A ladder to a better life

The Sulamot project teaches music to disadvantaged and traumatized children.

The oud section of Sulamot’s classical Arab orchestra (photo credit: COURTESY SULAMOT)
The oud section of Sulamot’s classical Arab orchestra
(photo credit: COURTESY SULAMOT)
THE GROUP of bashful 12-year-old Beduin girls dressed in head coverings and jeans are eager to show off their recently acquired skills playing their drums, flutes and ouds to visitors. Their barely suppressed joy in being able to pound out, blow and pluck the simplest rhythms and tunes is infectious.
Their elementary school building in the northern Negev Beduin township of Tel Sheva is shockingly dilapidated and filthy.
As a result of decades of government neglect and local corruption, Tel Sheva is one of the lowest of socioeconomic communities in Israel ‒ the entire town resembles one large garbage dump.
The children learning in these Third World conditions are participants in Sulamot – Music for Social Change, the orchestra program for disadvantaged children and children at risk.
The program provides the children in grades four through six an opportunity to learn to play musical instruments, with weekly private lessons, and eventually to play together as an ensemble.
The Sulamot project, which now operates in 18 schools throughout the country, was launched six years ago as a joint initiative of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) and Tel Aviv University (TAU). Initially introduced in three schools and youth villages for exceptionally needy children, today, Sulamot teaches 1,200 children ages 10-14 who play in orchestras, bands, percussion ensembles and special programs for blind children.
The Hebrew word sulamot means both musical scales and also ladders. “We want these to be ladders to a better future,” says Sarah Elbaz, Sulamot’s director.
“All of the children in the program come from very difficult environments and lives,” she explains. “With the instruments they suddenly have a voice; the more they play the less aggressive and happier they are. The most problematic children in the program are often the best musicians in the group.”
The children in the Tel Sheva school assemble in two classrooms – one for the wind instruments, another for the oud and darbuka Arabic drum players – to hold their rehearsals. In addition to a conductor, each instrumental group has its own teacher standing by to encourage and correct ‒ an unheard of teacher to pupil ratio.
Elbaz, a professional clarinetist who also teaches at the school of music at TAU, is perpetually traveling around the country from school to school, checking up on how the children and the teachers are managing.
She knows all the pupils personally – all 1,200 of them – not only their names, but their problems and backgrounds and instruments.
She’s constantly arranging, organizing, cheerleading and, when needed, cajoling.
“It’s taken time for the staff at the Tel Sheva school to trust us,” she admits to The Jerusalem Report. “So many people have come here and then disappear, but we stay.”
Another challenge, she says, is that not all the music teachers speak Arabic, and the children, isolated as they are from general Israeli society, speak little Hebrew.
The handsome young conductor of the oud and darbuka rehearsal is Nizar Elkhater, a concert pianist and composer from Ramle, one of some 90 professional musicians who have been recruited to teach in the Sulamot programs around the country. Elkhater, who teaches in three of the Arabic-language schools in the project, patiently directs his young charges who are straining to follow him.
“I understand the needs of these children,” he explains later to The Report. “They come from a background that hasn’t prepared them for the need to sit still, concentrate or take directions. Or to be team players. This isn’t an obvious skill.”
In Beersheba, last winter, some 300 children aged 10-12 – half of them Jewish, half Beduin – file into the Keren Hayesod Switzerland Youth Center to hear each other perform. For local school children who are usually unruly, these kids seem exceptionally well behaved. Each school group, all wearing blue and white T-shirts with the Sulamot logo, takes turns playing for the other groups. “Old MacDonald” has seen better times, as has “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but the young musicians are very serious and pull together.
MOST OF their instruments have been specially manufactured in child sizes. The violins and harps, for example, are 1/3 the normal size. All the instruments, whether wind, string, brass or percussion are very high quality, explains Elbaz ‒ and expensive.
“This is our greatest investment. It’s crucial that the instruments are the highest quality possible. Playing is very difficult, and if the instruments were toys, the children would feel this and we would accomplish nothing,” she says.
We arrive at the Sderot elementary school just as a rocket drill is announced over the loudspeakers.
The kids, who have seven seconds to get to a shelter, start running and screaming.
The town, situated less than a mile from Gaza, has been called the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” Rocket attacks over the years have severely disrupted daily life; some studies have shown that at least 75 percent of children in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress, including sleeping disorders and severe anxiety.
“Discipline here is totally out of control,” comments Elbaz. “All the children in Sderot suffer a post-traumatic condition.
The slightest thing can set off crying or a temper tantrum.”
But music has proven to alleviate some of the stress.
“Music has had a huge impact on the kids’ behavior, both cognitive and physical,” school principal tells The Report. “They’re much calmer at school. The teachers come here with so much patience, and most importantly for us, love for what they are doing,” she says.
