Sitting on a bed in an Iraqi hotel room in 2009, waiting for my first radio interview about the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, I picked up the phone to a BBC Radio Scotland reporter who informed me he’d barely woken up and was nursing his first cup of coffee.  Just to spite me for getting him into the studio so early, his opening salvo went:


“So, most people would think this is a pretty strange career move, wouldn’t they?” I burst out laughing and told him how honoured I was to initiate a brand new national youth orchestra in a climate of radical innovation, or something like that. Behind this, I was thinking; “Career? What career?”


Aged 40, having conducted everything with a pulse, the notion that a calculated career strategy had somehow landed me in Iraq seemed utterly absurd. The truth is, I’d seen an article in a paper calling for a conductor to start an Iraqi youth orchestra, and my gut said; “I know how to do this”. Straight off, I phoned the sagacious Paul Parkinson at British Council London, and the rest, as they say, is in my book UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, coming out 18th August, or next year in German, if you prefer.


What makes a conductor risk his life for a youth orchestra? What makes her get past the first 10-15 years without giving up? Environment and training definitely play some role, but what all of us in the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq had in abundance was grit. Grit, or resilience, has been hotly researched, from the Military to identify which cadets can see through their training, to Sistema programs such as Liverpool’s “In Harmony”, measuring for improved life skills. I would postulate that grit is the key not just to a conductor’s career, but also to a tumultuous and exciting new century of classical music. We’re crying out for tough, resourceful artistic leaders like the ones we might see coming out of Liverpool or Iraq. If it were ever enough to be well connected and educated, it certainly isn’t now.


It’s one thing for me to fly to Iraq, create a youth orchestra then fly back to Europe, but these young Iraqi musicians, mostly between 18 and 25, had learnt how to play Beethoven on a violin, clarinet or horn in a Middle Eastern war zone, alone at home without teachers, by mimicking YouTube or coaching each other. Terrorists, militia, invasion forces and even religion subjected their families to daily threat, and still do; not everyone survived.  Coming together for the first time each year, we couldn’t predict the acute problems we’d face, or which languages to use, Kurdish, Arabic or English, but still everyone had a choice; grind through the discipline of our orchestral boot camp till the concert, that one feeling of success they could win for themselves each year, or leave: hope versus hopelessness.


So what else did we expect from our gritty young musicians? They needed a deep hunger for music, whether western or from their own cultures, which would drive them to renew their interest and keep faith in themselves, regardless of the many setbacks. After years of learning alone, they also needed the humility to be open to face-to-face, corrective teaching and musicianship, which our young tutor team certainly provided in buckets. Some found our loving but firm feedback disorienting. How far could they change their years of autodidactic training in a couple of weeks? Could they offer constructive feedback to each other? Young conductors rarely get any feedback from older colleagues who either can’t or don’t want to support upcoming competition. This is one reason why so many of us forge a “career” out of thin air. And so, it was left to me to fashion the first conducting course for budding Iraqi maestri using sellotape, tennis balls and Beethoven Sonatas.


By sensing our larger purpose, we really leapt forward. Even when the going got extraordinarily tough, we all pulled together in our own ways to create the only good thing Iraq had ever produced in their young lives as they held onto their learning for themselves and their future generations. Of course, that applause at the end of the concert was also gold to the soul. Since great music has always been written with some kind of higher purpose, whether abstract, ethical or religious, are we conductors really qualified as humans to bring that meaning to audiences afresh, again and again? Or will Sistema inadvertently produce a generation of super-gritty, working class musical warriors pumped up with higher social purpose, forcing the rest of us to pay our mortgages some other way? One kid in Liverpool announced: “I am a leader and that means I take control and keep order. I like that. If someone doesn’t know what to do they look at the leaders and that makes me feel good – frightening sometimes though!” I don’t know who’s going to end up more frightened…


Finally, grit needs hope. For five years, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq kept going on just that, and little else. The collapse of our 2014 visit to the USA, the year the so-called “Islamic State” invaded, brought our project to a most dreadful close. But today, our alumni still keep on playing locally, either in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, forming their own ensembles, keeping other groups alive, reviving all we’d learnt together. They are the future leaders of whatever rises from the ashes of Iraq. For me, the loss of my orchestra, then both my parents and then my ex forced me out of “doing” and into “being”. On reflection, I knew the only path forward was to write the story out of my system, share what I’d learnt, accept a new, deeper sense of self, and move on.


So that’s it, the four pillars of true grit: deep hunger, practice and feedback, sensing a larger purpose and finally the capacity for hope. Out of the cataclysm of Iraq, I may have lost my orchestra, but I discovered a wealth of knowledge, and I found my family.


This article first appeared in the August 16 edition of Classical Music Magazine, UK

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