Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Music is something human...it's essential." Heather Bursheh, musical director of the ESNCM


The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music is the oldest music education program in the Palestinian territories and perhaps the most established. It has centers in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, in addition to auxillary partner centers in Jericho, Nablus, and refugee camps.

I was able to sit down with Heather Bursheh, the musical director of the ESNCM, and talk with her about her experience in the West Bank. Bursheh is a native of Scotland and was educated in the Royal Northern College in Manchester. After graduating she was confronted with the idea of entering the freelance performance scene, but she found herself wanting to see the world. She heard about a job teaching flute in Palestine, an area which she knew little about. "I just thought, well, it can't be as bad as everyone says it is if it has a music school."

Her duties involve auditioning students, choosing repertoire and conductors and the overall coordination of the program, which includes several large ensembles for Palestinian children to perform in: a children's orchestra in Jerusalem for those with two to three years of performing experience, the ESNCM Orchestra with advanced students, a wind band, and the Palestine Youth Orchestra.

The Palestine Youth Orchestra is comprised of Palestinian children not only from the West Bank, but from Israel and the broader diaspora in Syria, Jordan, the United States and even Honduras. The conservatory takes pride in the way that it brings Palestinians together. "The events leading up to and after the creation of the state of Israel led to a situation in which there are Palestinians who have never even seen their homeland or met Palestinians living in Palestine.

Everyone talks about how we need to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Well, we need Palestinians to see other Palestinians. It's their country. It's their cause. For us it's absolutely vital."

Bursheh described the ways in which the conservatory tries to capture the attention of the Palestinian community. "If you sit back and do nothing, the people that come to you are middle class, more liberal, and fairly well off. We try as well to get into other segments." It hasn't been easy, for both socioeconomic and cultural reasons. "Some people are in a situation which is more deprived and don't have music in their first kind of vision. Others have a view that music is something that is not quite okay." But she notes that these problems are faced in many places in the world.

When introducing the conservatory to new people, they focus as much on indigenous music as much as possible. "It is one less barrier to have a Palestinian teaching in familiar sounds and scales than to jump into learning the clarinet." They also take their professional and advanced students to play educational concerts around the West Bank to give a better idea of what they do.

The environment of military occupation has placed additional difficulties at the school. "99.9 percent of our problems come from the occupation." She gave me a common example for many organizations in the West Bank: work permits. International staff have to come on 3 month tourist visas; at the end of the term they must exit the country and return with the hope that they will get a visa reissued. "In 2006, during the Lebanon War, Israel imposed a blanket ban on people entering the West Bank. So if any of our teachers told the truth of where they were going they were instantly denied entry." Bursheh herself was denied entry for a period of nine months, despite being married to a Palestinian.

Another problem has been the restriction of movement of students between branches due to military checkpoints. "Trying to get them together is like climbing Everest." As a result they have intensive three-day camps during holidays instead of regularly scheduled rehearsals, one of which concluded in Bier Zeit today. "If they're two hours late to a camp it's not a disaster," she reasons.

Bursheh believes that the ESNCM has broad social importance. "It is very much a national Palestinian institution, and it's important for us to be perceived as this. It becomes important for students, to strengthen their sense of identity.

I think it is important for music to grow. It is a human activity in all societies over the world. It's something human, it's something we all do. It's essential."

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