After three months in Kabul I feel ready to write honestly about the challenges of teaching here. The thing is it’s almost impossible to separate everything about Afghanistan from my experience as a music teacher; it’s just such a complicated and bewildering place. And the weirdest thing is that the longer I’m here, the harder it is to write about my life. I suppose the overall experience itself is so consuming that I can’t properly distance myself enough to document it. But I will try my best to cover the challenges that I face on a daily basis.
The most daunting challenge is teaching in a difficult foreign language. What I didn’t realize at first is that the language of music pedagogy is tremendously complex. It can be very simple and boiled down, but the best technical or musical explanations require imagination and spontaneity. As a result, teaching a good lesson in Dari (one of two national languages of Afghanistan) can be totally exhausting. On a side note, I have a little British cello student who comes for a lesson every week and the experience of teaching in English is unbelievably satisfying. However, the more Dari I learn and the more I know about Afghan culture, the easier it is to connect personally and pedagogically with my students.
I’m sure Afghanistan is one of the only places in the world where the majority of the pop music found on the radio is in 7/8 time. Most Afghan music alternates between long instrumental unisons and vocal verses, accompanied by a driving, relentless rhythm section. There is no harmony, chord progressions or modulation. When you grow up listening to this music, it’s extremely difficult to then adapt to the rigid and rule-based structures of western music. Many of my students really struggle with rhythm and harmony, and I mean REALLY struggle. Elements of music that I grew up absorbing on the radio and at home (like the easy flow of ¾ meter, the feel of the leading tone, or the sound of the tonic-dominant relationship) are just not in their bones. Even when teaching ear-training, associating moods and characters with tonalities like major or minor can be very problematic.
Another (far more insurmountable) challenge is that many of the students at the school don’t have strong, positive parental support. I see it primarily in my classes, many kids lack both discipline and motivation. Instead of raising a hand to answer a question, the entire class will start shouting random answers in an effort to be heard above the crowd. Many students yearn to be praised and singled out as smart or special or talented. I suppose this is true with most children, but I have to wonder if the lack of assertive and involved parenting is a factor. I also wonder if they’re accustomed to free-for-all classroom environments where it’s essentially survival of the fittest. Interestingly, many of our students come from an orphanage called AFCECO where they have a thriving little music program and a wonderful, caring staff. Although these children are orphans, they excel and show tremendous promise due to the dedication and support of their caretakers. Undoubtedly, with a discipline like music, the role of the parent (or guardian) as moderator and enforcer is absolutely crucial.
All of these obstacles come with the territory. Many of the students grew up during the reign of the Taliban and were forbidden from playing and even listening to music. And even after the fall of the Taliban, music has remained a controversial field of study. The odds are set against our students, but they continue to show up and try their best. And despite the many serious challenges, I feel optimistic about the future. For most of these kids, music is an extraordinary outlet; it is the thing that teaches them to strive and struggle to accomplish something, developing self-esteem, imagination and a feeling of artistic sensitivity. And even if none of our students pursue music professionally, I’m certain that the experience of learning an instrument will benefit them in unexpected ways later in life.