Generating Positive Turbulence in a War Zone
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In this episode we will hear from John Cramer. Like so many of the turbulators we speak to, John is both an artist and innovator. Our discussion with John focused on his trip to Erbil in Iraq with American Voices, a nonprofit based out of St. Louis MO. to generate positive turbulence with young people there through teaching violin and communicating through music.
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Generating Positive Turbulence in a War Zone
Rob Brodnick: Welcome to the Positive Turbulence podcast, Stories from the Periphery. Here, we journey to the edge to talk to Turbulators about their experiences creating positive change. Hi, I’m Rob Brodnick, and in this episode, we’ll hear from John Kramer. Like so many of the Turbulators we speak to, John is both an artist and innovator.
Our discussion with John focused on his trip to Erbil in Iraq with American Voices, a nonprofit based out of St. Louis, Missouri, to generate positive turbulence with young people there through teaching violin and communicating through music.
Karyn Zuidinga: Like the music he makes with these kids, John’s story is in turns deeply touching, sad, inspiring, and ultimately hopeful.
I’m Karen Zadinga. We started with asking John to describe what the project was that brought him to Iraq. Quick note, during this story, you’ll hear him refer to John. He’s talking about the CEO of American Voices, John Ferguson. This episode is brought to you by NextWaveInnovation. io. Working with small and medium sized businesses to help them find growth opportunities through the creation of smart, effective apps.
Learn more at NextWaveInnovation. io. We’d like to thank Mack Avenue Music Group as a contributing sponsor. To hear our theme and other great music, visit MackAvenue.
John Cramer: com. The program was a two week, 12 day program, basically a music school where we can, the we being the American voices. So there was a faculty of string players.
I was the violin instructor. There was a violist and a cellist. John himself is a pianist. So he taught piano students and we also had a composition instructor. So there were young composers that were also studying and we got to perform their works. And so for 10 days, we would inhabit this Music Institute as a facilities, and we would offer private lessons to the students.
The students ranged in age from 15 to 25. And there were about 60 that participated. And of the 60, we were able to Create two small orchestras. So basically what the kids would do is they would come in and in the mornings they would have orchestras. So they would have ensemble playing and coaching. And we, I conducted the smaller group, which were more of the beginners.
And there was a colleague of mine who conducted the larger group that hadn’t the more advanced players. They would have ensemble playing in the morning. And then in the afternoons, there would be private one on one lessons. And I had 15 of them.
Karyn Zuidinga: So just to cap that, so you, with American Voices, you went to Iraq, I think you brought instruments with you?
John Cramer: Is that right? Yes, so as I mentioned, the situation was so dire, they had nothing there, and I didn’t want to come empty handed. So a couple of things in terms of challenges. Putting aside, So not forgetting the obvious safety, personal safety question of being in that part of the world and then getting to that part of the world, there were huge challenges once we got on the ground, which I’ll go into in a bit.
But one thing I knew for sure was that these kids don’t have music. They barely had music stands. I mean, they were like, Broken music stands with duct tape and wire, but they had no music. They had no rosin. No strings basic supplies And even rags dust rags and john couldn’t pay me All john could do he said by the way, I need you but I can put you up in the hotel I have enough money to because the hotel happened to be owned by the parent of one of these kids So he allowed us to stay in his hotel.
I didn’t have to pay for that. And I got a small stipend, about 25 a day to cover my meals. And that was it. So I had to arrange my own way to get out there. And so I did a GoFundMe campaign. I also went out, and I used this as an opportunity, not just to help offset my expenses, but really it was about engaging the community to help.
And I went to a violin shop, Lal Violin Shop, that was just amazing. They donated hundreds of dollars worth of strings, and cakes of rosin, and dust rags. I had a generous contributions from some of my colleagues who gave instruments and won a really nice instrument. So in all, it was over six, 7, 000 worth of instruments.
Karyn Zuidinga: I’m going to reel you back. And so I interrupted you just when you’re about to tell about the flight, the landing.
John Cramer: Oh, yeah. So the flight. Okay. So I thought then going to Curtis, because John said, look, it’s safe. You’re going to love it. The people are warm and friendly. They’re just excited that you’re going to come over.
It’s a little hot there. Sort of like Las Vegas. Yeah, it was 116 degrees. What he didn’t tell me, though, was that there were electrical brownouts every day, so we’d have power, but only in the mornings. The hotel had a generator, but at the music school, there was no power during the day, when we’d start at 9 in the morning and go until 1 in the afternoon, and the temperature in my room would climb to 93 degrees while we were practicing, and we brought in cartons of bottled water, And everyone constantly had to drink water and a few of the kids would actually bring jugs with ice.
