Jubilation Foundation Teaching Artist Fellow Oran Etkin

Oran Etkin

New York
Fellowship: 2019

“It is important that children are able to use music to connect with the full range of emotions — from joy to sadness, excitement, and fear — they are all valid feelings. Recognizing them in ourselves and taking care of those feelings is the first step to recognizing them in others.”

Oran’s Timbalooloo program instills the idea of music as communication and dialogue by making instruments come alive and talk. Timbalooloo endeavors to nurture children to speak the international language of music with the same fluency as they speak their mother tongue. 

His passion for music was nurtured from an early age by both formal training and informal mentorship. By the age of nine, he was playing piano, guitar, violin, and saxophone. Now as a touring musician, he collaborates with others from many cultures, experiencing first-hand how, in every society, the power of music lies not just in the individual’s pursuit of technical mastery but in the joyful and soulful creation of community.

What led you to be a teaching artist?
I always had the feeling growing up that in order to be a musician, it was important to learn to express yourself through performance, composition, and recording, and also to do your part to keep the tradition moving forward by sharing with the next generation. I am grateful to my elders, who took the time to show me the richness of the musical tradition that came before me and to encourage me to find my own voice.

I enjoy teaching all ages, but as I taught older students, I kept wishing that I had them when they were two, and their sense of melody, rhythm, harmony, musicality, phrasing, empathy, love, and expression was still forming. I took a position at a preschool teaching 12 classes a day! This enabled me to test my ideas. The children were my teachers in learning what worked, what reached them and inspired them and what didn’t. They continue to teach me. I trace the roots of my understanding of how children think back to my sister, who is 10 years younger, and the hours spent playing with her. There was never a time when I was not around children, and their playful and imaginative spirit has been a guiding light.

Teaching philosophy:
Young children can understand how music works in a very intuitive way, just as they internalize the grammatical structures of language without learning the “rules.” (They conjugate verbs correctly without being told what the word ‘conjugate’ means.) Toward that end I use the following approaches:

~Instruments become characters and speak through their music. Just as a child expresses herself through a doll, she can express herself through an instrument in ways that words often can’t capture.

~Instruments have emotions and humor, and love to converse with each other. This develops a respect for the instruments themselves.

~Linking instrumental music with speech patterns enables children to play complex rhythms, since the rhythmic pattern of speech is very fluid. We introduce them to rhythms from Africa, Cuba, Brazil, Middle East, etc, through verbal phrases, and encourage them to improvise.

~Just as we speak to children with a full vocabulary, we want to give them the full vocabulary of music, drawing on masters from various cultures, from Herbie Hancock to Tito Puente, Mozart to Babatunde Olatunji.

~Storytelling is key. Often I tell stories about great artists when they were kids, so the children connect to the music on a personal level.

~I give them a place to experience joy with other kids, to feel safe to express sadness and anger, too, and all the emotions they are feeling. No bad emotions. Expressing them together in a group is liberating, knowing that others feel those emotions, too; it helps us work through them.

A good teaching day:
One child, he’s been with us for awhile. He was shy at first, then became more interested, dancing, and suggesting different ways to play the music. He now welcomes the other kids, new kids, giving them instruments. Most kids are apprehensive when it’s new, but having a kid come to you and give you an instrument, seeing their connection… They are building community among themselves.

In my travels around the globe, we are connecting cultures: Roma to Chinese to Zimbabwean to Israeli. We feel their emotions, we are part of their community as well. Not strangers, not Other.

photo by John Abbot

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