MSS students join artist-in-residence Joan Litman and teach Middle Eastern music at national conference

jl and students reduced

“Exposure to and learning of folk songs of other countries is probably the best way for children to become familiar with other peoples and to learn to respect people of other cultures. “ Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967)

On Thursday, March 23, 2017, a group of Mustard Seed 4-8th grade students boarded a bus bound for the Organization of American Kodály Educators (OAKE) Conference in Philadelphia. They had rehearsed Middle Eastern games and songs with Mustard Seed Artist-in-Residence Joan Litman over the course of several weeks. And they were ready to show over 150 music educators from across the United States what they’d learned in a workshop led by Ms. Litman.

“Many Americans are not familiar with Arabic music or the cultures that speak Arabic. I knew that seeing students perform most of the songs I shared would convince teachers that this repertoire and Arabic language would work with their students, too.” says Ms. Litman. “And it worked out better than I might have anticipated. MSS students were focused, confident, expressive, and even joyful!”

One of the Kodály concepts of teaching is that students learn music best through folk and traditional songs which have been passed down by generations. Participants in the workshop sang Middle Eastern traditional songs. Played musical games. And re-enacted historic events.

“At the heart of Ms. Litman’s presentation were rich pedagogical ideas and practical ideas about how to implement them in the classroom,” says Dr. Jessica Smith, Music Teacher for Grades 6-8.  “And they were particularly impactful because she gathered the songs from local and primary sources. She has visited the Middle East and lived in Syria. Worked and sung with many different people there.”

Ms. Litman working with students in Damascus


Ms. Litman notes that over the past 20+ years, there’s been an increased interest in integrating music of the world: songs that come from beyond our own borders into the mainstream curriculum of music education.  She’s passionate about not only the music of other countries, but building bridges of understanding. Working to represent other cultures more justly. Stimulating curiosity and an appreciation of music and the people. She believes that making music can bust stereotypes and even alleviate fear.  She’s seen it firsthand.

How did Ms. Litman become interested in the Middle East?

During a trip to Turkey in 1997, Ms. Litman realized that she knew next to nothing about Turkey, its music, or what lay to the east. Turkish folk music captivated her and she was hooked. But her serious commitment to study the culture and music of the Middle East came with the tragedy of 9/11.

“Most people will not come out and say, ‘I am afraid [of people from other cultures.]’ But on many occasions, I have observed facial expressions relax a bit when people learn about different people and their music. It leads me to think that some fear is alleviated. Even if it’s just a subtle shift.

“I often conclude my slide/video presentations with a short clip that I recorded the day I left Damascus. An ensemble of 20-somethings bursted with confidence and expression as they sang In the Mood. I have watched colleagues react to the video–incredulously–then smile. People just do not expect Arabs to be at home with Western music–and be GOOD AT IT!”

Music brings people together. Brings understanding. This came through loud and clear in Ms. Litman’s workshop.  “One of Ms. Litman’s many gifts is how she thoughtfully and respectfully introduces songs and cultures from different worldviews,” says Aiko Mauldin, Mustard Seed’s Coleman Fung Chair for Music. “She’s a great model. A peacebuilder.”

Dr. Smith agrees. “The OAKE workshop was a fantastic opportunity for Mustard Seed students. Ms. Litman integrated them masterfully into her presentation and they were a highlight of the workshop. I know our students will remember the experience for years to come. And I hope that the seeds of curiosity about other cultures were planted in them, too!”

This opportunity was made possible by funds from the Coleman Fung Chair for Music.

Abby Liu

ABBY LIU, Director of Marketing and Communications

Ms. Liu loves to tell the Mustard Seed story. She’s the parent of a current MSS student and a recent alum.