But that was it. But getting to Erbil, Lufthansa has a direct flight Houston to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to Erbil. And you look online and the airport is And I’m thinking, okay, you know, Erbil itself is a city of close to 2 million people. So, this is not some little village in the mountains. So, I’m in the Lufthansa flight and we’re approaching Erbil.
And the flight attendant… Happens to remind us all that when you’re flying into her bill going to take precautionary measures and instead of the slow descent into the airport where you know you can feel yourself descending and you eventually get there is that the airplane stayed at high altitude while flying over the city and then made a circular corkscrew type motion descent.
It was almost like a ride in Disney World. We’re going down this chute, and I’m saying, Why are you doing that? I don’t understand. They said, Oh, well, that’s, that’s to help evade. Should there be any ground to air missiles that some of the neighboring areas, you know, you may have, that may occur occasionally, but, but when you do this corkscrew, the odds of getting hit go down dramatically.
So it’s just a precautionary move. And that’s when I realized at that moment, holy moly, I haven’t even landed. What in the heck am I doing? What am I doing? And there’s no turning back now, and I will say going back to the airport. I had to go through five different checkpoints and security that they take their security very, very seriously.
And, you know, six and one half a dozen of another going through all those different security points. For some people, it makes you feel safe. safer because they’re doing all this. For me, it was a constant reminder of the risks. So I found it unsettling to see armed men walking around and having to have not only your body checked, but the bags, the violin case had to get dusted and everything else.
You know, it’s just a reality there that no one seemed bothered by. It was just a typical, just a typical day at the airport. It’s
Karyn Zuidinga: funny what we get used to, though, isn’t it? That reality just becomes that, and we just accept it over time.
John Cramer: And you know what, Karen, let me respond to you. You’re absolutely right.
So let me tell you another what I’ve accepted here. I’ve accepted in Houston that there are homeless people, that there are many of them have mental health issues because we have such lack of health care for mental health and behavioral health issues. So walking around in Houston or driving around seeing beggars or seeing people approach you or just seeing people acting bizarre is something that we typically see.
I saw none of that. When I was in Erbil, most of them are Muslims, though. There was also a Christian group. There is even a small Jewish community there, but in Erbil, because it’s so overwhelmingly Muslim, there’s no alcohol. There are places where you can go in the Christian quarter to drink alcohol, but everyone drinks tea, strong tea.
And they smoke like chimneys, but I felt safe in being able to walk even at night when it would finally get cool enough where, you know, you could go out and people were very, very respectful. And even though I looked like if I didn’t open my mouth, they thought I was Turk. They are Turkish. And so they didn’t look at me as, Oh, here comes an American.
They would know the minute I opened my mouth. And as a man walking around an older man, I was treated with a lot of respect. I think it would have been a much different story if it, let’s say a young millennial woman. By herself. It would be a different story. So I didn’t feel unsafe at all. In fact, it was very welcoming.
The food was delicious. So for me, I was actually able to relax in a way that I wouldn’t be able to in certain parts of Houston. So tell us a
Karyn Zuidinga: little bit about the program, right? And the kind of experience and the outcomes.
John Cramer: Yeah. So the way we all communicated was through Facebook and WhatsApp. So one of the first things that happened was when I told John, you know, I agreed to come, he posted the, there was a Facebook posting to all the kids in the area.
It’s called the Youth in Excellence on Stage, so Y E S, the YES Academy program. Urbio 2018 is going to take place. These dates in August come and register. And there was money that we donated and collected and that was also provided as part of the funding for this to help cover the registration costs for the kids and their hotel.
So, there was a site set up, a Facebook page, and as kids were registering, and they came from all over Iraq, there were some that came as far away as Baghdad, and the main road from Baghdad to Erbil had been shut off by the national government. What normally would have been a three and a half hour trip became like an eight hour trip on a back road, but we had kids from Baghdad, from all the northern area of Iraq.
And once they got registered, then there was a giant group WhatsApp that was set up and immediately kids were posting when they knew that they were trying to say, I got like 40 different friends requests on Facebook saying, Oh, Oh, Mr. John, I’m going to, you know, thank you for coming. I look forward to, and they would send me video clips of them playing, you know, and they were so eager to want to impress me and meet me and everything.
