Unexpected Israel: The music man

On May 8, 2015, I, Ruth Corman, previously believed to be of sound mind and body, found myself standing on a rostrum before a 50-piece orchestra, in Israel.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Andres Mustonen (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Andres Mustonen
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
On May 8, 2015, I, Ruth Corman, previously believed to be of sound mind and body, found myself standing on a rostrum before a 50-piece orchestra, in Israel, conducting a left-handed version of the opening movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
No, this was not a dream, it was absolutely true. It really happened.
Earlier, a friend had phoned to say she had a story that might be of interest and suggested I visit the Ma’aleh Adumim Music Conservatory to learn of its work in the field of musical education.
The principal, Benjamin Shapira, and I exchanged emails to confirm my visit. Eventually the date arrived. Unfortunately I had a particularly exhausting day, and when it was time to go it was the last thing I wanted to do, but having promised I could not bring myself to cancel. Had I done so, I would have missed out on a unique encounter, as the visit proved to be one of those memorable occasions when you meet a person that you instantly recognize is extra special – someone with the ability to transform lives.
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Shapira was born into a musical family, At three, he was playing the piano, by five, he began studying the cello. He was drawn to this instrument but could not, at that age, articulate the reason why. Today, he acknowledges that he loves the cello because it is the instrument that most resembles the human voice, he says.
Around 11, his burgeoning talent was confirmed by world-renowned violinist Isaac Stern, who selected him to join a group of talented youngsters and train at the Jerusalem Music Center. There he remained until 18, when he entered the army as one of only five recruits admitted to the IDF’s outstanding musicians program. He was a regular soldier for six hours a day, and practiced the cello and studied music for the remainder of his time.
After army service and university, Shapira was offered to study for a master’s degree at Yale University.
His stellar career began following a debut at Carnegie Hall, where he played Bach’s complete suites for solo cello. The press reviews were outstanding and from then on he was in constant demand worldwide.
He completed his doctorate at Rutgers University and subsequently became orchestral director at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
It was then that Shapira had something of an epiphany with the realization that his future lie not in the US but in Israel. He decided to return in order to give back to his country and developed a plan to provide top-class musical education for youngsters who would normally never have access to such tuition.
Authorities in Ma’aleh Adumim built a magnificent state of the art music school, and in 2007, children from all walks of life arrived on the doorstep.
Shapira advocates the method used in the US where, from day one, each child becomes part of a social group, the orchestra, regardless of ability. There are several levels of orchestra, from beginners to advanced, by which time they play together for eight hours a week, with two hours practice every day as well as a private theory lesson.
In only seven years, the school has achieved significant success.
Their harp players have performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, a string quartet has played at the President’s Residence and history repeated itself when a young percussionist was accepted for the IDF’s outstanding musicians program. The school’s top orchestra has won prizes in Slovakia and they have been asked to perform at Carnegie Hall in November 2015.
A great deal has been written about the power of music to aid cognitive development in youngsters.
Several of Shapira’s students were undisciplined, disruptive and isolated when they arrived. However, the system he uses encourages cooperation and develops a sense of responsibility and commitment to a shared purpose. The self-esteem that inevitably follows enhances all areas of the child’s life. It instills positive attitudes, confidence and improves social adjustment.
When I visited the conservatory, at first the children were a little shy but soon opened up and were able to express their feelings. It was very moving. Some had begun playing in regular schools as part of the conservatory’s outreach program.
They told me of their problems in being regarded as different by the other kids and how they found it difficult to make friends and frequently felt lonely. The said they had often resorted to pretending to misbehave in order to be accepted as part of their peer group.
However, on arrival at the conservatory they were immediately part of a warm, open family with whom they had much in common.
One girl said: “I cannot live without music.” After our meeting she sent me an email saying that after talking to me she reflected on why she enjoyed music so much.
She wrote, “Listening to the concert today, my whole body reacted when I heard the music. I had shivers of excitement, so I guess that my brain and my heart just love what music does to me. It is exactly the same when I play the violin.”
One student called music her “best friend.” Another said it had changed his personality. From being lonely and rejected, music presented him with a new world of challenges and possibilities. I must say that these young musicians were extraordinarily impressive.
I myself understand something of the power of music having taken up singing at a comparatively late age. I love the discipline of learning the techniques of voice production. More than that, it is quite simply that, however tired I might feel when I start singing, I rapidly become energized and feel supremely happy. Music should be prescribed by every health service.
It is just like taking a “happy pill.”
Now back to my debut as an orchestral conductor. As I descended the rostrum one teacher remarked how competent I was and asked for how long I had been conducting.
I was able to tell him in all honesty that my entire career had spanned five and a half minutes.
But, unexpectedly, another career possibility has opened up for me.
Shapira begins to transform my life, too.
He has invited me to perform with him and a group of young cellists, when I will sing the aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa Lobos. Frankly, I am in shock that someone as illustrious as Shapira should consider me capable of doing so, but he insists. The concert will take place at the conservatory in the autumn.
I have never been one to refuse a challenge. However in this case, it might be more appropriate to suggest that my eagerness to climb this particular mountain is a perfect example of “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” We shall have to wait and see...
Ruth Corman, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, is due to be published later this year.
ruthcorman.wordpress.com MA’ALEH ADUMIM Music Conservatory. (Ma’aleh Adumim Municipality)