEL-Inclusion for People with Disabilities and the Jerusalem Academy, supported by Perach, a student tutorial project, and the US Embassy’s American Center in Jerusalem.
“It is already impacting far more than the 23 members of the orchestra,” noted SHEKEL’s CEO, Clara Feldman.
AT A recent rehearsal, a magical atmosphere pervaded the music room. There were no “special needs” musicians or “mainstream” musicians, just musicians playing good music together.
As orchestra conductor and third-year academy music student Noam Arnold Shapiro, explained: “Music is a connecting language, and when we play together, disability falls away. Our music is very much a two-way street, with a lot of musical improvisation and input from all the musicians. In a recent practice, a SHEKEL guitarist unexpectedly suggested that we change the rhythm of particular piece, so we tried it – and it worked; it was great! Then there is Omer, a highly talented pianist who completely transcends his disability when playing in the orchestra.”
Omer’s mother, Orit Yohanan, agrees. Her 21-year-old-son, who has autism, has blossomed since joining the orchestra, she said. “He eagerly awaits each rehearsal, never missing one, and he fits into the group beautifully. He becomes alert, collaborative, mature and sometimes even takes a leading role. It is a real turning point for him. It’s very exciting for me to watch the change in him and to see him playing piano side by side with his mentor. I feel grateful that this opportunity came his way.”
Operating under the auspices of the Jerusalem Academy’s Yitzhak Navon Community Unit, the orchestra plays together once a week. Lilach Krakauer, director of the Community Unit, explained that the creation of the unit was inspired by the idea that the academy should not be an ivory tower, but should make its work accessible to the entire community.
In addition to the Integrative Orchestra, the academy has programs that reach out to Holocaust survivors and the elderly, children and the homeless.
“While the academy doesn’t have a special-education track, we understand its importance in society, and the Community Unit was excited to embark on this project. The Integrative Orchestra is reaching all its goals, and more and more students, educators and people with special needs want to be part of it. We believe the sky’s the limit,” said Krakauer.
In addition to weekly rehearsals, SHEKEL musicians receive music tutorials during the week through SHEKEL College.
Arnold Shapiro said he was amazed to see how at home the SHEKEL musicians feel at the academy. “They arrive for rehearsals, strike up conversations with students in the corridors and the café and talk about music.
“What surprised me most was the high musical level and abilities of the musicians,” he continued. “We just need to make the music accessible to them. You need to talk in a variety of musical languages, as some musicians read music, while others use their musical ear, intuition or eye contact to learn. When I cannot communicate in an appropriate musical language, Ofra Cohen, SHEKEL’s music adviser to the orchestra, is able to mediate and make the musical message accessible to all.
“What is most important are the deep personal friendships and musical relationships that have formed between the academy students and SHEKEL musicians. While rehearsals are always serious and professional, there is also a lot of humor, laughter and real comradery.”
SHEKEL HAS created a broad continuum of inclusion programs, including housing in the community, employment and vocational rehabilitation, special education programs, accessibility, therapeutic services, and enrichment and leisure programs, and its staff feels that the Integrative Orchestra is a natural extension of the rest of its work.
Feldman said, “Cultural inclusion is a major key to enabling true integration of people with disabilities in the community. It is crucial that they be given the chance to take their rightful place as a contributing vital part of Israel’s thriving cultural life.”
“For this reason,” she explained, “we put a lot of emphasis on offering cultural opportunity for people with special needs, developing diverse enrichment and leisure programs through SHEKEL College, which serves over 1,500 people with disabilities, including Jews and Arabs, from all sectors of society.
“An important part of this has been creating partnerships with top Israeli arts institutions such as Bezalel, Israel’s foremost art academy, and Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, the country’s leading drama school, which have really assisted people with disabilities to penetrate Israel’s arts scene.”
With the Integrative Orchestra’s debut, Jerusalemites with special needs will definitely be making their mark on the arts community in the capital.
“People with disabilities are not a weak sector of the community, as commonly believed,” said Feldman. “They are, for the most part, strong and have great abilities and potential. With the right support and accessibility, they can soar. The orchestra is proving this in real time and is opening a new door to inclusion.”