And with this WhatsApp, so what we did was. I said, okay, and as the faculty, we were finalizing the music we would bring over for the orchestras is that we said, okay, we instructed all the kids the very first day, we’re going to give them a chance. They got five minutes. Each of them got five minutes to play a piece, anything that they had just so that we can get an idea of how they played.
What turns out is that. And Steve, you had mentioned earlier the difference between going to Iraq for a music program and, let’s say, going to Santa Barbara. One of the givens or the things that we take for granted or just an assumption in the West is that if you’ve been playing a music instrument after a year or two, you should read music.
So you should be literate in reading the notes on a page. That’s not the case over there. What turned out was that there were some violinists that played beautifully, that played Western music beautifully, but it was all memorized. Their ability to sight read was virtually non existent. It made it very difficult for us in a 10 day period to say, okay, let’s learn this piece of music, because they’re all trying to, they’re not sure what they’re reading.
And yet they can play. Right now, because I’m going to be going to China soon, I’m learning Mandarin. I’m not learning the characters. I’m only learning the sounds. So, you know, speaking it is different than reading it. And we noticed that for those kids, there was a real handicap that they just could not read music nearly as well as they could play it.
So that created a certain challenge for us. There were language barriers too. How did you work
Karyn Zuidinga: around that challenge?
John Cramer: So what we did was I had to reconsider the music that we would put in front of it. I chose very, very simple music that had more rhythmic depth, but fewer notes. So I tried to accommodate that.
And I went in there, I had to reframe how I would actually interact with them. I wanted them to have an experience. I wanted them… To enjoy and to have a lot of fun playing together because these kids came together. They’re from all different areas, all different regions. And by the way, the students that came from Kirkuk and Mosul were met with great suspicion and distrust from the other.
kids who are saying, Oh, you must be an ISIS spy. So there was a lot of distrust, um, the Baghdadi kids, the Arabs, the Arab culture and the Kurdish, they’re two different ethnic groups. So you do not call a Kurd an Arab, or you don’t call an Arab a Kurd, and they speak entirely different languages. And in Iraqi society, the Kurds are second class citizens.
To the Arabs. So, we had a small group of Arabs that came who felt they were privileged and should occupy the leadership positions in the orchestra. And I had to be very, very sensitive and deferential to the fact that 90 percent were Kurds and 10 percent were Arab. And yet, I needed to… Accommodate in a very face saving way, how I positioned the students where they sat in the orchestra, because there is a pecking order, a hierarchy, if you will.
I ended up in the ultimate compromise. There were two pieces that the orchestra performed and I had our concert master position swap. So on one piece, I had the Arab from Baghdad and on the other piece, I had the Kurd from Erbil to lead the group. And so that worked. But you know what? All those differences melted after you just put ’em all in a room.
Give them instruments and have them play because now their focus is on the music and on the experience of making the music, which they just had a ball.
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John Cramer: It wasn’t about getting the notes right. I wasn’t going to drill them and say, oh, you know, it’s a C sharp, not a C. Oh, you didn’t give that note a full value and you cut it short. You didn’t finesse the phrase, or I need it a little louder here and a little softer.
For me, it was about, you know what, these kids don’t play together. They’re all playing in their homes or, you know, on their own and interacting with YouTube. Let’s give them An experience together, an ensemble experience. So I worked with him on breathing. The other thing too, I had a translator who spoke Kurdish, very little Arabic and his English, he learned by watching game of thrones is a young high school kid.
It was fluent in game of thrones, but it wasn’t very helpful in terms of the parts of the violin, forget all that. So I knew that language wasn’t going to be the way to communicate. So this gets back to what we started off with. And that was breathing. Breathing became my language, my lingua franca with this group.
So we would do breathing exercises. I had to sort of self mode. I couldn’t call it yoga because there would have been, I don’t know if that would have been well received, but I got them all to breathe and by breathing together, and I won’t go into it, but when everyone breathes together in synchrony, then their ability to play together You cannot not play together when you’re breathing together.
So as a result, and you can sort of sense it if, for example, you can anticipate the beginning of the tune. I don’t have to go one, two, three, four, uh, but rather all I have to do is blah. And by having them all breathe before they play, suddenly all the ensemble issues of trying to get twelve, in my case twelve, musicians to play together, there were no problems.
So I had to come up with a way. I had to figure out what are some non traditional ways of approaching teaching music that I would never do this side of the ocean, but it seemed to work in that moment. Love
Rob Brodnick: it. Love it. So one of the issues with turbulence in the moment is we’re unsure of what’s going to happen, and we don’t know if this thing that we’re disrupting or change or whatever it may be is going to have the, the outcomes and consequences that we hope for.
