Moffet Arab Arts Program: Behind The Scenes

At this December’s Holiday Concert at Moffett Elementary, the students in Al-Bustan’s Moffet Arab Arts Program showed off all their hard work from the Fall semester.

The concert was a tremendous example of what children can achieve through the arts. Even a day makes a difference, but sustained engagement can produce incredible results. Some of the drawings were accomplished in only a class or two; the beginning drummers learned an impressive array of rhythms and techniques in just three months, and the returning students’ performance was the product of several years of hard work.

It’s impossible to convey everything that makes this program special in one short concert, so I want to try to add depth to these brief performances by highlighting a few moments that crystallize the Moffet Arab Arts Program.

What the drummers focus on most of all is teamwork. Percussion teacher Hafez Kotain emphasizes this all the time: teamwork is a musical exercise, listening to everyone else in order to stay in sync, but teamwork is also about trying your best and practicing diligently. Hard work doesn’t just benefit the individual but the whole ensemble. During the concert, the drummers demonstrated this perfectly, playing with a remarkable quality of togetherness.

At the same time, Hafez recognized one student with a solo during the concert, fifth-grader Ahmad. I didn’t interview Hafez for this post, so I can only guess the reasons behind his decision, but I am fairly certain Ahmad was chosen first for his hard work — his attendance record is impeccable, he takes every opportunity to practice, and he always volunteers to help Hafez set up. Another reason is Ahmad’s technique, which is evidence of his dedication: his notes ring sharp and clear and his playing is steady, even when the rhythm is fast. Finally, Ahmad really enjoys drumming, which is crucial. Joy is an underrated part of music or art, but every day that I work at Moffet, I see how important it is. Ahmad’s solo would not have been possible without joy.

Hafez Kotain teaches the doumbek to the beginner group.

I like the way Serge El-Helou, our choir teacher, starts class with the beginner students. Once they’ve warmed up their voices, Serge leads Moffet singers through a musical greeting. “Marhaba, marhaba, marhaba,” they sing (“marhaba” means hello in Arabic), then a student introduces themself in song: “my name is Nader, Nader is my name.” Everyone greets Nader with “marhaba” again, and this repeats until everyone has had a turn announcing their presence to the class.

I like the tone that this sets in creating the group as a social and musical unit. It’s a friendly gesture that makes space for everyone’s voice as an individual, which also strengthens the group: in order to sing well with others, you must be in touch with your own voice, but also with everyone else’s.

As a listener, I appreciate the chance to hear each child. There are many sounds and noises I’m exposed to during the program, most of which are good, or at least interesting. Singing, on the other hand, is rare, so I consider the “marhaba” song a special moment. Just as everyone brings something unique to the program, every voice adds to the communal sound of the choir.

Serge El-Helou leads the beginner choir in song.

For Lisa Volta’s art class one day, we took cameras outside and photographed each other. This was the kids’ favorite day because they got to run around for an hour straight. It was like recess, but longer, and everyone got to play photojournalist. I think they were energized by their freedom, but also by the immediacy of creating an image on a digital camera, a permanent image you can see just as soon as the moment is gone.

Before we started, I was afraid that the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras would diminish their novelty, blunt the excitement the children might have felt. Happily, I was mistaken. Maybe camera phones have a fainter presence in children’s lives than I thought. Maybe what was exhilarating to them was the fact that they were all taking photos together, in the open, at the same time. Groups formed to pose for a portrait, then dissolved. A lone photographer captured her subject, then arranged herself to be photographed in turn. Two kids faced each other down with their cameras, seeing in the screens mirror images of themselves.

In the beginning, I sat back, observing. I saw their energy, movement, and instability. Then I joined in, first as subject (photographing the teacher was, I think, a thrilling transgression), then as a fellow photographer, pulling out my phone to try to document the chaos, trying to keep up.

Students pose for a portrait in Lisa Volta’s art class.


Elias Bartholomew
Programs Coordinator

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