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Afghan students relish NEC residency

Young musicians eager to perform, learn, collaborate

Students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music performed at the State Department in Washington last week.JAMES HERZOG

When a group of
musicians from
Afghanistan meets up with supporters in Boston this week at the New England Conservatory, their visit will be historic: students and faculty from the country’s oldest independent music school teaming up with students and faculty from one of the world’s newest.

The latter group — 46 students ages 10 to 18 (33 boys and 13 girls) and 16 faculty from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music — is on a tour that will take them to Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston, for performances with Western orchestral instruments and traditional Indo-Afghan ones.

On this first visit to the United States, the Afghan Youth Orchestra and other ensembles from the group performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington on Feb. 7. They’re scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York on Feb. 12.


Boston is the only tour stop that includes a three-day residency, Feb. 13-15, during which the Afghan students will rehearse and perform with NEC students, attend conservatory master classes and workshops, receive ensemble coaching, engage in panel discussions, and generally socialize with their American counterparts.

“For me this is about bringing out the humanity in music, the fact that we can bring together these young people from such different places and experiences, and they will bond strongly over music,” says Tanya Kalmanovitch, a violist and violinist, member of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation faculty, and coordinator of the Afghan residency.

Kalmanovitch, who has twice taught at the Afghan institute as a guest instructor during the school’s eight-week Winter Music Academy in Kabul, says her affection for the students and faculty has grown stronger each time she’s visited.

“I’ll never forget my first day in Kabul. I arrived at the school. I was uncertain, as you can be when you come to a place that’s unknown,” Kalmanovitch says. “I went into a practice room to practice a little while I was waiting for classes to begin. But one by one, kids filtered into the little room, sitting on the floor, asking me questions about my warm-up routine. Before I knew it, my warm-up had turned into a group lesson.


“I think about the profound enthusiasm of these students, their desire to simply be in the room while something is happening. I think that’s the most important thing any of us can do: to be truly present to one another. Music facilitates presence brilliantly.”

Kalmanovitch says she’s been struck by just how “regular” the Afghan students are, in terms of being kids.

They like to play ball, prank one another, and eat junk food. And when she worried about what or how she would teach them, she was pleasantly surprised to learn they had been taught using the well-known Suzuki method — the same she’d learned growing up in northern Alberta, in the early 1970s.

“So from the start, my first student and I were engrossed in a project that was deeply familiar to both of us: the song ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ from Suzuki book one,” Kalmanovitch says. “We could sing the same song; our fingers knew the same motions. . . . It makes me think that music is not a universal language, but rather a deeply personal one.”

Marzia Hussain, 14, plays clarinet, an instrument she chose “because of them all I love the sounds it makes.” Originally from Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province, she has been an orphan since she was 10; she declines to discuss her family, even with her tour chaperones. She says she is excited to be in the United States and looking forward to visiting NEC.


“This is so much fun. There is so much freedom here,” she says through a translator. “I have always loved music. And when I was given a chance to study it was a dream.”

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was founded almost three years ago in Kabul by Ahmad Sarmast, a trumpet player and musicologist, who has said he wanted to restore music to Afghanistan’s cultural fabric.

The tuition-free school now has 140 students, ages 10 to 21; more than half are orphans or street children. Sarmast also dictated that one-third of the students must be girls.

“Everything about this school — the structure, the composition, the mission — fascinates me, and I knew as soon as I heard about it, I had to be a part of it,” says Derek Beckvold, a saxophone and flute teacher who joined the institute in August, and is traveling with the tour. Beckvold is also a 2009 NEC graduate. “This trip is huge for these kids, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”

As for the bigger question— why would a 26-year-old conservatory-trained musician from Boxford want to relocate to a war-torn country — Beckvold says he wanted to be a part of history.


“The modern history of Afghanistan is really compelling to me,” he says. “And before all the fighting there was such a rich, deep culture with art and music. As that reemerges, I wanted to be a part of it.”

More information:

Traditional Afghan and Western music with Afghan institute and NEC musicians, Feb 14, 8 p.m., free.

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe
. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.