The following account was written by Angela D. Ammerman, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, the Coordinator of Music Education, and Director of the UT Martin Orchestra.
The children didn’t speak English and they did not own any instruments, but they did understand a smile, the tilt of your head, the open hand toward the violin case. They knew that I was there to teach songs, and they were captivated by the gift of music. Mayuree, who had witnessed the beheading of her own mother, caught on to playing the violin like wildfire. Her passion for music extended far into the wee hours of the night until she had to be told to pack up over and over again. At last she would say sweetly in Thai “Just one more song?” Anurak, who had been living in a makeshift dog house before coming to Hope House, loved dancing so much that he would break into the biggest smile and immediately run to get his best friend the minute the music started.
This holiday season, I traveled to the Hope House Children’s Home in Thailand to teach songs, dances, and violin to prepare the children for their Cowboy Christmas Festival. Going in with the mindset that I was there to teach them, I had no idea how much they would actually teach me.
The children of the Hope House are mostly from the mountainous regions of Chiang Mai where they often have been abandoned and neglected with no means for an education, for love, and even for survival. Children are sometimes dropped off at the orphanage, other times, they are brought in by tribal elders. Sometimes, the parents themselves will throw the children into the Hope House truck and run away, knowing that the child will be cared for and protected. Hope House takes in these children and provides them with a home, an education, and a family. Many of the kids don’t speak Thai when they first arrive. Rather, they speak a tribal language that few understand. The children take it upon themselves to look after one another, the older kids teaching the younger, protecting their “siblings,” and embracing each other regardless of language, or skin color, or tribe.
On the first day of my visit, the children had been so excited that they arrived 30 minutes early! In that first lesson, I assigned instruments, taught them how to hold and play the violins, and constantly reinforced posture and instrument care. The first time they opened the cases, many of the children were hesitant to even touch the instruments. When asked about this, the director said, “They believe the violin is for the rich. They are afraid to touch something so valuable.”
Although I rarely spoke English during lessons and they rarely spoke Thai, there was no question that the students understood to lift their instruments when I did, to place their fingers upon the strings when I nodded, and to pluck the string after they heard me pluck. Direct eye contact and a smile indicated success and a quick individual demonstration indicated the need to fix something. Soon, we developed a kind of a language of our own, in which my students completely understood my various facial expressions, gestures, and sound effects.
In spite of the language barriers, the students progressed remarkably quickly. By the end of Day 1, the students could pluck Hot Cross Buns. By the end of Day 2, they could play traditional Thai folk songs. On Day 3, I happened upon Batira, who had been abandoned in the woods multiple times by her mother, until one day, exhausted by the constant rescue efforts, the Tribal Elders brought her to Hope House. Batira was not old enough for the violin just yet, but there she was, holding a violin. Next to her was Rattae, demonstrating where to put her fingers, speaking rapidly in a language I had never heard. By the end of Day 3, Batira (2nd grade), under the direction of 4th grade Rattae, had already caught up to all of the other 4th grade violinists. On the 10th Day, the students had performed successfully in the Cowboy Christmas Carnival with near perfect posture, using their bows to play a variety of songs. The children were exploring the instrument and were teaching one another with a fervor never before seen.
Thanks to this project, over 30 orphans can now play the violin. On my last day, as I was leaving, the children came running up with the violins as if I had forgotten essential pieces of my luggage. I said, “No, they are yours. You keep them!” Understanding gradually came over their faces as one by one, they were flooded with relief and then joy until at last, we all came together in an enormous bittersweet hug.
There is something magical about playing a musical instrument. Suddenly, the world bursts with color, confidence soars, and the impossible seems within reach. This Holiday season was truly magical for these children, and for me. One of the teachers at the children’s home said to me, “Our children never dreamt of playing the violin. They have always believed that this was an instrument for the wealthy, the privileged. Thank you for helping our children see beyond.”
If you would like to donate to building a music space for the children at Hope House, please check out: gofundme.com/MusicHouse.
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