I asked a student to gather the others. Soon, the boys crowded my room, so I requested that the female students be brought to the studio as well.
I worked on learning their names and had started to teach them about posture when I was called out for a faculty meeting. I quickly set up my laptop and a copy of Circling Around, a documentary about the Violin Virtuosi, a violin ensemble founded by Mimi Zweig, my former teacher and the creator of the String Pedagogy DVD which is the basis for my teaching. Starting the video, I left the room.
When I came back, all the girls were gone and all the boys were watching the documentary. Confused, I asked where the girls went. I was surprised to hear that they were taken for a class: classes have not formally started yet. Yet again, I asked for them to be summoned.
We watched a bit more before I stopped the documentary and asked for reactions. When no one spoke, I asked for each person's reaction. The responses, translated by Dr. Sarmast, were deeply moving. Showing a movie in class can be an act of laziness, but I was blown away by how much these girls and boys got out of a documentary that shows children their age perfecting their art and working together as an ensemble.
Their responses included the following: "I saw what hard work and practice can accomplish." "I saw how they moved their fingers and their bodies and I want to do that too." "I used to think that learning music meant putting the music in a corner and playing it, but now I see that is not enough. As soon as they get up in the morning, they practice. It is a part of their life. Violin needs to be more a part of my life too." "We need an ensemble like that here in Afghanistan."
I set them up in a circle to teach the name of each part of the violin and bow and how to take care of it. After making them repeat each part four times in English, I would ask them the name of that part in Dari, so learning that gushak are pegs, kharak is bridge, and desta is fingerboard. When I quizzed them individually, I addressed a girl as often as a boy, although the girls are a minority. When I asked the group in general, a girl was frequently first to answer.
After a lunch of beans and bread, I practiced a little Boulez before inviting them back. Once again, I had to invite first "the students" and then "the girl students" to come to the studio. The girls disappeared soon after arriving, and this time, a few boys left as well. I realized that only the students who could stay after the normal departure time were left in my room, desperate to learn even though our academic routine had not yet begun.
I did not want to give them too much of an advantage, but yet I could not throw water on their enthusiasm. So, I taught them the importance of stretching and relaxation before interviewing them for an upcoming radio special in the United States. I asked them why music is important, and for the second time that day, their answers to a simple question astounded me. "We can grow with music." "Music is in our human hearts." "Music is food of soul." "Music is taken from nature." Music takes us to "another place, another globe."
Equally astonishing was their mastery of South Asian classical violin. Two students played for me in this style, and I confessed that I cannot do it and cannot possibly teach them in a style in which their knowledge far exceeds my own. They hastened to assure me that they want to learn Western music. I'll have to learn your music, I responded.
Students will teach, teacher will learn. Like the title of the documentary, like Mimi Zweig students from Joshua Bell to Sarah Kapustin who have returned to work with her students, I am circling around.