Chamber musicians strike a chord with students

Musikiwest teaches middle and high school students conflict resolution through music

Musikiwest artists Kristin Lee, Cindy Wu, Jimmy Chen, Michelle Djokic and Dimitri Murrath sit down for an "open rehearsal" conflict resolution session at Terman Middle School in Palo Alto last fall with help from psychiatrist Rona Hu, third from left. Photo courtesy of Chris Giamo.

Chamber musicians likely don't call to mind bullying or cliquishness. The artists at Musikiwest, a nonprofit organization that promotes empathy, conflict resolution and peaceable communities through music, use this unlikely association to their advantage when teaching students how to communicate more effectively with one another.

In its scripted, 50- to 80-minute-long "open rehearsals," Musikiwest will lead middle and high school students to believe they are about to experience a chamber music performance. As the rehearsal unfolds, so does the drama. Students witness tension among the musicians — mean comments and menacing looks that derail the productivity and positivity of the "rehearsal." Later this month, Redwood City and Los Altos students are scheduled to watch the rehearsals and a public performance is set in Palo Alto.

"It's almost like a reality show," said Michelle Djokic, artistic director and founder of Musikiwest.

Djokic, whose two children attended Gunn High School, started the program last fall to help students address difficult issues such as bullying, shaming, exclusion and conflict.

The performance begins with a few minutes of uncomfortable tension before psychiatrist Rona Hu, posing as a bystander or parent, intervenes. Hu is one of the founders of the Communication Health Interactive for Parents of Adolescents and Others at Stanford University, which was created in response to Palo Alto's two teenage suicide clusters between 2009 and 2015.

Halfway through the session, Hu reveals to the students that she is a psychiatrist.

Musikiwest acts out three scenarios with students — one musician picks on all others, all musicians gang up against one and one-on-one bullying. With Hu's guidance, students draw from their own experience and from what they've just witnessed to identify sources of conflict and to propose solutions.

They also delve into the bully's point of view with students. Rather than gang up on the bully to empower the victim, said Hu, they speak with and give the bully constructive feedback.

Djokic said all of the musicians on the Musikiwest roster, including herself, have experienced some form of what they act out in the classroom at one point or another; even the role of the bully, according to another Musikiwest performer, Dimitri Murrath.

"It was so easy to turn into a mean person that I realized maybe sometimes I have to watch it," Murrath said.

Murrath noted that these scenarios can arise in any professional field and hopes students learn that sometimes their own insecurities have less to do with them and more to do with a bully's behavior and insecurities.

According to Djokic, the rehearsals are an effective way for students to see they are not alone and to witness how destructive certain behavior can be, all while listening to talented chamber musicians.

After Musikiwest's "open rehearsals," which are offered to schools free of cost, the group then closes with a concert open to the public. Its next concert, hosted in cooperation with the city of Palo Alto, will take place on April 19.

What: Musikiwest Concert

Where: Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: April 19, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $15, general admission; $10, seniors; Free for guests 18 and under.

Info: Reserve tickets at musikiwest.org.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Marley Arechiga is a former Weekly editorial intern.

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