In the News

The Daily News-Tribune (October 18, 2004)

United by music: Professor aims to make ties across cultures

by Christopher Moore

Waltham -- Students in fourth and seventh grades will be attending free musical performances to support their social studies lessons this week, thanks to a Brandeis University professor and classical musician who wanted to make some sense of the 9/11 tragedy.

By 2001, Judy Eissenberg, artist-in-residence at Brandeis, had found herself searching for more meaning in her life for several years. After the attacks on Sept. 11, her yearning crystallized around some complex and painful questions.

"Why are people bombing us? What do we have to do with it?" said Eissenberg.

"It was kind of 'us and them,' and I wanted to understand the space in between."

It occurred to her that her craft of choice -- music -- had been a window into cultures throughout history. After obtaining the permission of Brandeis and the support of grant money, Eissenberg designed a pilot program called MusicUnitesUS to expose Waltham students to the music that accompanies the eras and the cultures they are studying in school.

"Art lives in that space between us and them," said Eissenberg. "There is some shared language. If you can get the authentics voices of the people speaking about themselves, that's essential.That's the link."

Last year, the pilot program was implemented in the Fitzgerald and Northeast fifth grades, when about 100 students went to Brandeis for a musical performance. This year, more than 1,000 students will make the trip.

Today, all fourth-graders were to attend a performance of freedom songs by the singer/songwriter Jane Sapp and South African musician Stompie Selibe. Wednesday and Thursday, the seventh grades will see the Silk Road musicians and an exhibit at the Rose Art Gallery that relates to the study of China and its early trade with the rest of the world.

In March, the fifth grades will see a performance by Peru Negro, descendents of the first African slaves brought to Peru, for a historical perspective on the slave trade.

"She (Eissenberg) wanted to find programs that would be appropriate for students," said Fitzgerald Principal Alice Shull, "that would help them understand not only arts programs, but how to link arts with a bigger understanding of the world. It's a fabulous program, and a great opportunity for the Waltham public schools."

To go along with this year's programs, music director Jonna Burns designed educational packets and workshops for the teachers so they could conduct prepatory lessons with their students.

"It's more focused on what they're actually doing in social studies, whereas last year it was generally related to social studies but in a broad sense," said Burns. "She (Eissenberg) has worked closely with (Assistant Superintendent) Emile Rosenberg and (History Director) Steve Goodwin to make sure there's a direct connection between what they're actually studying in class and what they're going to see those days."

For Eissenberg, making that connection is the point of the performances in the first place. She is pleased to see the pilot developing into a larger program, and one that is more integrated into the curriculum. She hopes that as the program continues to develop, she can reach out to more of Waltham's students in the future.

"Education helps to shape our children's ability to act ethically and responsibly in the world," said Eissenberg. "MusicUnitesUS demonstrates a special contribution that the arts can make towards this goal. Especially in this post-9/11 world, we must appreciate the many different histories and world views that tell the story of humandkind."