Editorial: Music, Standing Still

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Editorial: Music, Standing Still

Laura Hassler, Founder and Director, Musicians Without Borders


A guest editorial during a global pandemic. What to write, what to say?

For every person and every organization dedicated to bringing people together with music: what does this pandemic mean for our work if we are literally prevented from bringing people together with music?

My own job has become more complicated, but my life is simpler, and much quieter. Besides new attention for local bird activity and the moods of my aging cat, the silence around me invites reflection and memory. Early memories of other periods of overwhelming helplessness seem relevant now: the assassinations of moral leaders, the coups and unstoppable wars, the cruel violence of racism, the threat of nuclear catastrophe. I carry, too, some of my parents’ memories of a global depression, a world war, poverty, imprisonment—but also their stories of people in the worst of circumstances, choosing to act with courage and compassion, becoming the best that humans can be. I was brought up on stories of hope against all odds, and many of these stories were about people who brought people together with music: in occupied French villages during World War II, in civil rights struggles in the American South, or in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

When I was a young social activist, bringing music into protest or community organizing was often my contribution. Music united us, gave us courage, and expressed our vision of what the world might become. It raised awareness, empowered, gave voice, attracted new voices. Social activism and music were always an obvious combination.

More than 20 years ago, at the end of the bloody Balkan wars, I helped to create a new organization, dedicated to applying the power of music as a force for peacebuilding and social change. Today, Musicians Without Borders’ projects in divided, traumatized, violent environments around the world have shown music’s unique potential to empower, to bridge divides, to provide safe and creative spaces for children and youth, to build global networks—to bring people together.

And now, suddenly, we cannot bring people together. Our projects, our trainings, our speaking engagements, presentations, and conferences—all are canceled, or on hold. Like so many, we have turned to digital solutions: online music lessons, webinars, videos for children, Zoom conferences. Our team’s collective creativity opens many new doors, and we do our best. But we sense that these are only temporary solutions. What if this pandemic lasts a year? Or years? What if travel is no longer possible? What if we can’t bring groups together to sing or drum, play in an ensemble or attend rock concerts? How can music continue to play a role in a post-COVID world?

Throughout human history, massive global events have often ushered in major shifts of consciousness, culture, and direction. I think about what today’s enforced isolation could be teaching us, and what it could mean for musicians dedicated to a more just and inclusive world community. Here are a few of the themes that keep coming up for me.

Humility, as I recognize privilege in my own ability to self-isolate in a pleasant house with enough to eat, knowing that the pandemic disproportionately impacts people in communities where “social distancing”—or even hand-washing—is often impossible. And collective humility: recognizing that many less affluent countries have responded to the pandemic more successfully than has the wealthier global north. Solutions for world problems are not GDP-driven; they depend on experience, shared knowledge and resources, solidarity, and collaboration.

Context and the interconnection of issues

It is no accident that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought millions to the streets to protest injustice across the world amid a global pandemic. COVID-19 exacerbates existing inequality and exposes fundamental, often difficult truths. It is important for socially engaged musicians and their organizations to remember these truths.

From El Sistema’s work for children in underserved communities, to music projects in prisons or with people experiencing homelessness, to inter-ethnic rock music schools in divided cities, to community music projects around the world—we need not to forget the systemic reasons for inequality, incarceration, poverty, and war. And we need to call them out. If Black Lives Matter teaches us anything, it could be this: that whatever wonderful community “projects” we are organizing, those communities are underserved because of a global system in which resources are unequally distributed. The roots of this inequality are complex, but they lie in histories of colonialism, racism, and economic domination. Our sector, with its projects and protocols, funding cycles and logical frameworks, might need to revisit this context.

Patience, Resilience, and Action

Martin Luther King often said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” A corollary, from another civil rights activist: “but it doesn’t bend itself, we have to bend it toward justice.” We might consider these two wise phrases, now that our plans and programs have been put on hold by events beyond our control.

This is a time to be patient, trusting in that long arc, trusting that the foundations of our work are firm and will either allow us to pick up from where we were, when movement and association again become possible, or will serve us in creating new ways of engaging with changing realities.

“Resilience” is a catchword in our sector: we are always aiming to “build resilience” among our participants. Is it time to look at our own resilience? As practitioners, organizers, and planners trying to weather the storm when the weather is out of our control, let us use this period not only to organize online concerts, lessons, and seminars, but also to allow ourselves to reflect on the deeper levels of our commitment to real, systemic change, and align our work with that commitment.

From patience and resilience should flow our readiness to act when the time is ripe, to bend that arc toward justice. As so many courageous humans have shown us throughout history, in the midst of overwhelming, seemingly unresolvable problems, the real definition of hope is merely the choice to act. And as we act, let’s be humble in recognizing that, while we may aim for and predict outcomes, we cannot control them. That means that we must be true to the integrity of process above results, and we must be careful and caring of our participants, staff, teachers, trainers, and volunteers. As we envision how music can help lead to a global shift of consciousness, to the bending of that arc, let’s remember to incorporate into our own organizations the ideals and values that guide that vision.

The social activist and writer Arundhati Roy writes this about the pandemic:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy

So, here we are in 2020: people who have worked for years with musicians around the world, bringing music to the most marginalized and disenfranchised, sharing music’s creativity and joy, providing its unique contribution to peacebuilding, social justice, and inclusion.

Here we are, for now, standing still.

May we use this time to prepare ourselves to walk lightly through that portal, imagining that other world, and lifting its voice for all to hear.


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