Boom! The cannon blasts at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The eighth-graders in my music class don’t react, they just listen. To me, it is a great moment of pure genius. To end a piece of music celebrating the victory of war with a cannon blast should get some sort of reaction of excitement: wide eyes, a jump in the seat, a quick turn of the head. I get no reaction from them. However, I, on the other hand, am fighting back tears. Just to take a moment and analyze what I am doing, playing an almost 200-year-old piece of music about war to a group of students who have grown up in war can be a little overwhelming at times. After the piece ends, I ask the class, “What was that sound at the end of the piece?”
“A bomb?” one student asks. I tell him that is a good guess, but that it is a cannon blast, because in those days they didn’t use bombs in war, they used cannons. “Oh,” the student says.
Then I ask, “What if someone here in Afghanistan wrote a piece of music to celebrate the end of the Soviet invasion, the end of the Taliban regime, or to celebrate the new democracy? Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate your country’s victory?”
“Yes!” they all chime in with agreement. As a class we talk about how cool it would be, and how the composer could take the melodies of their childhood songs and incorporate them into the work. “Then people would recognize it,” one student says.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is an orchestral piece historically associated with war. There are other pieces that are not conveying the sounds of war at all, yet these children hear war sounds. For instance, a few weeks later I play Handel’s “Hornpipe” from Water Music for my second-grade class. As we pass out their music listening journals, I remind them of the instructions. I say, “Listen to the piece of music and finish the sentence, ‘When I listen to this piece of music, the picture I paint in my head is …,’ then draw a picture at the bottom of the page of the picture you see in your head.”
It’s Handel’s Water Music. It’s majestic and somewhat triumphant. Surely they’ll associate it with a happy image. Though a couple of girls draw pictures of princesses in castles, as I collect their journals I am mostly face to face with pictures of war—battles, blood-stained people and people in victory standing over dead bodies holding a gun in the air.
These children live in a world that is not normal, and I teach at a school that is the only one of its kind. I live in Kabul, Afghanistan, and teach music at the International School of Kabul. I teach preschool through eighth-grade music, direct the high school choir and teach a high school general music class that takes an academic look at the history of music and hopefully instills in the students a new appreciation of all music. This school is the only college preparatory, U.S.-accredited school in the country of Afghanistan. I live in a gated compound and walk across the street to my classroom. At our gates are guards holding guns ready to protect us at a moment’s notice. There are many times that we do not get to leave the compound, because there are direct threats to Americans outside our gates. This is normal life here, and for my students, it’s the only life they know.
The music of Afghanistan is comprised of the sounds of helicopters flying overhead so low that the house shakes. The sound of a bomb blast is more common than the sound of a thunderstorm. The kindergarten teacher told me a story of a thunderstorm that came through last spring, and the whole class jumped in fear, running to the windows of the classroom to see the dark clouds.
When I shake the thunder tube instrument in music class, the children scream, but then they suddenly hear a low tremolo coming from outside that is quickly making its way toward our building. As the ground starts to shake violently, we wonder if it’s a bomb. After it passes, the debate begins. Was it a bomb or an earthquake? After a few seconds they realize that it was just a bomb. Just a bomb. Really? I ask myself, have I become so numb to the reality of this war zone that even I think, “It’s just a bomb”?
The next day at school, there is no discussion about it. Not even the kindergarteners talk about it during morning circle time. But, if there had been a thunderstorm, they would have walked into the classroom talking about it.
Last spring a bomb hit a loaded public bus about a half-mile from our school. We heard and felt the blast in the classroom. There was a pregnant pause at the time, and then life went on. I remember some of the students talking about it the next day, only because as they rode home after school, they had seen the bodies of the victims lying on the side of the road. No tears were shed. These children have not been taught to cry when someone dies.
This is normal life here, but it is not normal. I am a Commodore living in Kabul, and my music is not the music I played at the Blair School when I was an undergraduate. My music is comprised of the sounds of helicopters flying low, bombs blasting so close that the ground shakes and children crying at thunderstorms.
© 2017 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Courtesy of Amanda Earnest