“I don’t even know where to begin…you really gave some of our families a wonderful window into music that was unknown and also brought to other families the music they love and are familiar within their homes.” – Marita McCarthy, music teacher at Merion Elementary.
I empathize, Marita, it is surprisingly hard to write about a winter concert during which American students beautifully sing in Arabic, Hanna and Hafez give a brief lesson on classical Arab music, and 200 people do a call-and-response percussion session with Hafez. Honestly, I can’t imagine enjoying school assemblies more than those I attend with Hanna and Hafez. Every time I expect to see a generic assembly, and every time Hanna and Hafez blow me away and have the entire audience totally engaged. All of this is a testament to their genius as both educators and performers.
All of this came about when Marita McCarthy, the music teacher at Merion Elementary, began teaching her students Arabic songs for the Winter Concert. When I met Marita at our professional development course over the summer she possessed an infectious enthusiasm. I remember how dedicated she was to learning the nuances of singing in Arabic, and by the end of the week, her version of Yalli Zara’tu sounded she had spent months working on it. And in addition to learning Arab songs, the intention of the week-long course, Marita was also just an extremely fun person to be around and added this positive energy that everyone responded very well too.
This all provides the background to understand why I was so excited when I found out that Marita had taken the Arabic songs she learned back to Merion Elementary and included Arabic songs in her Winter Concert program. She personally taught her students the bulk of the songs, but Hanna and Hafez went to Merion with some frequency the two weeks before in order to make sure that the singers’ diction and rhythm were on point. Hanna himself was blown away by Marita’s choir; he said that their focus and enthusiasm for the song was exemplary. All of this makes so much sense when you consider their teacher and model of behavior, Ms. McCarthy.
I was lucky enough to attend the morning performance of the Winter Concert and see both the choir’s performance and a brief demonstration by Hanna and Hafez. All of this was just so impressive. The kids were surprisingly good at singing in Arabic, both in terms of the song’s beauty, and the pronunciation of the students. What had me reeling though was the audience’s noticeable engagement with all of the Arabic music, especially Hafez’s drumming. I mean, it is pretty hard not to enjoy Hafez’s percussion, especially when 200 or so people are clapping along with him. I should expect this by now, since I have seen Hafez’s magic countless times at this point, but it still had not worn off. And Marita’s letter to us is a testament to how amazing Hanna, Hafez, Marita, and the Merion community are that everyone could appreciate one another so much!