Old City Harmony

Muslim, Jewish and Christian students immerse themselves in the world of music.

Magnificat Institute 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Magnificat Institute )
Magnificat Institute 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Magnificat Institute )
VIOLIN TEACHER TANYA BELTSER GENTLY positions eight-year-old Majd’s shoulder and adjusts the angle of her elbow as the young student lightly holds her violin bow and prepares for her mid-term exam, to be graded by the Magnificat Institute of Music’s academic director, Hania Soudah-Sabbara, and director and founder, Father Armando Pierucci.
Beltser, who immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine 15 years ago, speaks to Majd in English, but their real language of communication is that of music.
“I love the violin,” Majd says. “Tanya is strict, but she is a good teacher and she smiles a lot.”
“I am Muslim and I don’t feel any difference between Christians, Muslims and Jews,” says another student, Fadi, 10, who is studying for his classical guitar exam with Israeli teacher Shiri Coneh. “It doesn’t make a difference, I am studying music.”
The Magnificat Institute was founded in 1995 by Pierucci at the urging of Soudah-Sabbara and opened its doors to 50 piano and organ students. Today the institute, located inside the New Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City on the campus of the St. Saviour Franciscan Monastery, can proudly boast some 22 teachers of various ethnicities and religions teaching a similar mix of 250 music students now also violin, viola, violoncello, classical guitar, side flute, percussion, composition and choral music. There is also a preparatory course in music for children from three to eight years old.
Here Muslims, Jews, Christians, Armenians and international students and teachers leave behind the sometimes turbulent political reality of life in Jerusalem and immerse themselves in the world of music.
“Here it is not like the outside. It is different here. We all like music so we talk about music,” says Fadi’s 16-year-old sister Lour who studies the piano with a Russian-Israeli teacher.
In its mission statement the school notes that in addition to promoting the high-level professional preparation of music students, it also fulfills a double role as “a place for dialogue and peaceful coexistence that permits human and social development.” The school is open to teachers, staff, musicians, and students without regard to language, country, race or religion.
“IT’S TRUE THAT WE HAVE ALL OF THAT. BUT WE really don’t deal with politics,” says Soudah-Sabbara, 44, herself a graduate of the music education department of the Rubin Academy in West Jerusalem. In addition to being the academic director of Magnificat, she also teaches ear training and solfege, a technique for the teaching of sight singing, and is currently studying for her master’s degree at the Rubin Academy, which, she says, has been “very supportive” of the institute.
According to Dr. Veronica Cohen, dean of the music education department at the Rubin Academy of Music, the educational level at Magnificat Institute is close to that of top conservatories in West Jerusalem. She says she has been involved with the institute for many years and admires the level of professionalism the school puts into the education of their students.
“It is amazing how professional they are and how well-rounded an education they receive there, it is not just performance but also theory. And their choir is outstanding,” she says. “It is a delight the school exists,” she tells The Report.
The school adopted the Italian curriculum style of teaching, Soudah-Sabbara says and the course of studies includes exams and competitions. Only those who pass an audition are accepted into the institute and if, after an honest attempt, a student is found not to be of the right musical level, he is politely asked to end his studies at the institute.
The Magnificat has an agreement with the Conservatory of Music A. Pedrollo in Venice, Italy where so far two students have obtained a diploma in pianoforte and another student is currently studying for his master’s degree in organ. Other students have completed their studies in organ or musical education in Italy, Germany and Israel.
“My main goal is to have the best teachers possible to give our students the best education and keep them advancing well,” Soudah- Sabbara explains to The Report, noting that not every teacher can withstand the strict academic demands at the Magnificat.
Having grown up in a home with a harmonica-playing father who had a love for Western classical music, it was her dream to have such a conservatory of music in Jerusalem, she says, especially for Palestinian children who “never had the privilege of music. For many it is still a luxury,” she says.
She shared her dream with Pierucci who had just arrived from Italy to replace the organist at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Italian priest soon realized that there was a need for such a music school for future Palestinian musicians and after a few years was able to convince his superiors of the importance of the endeavor.
Her next goal, says Soudah-Sabbara, is to see the formation of a full-fledged youth philharmonic orchestra; for now they have started an ensemble. At the moment there is one professional Palestinian orchestra, but that is made up of Palestinians in the diaspora who come together only for performances, she says. In addition, the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry has noted a severe shortage of music teachers in the educational system, so many of the institute students could actually find themselves making a living from their music in schools, she notes.
The Edward Said National Conservatory, which was founded at about the same time as Magnificat and is based in Ramallah, also has a branch in Jerusalem and emphasizes the Arabic tradition in music. Today, she says, the institute has a “healthy competition” with the conservatory and their students participate in some of the institute’s competitions. Although Magnificat teaches Western classical music, it also highlights Arabic heritage by including Arabic songs – arranged in Western choral style with more than one voice – in its choral repertoire, notes Soudah-Sabbara.
TEACHING AT MAGNIFICAT IS “LIKE BEING ON another planet,” says 31-year-old classical guitar teacher Shiri Coneh, who is teaching at the institute for the third year.
“People come from different countries, different religions, and it is very open,” she says.
The students and parents are very serious about the music studies, Coneh notes. Magnificat has more of an educational framework, which is connected to a strict curriculum, than other Israeli musical institutes where she teaches, she says. “You can see it in the concerts, how much they want to perform. They appreciate it. There will be results,” she says.
But it wasn’t always like that. “Magnificat had to do a lot of education of society about what it takes to have a musician at home.
Parents didn’t know they have to attend their concerts and be patient with a child who is practicing at home. We lost a lot of students at the beginning with great potential,” Soudah-Sabbara says.
After 16 years, attitudes have changed, and many of the students have gone on to higher music studies, with some returning to teach at the institute and others, who have not made music their career, now send their own children to study here. “This gives us and all the staff a happy sense of achievement,” says Soudah-Sabbara. “Music heals a lot of wounds. Giving such an opportunity to talented children gives them a better tomorrow. Before Magnificat they had nowhere to advance.”
Haig Vosgueritchian, 27, a former organ student at the institute, now teaches music theory and harmony there. “This school gave me everything,” says Vosgueritchian, an Armenian.
The multi-ethnic make-up of the school for him is just something that “comes with the package. I don’t intentionally take Jewish students to show them we can live together,” he says, noting that the students see the teachers naturally interacting with each other as a given. “The school is important for local people, especially the children, because they are stressed and nervous and, here, the moment they enter they find peace and relaxation and listen to music.”
Teaching at the Institute is at a very high level and “quite a challenge,” notes Beltser, who has taught for six years at Magnificat. This year she has been put in charge of developing the youth orchestra.
“It is a very young school and it is growing and developing all the time. They really take [music education] seriously and [allow] the teacher to give the student extra study time if he needs it,” says Beltser, who is a traditional Jew and does not work on Saturdays, which is a normal workday for Palestinians. “This is a very special place. Here you can see how rich [in peoples and traditions] the City of Jerusalem is.”