There’s a rainbow assortment of children in the orchestra rehearsal, from very blond to very dark. A trombone trio plays a sort of jazzy harmony, with child-sized instruments in orange and purple. There are flutes, saxophones, clarinets and trumpets.
The kids seem deliriously happy.
The Sulamot program takes all the children in the grades and everyone gets to play for a minimum of three years. “We can’t decide at this point who has talent and who doesn’t,” says Elbaz. “Everyone’s involved; we don’t give up on anyone. The whole idea is to challenge the children at a different level than they’re used to.”
Sulamot tailors its programs to the specific needs of each school. In the religious elementary school across town, the orchestra is “Andalusian,” with the children playing traditional Arab instruments. “We wanted to give the children a unique chance to express their own culture. The school is religiously oriented and they wanted music the kids can relate to,” says Elbaz.
Two 11-year-old boys are having a lesson on the darbuka, scaled down to their size, with a teacher from Jerusalem. The boys are listless and unenthusiastic. Elbaz takes out her smartphone to show them a video clip of two blind boys their age in Nazareth who, after only one year, are playing like pros. The boys in Sderot are obviously impressed.
Perhaps Elbaz’s strategy to encourage the boys will succeed.
She approaches a girl sitting alone, crying in the corridor while her classmates are rehearsing. “I can’t keep up,” the girl tells Elbaz. “My parents won’t let me practice at home.” Elbaz arranges time for the girl to practice after school, since she knows she can’t fight the parents.
CHILDREN IN this religious school and those in the Arabic-speaking schools are taught to play ouds and kanuns (a table harp), the classic Arab stringed instruments. Children can’t possibly hold standard-sized ouds because they’re too big to wrap short arms around.
The organization managed to locate a factory in Damascus, Syria, which specializes in traditional Arabic instruments and manufactures high-quality ouds in small sizes. A dealer in the Druse town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights, on the border with Lebanon, was prepared to facilitate the order.
“They hardly believed us when we placed our first order of 50 ouds and eight kanuns,” relates Elbaz. “And these are beautifully crafted, expensive instruments.”
The first shipments arrived overland via Jordan or Lebanon, something now impossible considering the bloody chaos in Syria.
The next shipment will come by sea.
It is universally understood that music can heal and transform depression and aggression into hope. There are several youth music projects in the world aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged and troubled children. One of the most famous is El Sistema, Venezuela’s elaborate system of making music accessible to children of all backgrounds. El Sistema’s most famous “graduate” is Gustavo Dudamel, the celebrated conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who came to Israel in 2013 to conduct the IPO.
Philanthropist Anette Bollag Rothschild, chair of Sulamot and former president of the Swiss Friends of Tel Aviv University, was instrumental in the creation of the Israeli program. She was already involved with the IPO, after Zubin Mehta conducted the TAU 100-member student orchestra in a Zurich fund-raising event.
“There was an inspiration from El Sistema, but Sulamot is quite different from the Venezuela program. It started discussions about how to apply the program in Israel,” she explains to The Report.
Bollag Rothschild has been involved in every stage of Sulamot’s development over the years. “So many children here are needy, they don’t feel important as individuals, they feel they have no place in society,” she says. “The music is repairing, and the personal attention builds their self-esteem.”
This is especially true in the children’s villages, home to particularly traumatized children who have been removed from their parents’ care by social services. Some who have experienced severe abuse are known as what is termed “selective mutes” ‒ they choose not to speak ‒ but when given an instrument, they are often transformed. One boy refused to speak, but after being given a trumpet found his voice. Another girl, who had been severely abused, was brought to the youth village when she was only six years old. “We introduced her into the choir and she started to sing,” says Elbaz. “We have so many stories like this. Music is a bridge over troubled water.”
All children in the programs are exposed to serious classical music and are regularly bused to Tel Aviv to attend IPO concerts.
The rapt response of even the most disruptive and damaged children in the program to these concerts is, perhaps, surprising.
As in El Sistema, Sulamot is trying to improve children’s lives through music, says Bollag Rothschild. “We’re not looking for talent, though that can be developed. We’re there because the children need a change in their life. They suddenly have another language; they can express their feelings.”
Sulamot’s teachers, who are all salaried, are very motivated, explains Elbaz.
“They’re willing to get up at five a.m. to travel long distances to teach the most difficult children in the country. And because the population changes every year, they often don’t have a chance to see the results.” Among the music teachers are 15 uniformed IDF soldiers from the unit for outstanding musicians, who help the children practice.
The job isn’t easy, and sometimes the teachers themselves get psychological help from TAU to help them deal with the children.
“This is the most fascinating project I’ve ever been involved in,” says conductor Nizar Elkhater. “It’s bringing these children to a place they would never have experienced, a place where they can express themselves.”