Growing up as a musician, whenever I heard about men and women undertaking courageous humanitarian projects in developing countries, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. Surely that would be a much more worthwhile activity than simply playing music. What was I doing sitting in my ivory tower practicing the piano when people were starving?
Over the years the feeling subsided. I reasoned that sharing my music was nourishing people, I was contributing by sharing my love of music with children and adults in concerts and by teaching, and besides, what kind of practical skills did I have that could possibly help people in a life and death situation?
So I was excited and moved when I recently heard about a remarkable musical and humanitarian project undertaken by my friend and colleague John Zeretzke. He encountered a group of extraordinary men known as Knightsbridge International— modern-day knights and adventurers whose mission is to relieve suffering in places in the world where most charitable institutions are afraid to go. There’s a fantastic movie about these men, Beyond the Call, made in 2006.
John is a renowned composer and a versatile and mesmerizing performer who regularly conducts workshops with groups of young people throughout Southern California. I’ve been fortunate enough to observe some of his workshops in Ojai, where we both live and work. Once, I watched him show a class of sixth graders how to make simple bamboo flutes, decorate them and learn how to play them in a few short sessions, and was delighted to see how focused and thrilled the children were (sixth graders!) throughout the process. I’ve also heard him perform with one of the world music groups that he runs– a virtuosic group of players of traditional instruments from the Middle East named the Salaam Ensemble. It was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve experienced for years.
John recently told me that he was proposing to join Knightsbridge International on one of their missions. He would ask a group of local school children to make flutes, each child making one to keep and one for a child in a war zone. The children would then write letters and send photos of themselves to the recipients. The project would be called Flutes Across the World.
Here’s an excerpt from the website:
FLUTES ACROSS THE WORLD will actively bring to each student a deeper understanding of world cultures and children in need by teaching them geography, different cultural traditions, history, language arts, visual arts and music. All educational curriculum (standards-based) is created by John Zeretzke and is tailored to meet the needs of every school and educational setting. Students here in America will foster a continuing desire to learn about other people who are different than themselves, and in turn, the children who receive their ‘friendship flute’ who live in remote parts of the world will learn about music and culture from the USA. Most of all, American students will gain compassion for the plight of others while experiencing the gift of positive service to the world by helping others who are less fortunate.
A couple of days ago, I bumped into John in the supermarket and learned that he had just returned from a troubled part of the Philippines and had indeed accomplished his mission. Local children had relished making and sending the flutes (supported by the Ojai Festival outreach program, BRAVO!), and the Filipino children on the other side of the world were totally thrilled to receive the flutes and to send photos and letters back. You can read about it and see photos here. In the process, John was awarded the highest medal of honor by the White Helmets of the United Nations, and has received many offers of sponsorship to repeat the project in different parts of the globe. He told me that his classroom was surrounded by about 60 members of the Philippine Army, US Marines and Special Forces, and that by the end of the workshop, even some of the most seasoned soldiers were moved to tears.
As John says in his blog: “Everyone here is so supportive of our work here with the children. Right down to the hardcore Marine and soldier. I have the odd feeling that a shift is taking place. Call me hopeful, delusional or a bit off, but I could swear we are starting to learn a valuable lesson about when to use force and when to use hearts to create a peaceful existence on this planet of ours. It feels like a wonderful shift. “
Needless to say, all of my rationalizing has been blown to pieces. I salute John as he prepares for his next mission, and only wish I could be going with him. Food for thought….