Italian violinist strikes a chord with street children

Italian violinist

Italian violinist strikes a chord with street children

A leading Italian violinist has swapped gilded concert halls for audiences of street children around the world, using music therapy to help those less fortunate.

Sara Michieletto has performed with top orchestras across Europe during an illustrious career and since 1998 has played in the first violins of the orchestra of the Fenice opera house in Venice.
But more recently the 41-year-old has played for children across the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, in Indian slums and helping street kids and orphans in Indonesia.
Soothing, classical music helps angry, traumatized youths become “emotionally aware,” she said, helping them to better channel their anger and frustration.
“In the case of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, this is so important because they have faced a lot of difficult things in the past and trauma,” she said.
“Music is a very powerful means of conveying emotions.”
Since 2010 the violinist has been working with street children in and around the Indonesian capital Jakarta, a seething metropolis of 10 million people where many live in grinding poverty, as well as other parts of the country.
At a recent workshop at a center for rescued street children on the outskirts of Jakarta, a group of youngsters raced up to Michieletto and embraced her as she entered with her violin case slung over her shoulder.
A small group looked on as she drew the bow over the violin strings, playing a concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”
As well as performing for the youngsters, she organizes workshops in drama, singing, photography and dance.
Among the children at the recent workshop was Suharti, a 14-year-old girl who spent years living on the streets, busking on overcrowded, sweltering trains or buses to make a living.
The youngster, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was rescued and brought to the Kampus Diakonia Modern center — which has living quarters and a school — along with her younger brother and sister.
“Everything feels very unpleasant when you are on the streets,” she said. “I always felt ashamed of myself every time I was busking.”
But she has found a new, more peaceful life and feels that Michieletto’s music has been a great help to her and the other children.
“We used to fight each other in class but since Ms. Sara started coming here, we are a lot calmer and more keen to study,” she said.
Sotar Sinaga, in charge of organizing music programs at the center, said the music had made a substantial contribution to helping Suharti.
“The way she (Suharti) expresses her emotions is much better now — she is no longer mean to her friends,” he said.
Michieletto started playing for underprivileged children in 2004 when she toured schools around the West Bank for several weeks, and in the decade since she has played for thousands of children around the world.
Under a special arrangement with the Fenice Foundation she is able to carry out her charitable work and continue playing with the opera house’s orchestra for a short period each year.
And while playing for underprivileged children is a world away from sold-out performances at world-famous venues, she says it brings her just as much happiness.

“When I play for the children, for me it’s like playing in an important concert,” she said

A violin from Venice to Pondok Gede

Beaming: A child from KDM’s entry level class smiles as he tries to play the violin.

Elisabetta Zavoli, Contributor, Jakarta | Feature | Mon, November 25 2013, 11:59 AM

Beaming: A child from KDM’s entry level class smiles as he tries to play the violin.

Sara Michieletto has played with everyone from the La Fenice Symphony Orchestra and Opera Orchestra in Venice to the London Philharmonic.

Audiences, however, are not as different as you might think, whether it is Carnegie Hall in New York, people under a tree in a remote village in Mozambique — or a crowd at an orphanage in Jakarta. “I was amazed to see how music can be a really universal language that everybody deeply feels and loves.”

Since 2008, Michieletto has been alternating between perfomances in Venice with her project, done under the La Fenice Foundation, to foster emotional awareness, especially in children, in different countries.

Michieletto has since performed for about 10,000 people, including more than 3,000 disadvantaged children in Brazil, Eritrea, India, Mozambique and Palestine, among other nations.

The idea came in part from Bruno Rossi, a professor at the University of Siena in Italy, Michieletto said. “[Rossi] gave me inspiration about the possibility of connecting the pure feeling of music listening with the fostering of emotional intelligence.”

As part of the project, Michieletto plays live for children, choosing specific pieces to help the kids embrace their emotions and to experience the strong feelings conveyed by the music.

Research has shown that music develops an emotional intelligence that can help chidren with everything from their self-confidence to their schoolwork, according to Michieletto.

“I’m always surprised to observe how we, as parents, dedicate a lot of time to teaching our children how to behave at the table or how to dress, yet we expect them to be able to learn by themselves how to handle complex emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration,” she says.

Michieletto has been working on and off with two foundations helping underpriviledged chidren in East Jakarta and Bekasi for the last three years.

According to Nancy Fox, who coordinates acivities at one of the centers where Michieletto contributes, Michieletto’s program works. “After six months of emotional awareness activities, the kids started to take their studies more seriously.”

She continues: “They started to understand better the behavior of others and we can see how they are taking steps toward better relationships among themselves.”

Fox was already volunteering at the foundation when she started to work with Michieletto, who says that none of her work with the children would have been possible without Fox.

Michieletto currently volunteers at Kampus Diakonia Modern (KDM), a non-profit organization focused on street children, in Pondok Gede, Bekasi.

KDM houses and feeds the children while offering them vocational classes, such as classes in cooking, farming and computer skills, along with basic mathematics and Indonesian language instruction, Sotar Sinaga, a program officer for the non-profit, said.

Michieletto has recently been working with 10 children aged from seven to 14 in KDM’s entry-level class.

The students — who have been grouped by level of knowledge, not age — were those who needed the most help, as they were still coming to terms with their emotional response to their past experiences, according to Sotar.

Most grew up on the streets and had difficulties in managing their emotions, Sotar added. Some small conflicts could become bigger problems for the children, triggering less-than-productive responses unless they learned to find other solutions.

Discipline is a problem. A few of the children, for example, were aggressive — both verbally and physically. Others would leave class when they did not feel comfortable.

Sotar said that most of the children’s challenges stemmed from difficulties in expressing sadness, anger or disappointment; in accepting criticism; and in listening and staying calm in class — all of which made Michieletto’s project interesting.

“The children are happy and enjoy the activities through which they learn to identify their feelings and to know the reason why they feel them,” Sotar said. “Understanding your own emotions and how to deal with them are very important skills for everyone.

Michieletto, meanwhile, was heartened by how the children have responded to the program. “It is fascinating to me seeing how much the kids crave for sharing ways on how to cope with strong emotions.”

“I love to play for them, as they deeply listen to and enjoy the music and the emotions that I wish to convey,” Michieletto said.

“They love music and they would like to learn to play the violin or the guitar. I wish I could find some volunteers to teach them music regularly.”

Michieletto said that she chose not to teach the children how to play music, since she frequently had to return to Europe for work.

However, splitting her time between Venice and Jakarta is an “inspiration” for the violinist, who said that she could collaborate with great conductors such as Myung-whun Chung, John Eliot Gardiner and Lorin Maazel and then transfer her experience to the children in Indonesia.

Michele Zaccheo, the director of the UN Information Center in Jakarta, said that Michieletto’s work had been a model for others, citing the experience of UN Youth Champion Monique Coleman in Indonesia.

“Our UN Volunteers office suggested that [Coleman] participate in Sara’s workshop, together with a group of teenagers, and it was a great success both for her and for the kids,” Zaccheo added.

After Coleman’s experience with Michieletto here, United Nations Television, a service that produces free programming for broadcasters, became interested in producing a video documentary about the workshop to promote volunteerism.

Meanwhile, back in Bekasi, Sotar was upbeat. “Hopefully we can do this with another group.”

— Photos by Elisabetta Zavoli

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