So let me ask a two part question about keeping the turbulence positive. One is in reflecting and observing, you know, what happened while you were there, how did the turbulence that you created create a positive impact? And then the second part of the question. Is reflecting after you’ve returned the turbulence in your own life, what kind of positive outcomes have you perceived or experienced from this journey?
John Cramer: So, you know, I feel really privileged and I feel I was the student and they were the teachers. So I got so much more in return. Part of me thinks like, Oh, what could I have possibly done for them? Because what they’ve done for me was just a healing in some ways and just a rich experience. Let me share one positive turbulent moment while I was, as I mentioned about the breathing, what I was not prepared for.
I am not a clinical psychologist. I’m not a clinician. And so I am not a therapist during one of our breathing exercises. We were just holding space and just being just breathing that was enough for one of the violinists to trigger some stuff that had come up and it caught me off guard because I wasn’t expecting it.
We weren’t doing any anything that we’re going deep. It was just simply some breathing, but being able to pause space. And to just breathe was enough for some stuff to come up for this one person. And I froze. I didn’t know how to respond. I’m in a room full of kids. It’s 90 plus degrees. We’re all sweating.
I can’t talk to these, you know, the language. And now I have, you know, a 21 year old who’s sobbing. And I realized that all I could do Was to just do nothing for a minute the kids instinctively they didn’t really need they were so awesome I took my cues from them. They just simply waited and After about a minute.
It wasn’t that long. I said, let’s play again Come on, let’s just play, just keep playing and let that take over. So getting back into the playing really just, and then the moment, I mean, he composed himself and we moved on. But for a moment when I saw that, I panicked, brief moment and realized, oh my gosh, because it was so unexpected and I felt like I couldn’t control it and I got scared.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. But by just letting it happen and not panicking, and I think really it was how the room, I realized these are the kids that have been dealing with all this. We hear about ISIS and war, but they’ve been living it. So for them, this was nothing new. What it did, though, is it brought them all together and the camaraderie of this group.
And I have pictures. I think I shared one with you. They’re all just. bunched up. There was so much love and excitement and tears when we all said our goodbyes really made a lasting impression. And so what I take back with me now approaching what I’m doing is that I have to ask myself, I’m 61 years old.
I’ve had a, an amazing life up to now. I’ve done a lot of things, but what do I wish to do now going forward? What is it for me? And I guess the experience when I look at young kids who have been through a lot that are so resilient and want to go after a dream and the excitement and the sheer enthusiasm.
Of seeing them doing something that they can get derive joy and how it can change them, how it can be so transformative that I ask myself, Well, do we not all have that capacity? And if that’s the case, what am I doing here? And now what can I be doing? So it’s affected me in ways that caused me to question my assumptions.
And by doing that, opening up new insights,
Karyn Zuidinga: What a beautiful thought, you know, that you don’t always have to do something about somebody’s sadness or moment of distress, you know, you don’t have to control every moment. You can simply breathe.
John Cramer: And then resume. Absolutely. You know, sometimes, you know, doing nothing is we don’t always have to respond.
And I don’t think we were not doing anything. I think what we were doing was very beautiful. We were holding space and we were really allowing him in that moment, giving him that space to do it. And it just was very beautiful. I will also say, Thank you. One of the kids in there, a young guy, two of his fingers were sawed off as a form of torture.
And I didn’t realize that when he came to play an audition, and he’s holding the bow, and just kind of in a weird way. First of all, I was horrified when I saw that. But then I was more amazed and intrigued. How in the world is he holding the bow? How can he do that? And… He had no problem. He just wanted to play and he would show up and it was no, you know, he found a way and so I didn’t mess with how he held the bow.
I figured, you know what? I don’t even know what I could say to make it easier for he found his own way and it wasn’t important in the next 12 days. I’m not going to change how he holds his bow. I’m going to give him every opportunity to make as much music as he can. That was how I was approaching, and I had fun with the kids with doing some sort of energizer exercises, sort of went into my O.
D. and creativity mode and pulled out some fun things to movement, so it wasn’t just simply sitting in a chair in this oppressive heat and playing the violin, it was getting them up and moving and breathing and doing some other things, and they just couldn’t believe it. They came to me and said, Oh, Mr.
John, you’re the best teacher. Please come back. Are you coming back? Please come back and I carry on with them and Facebook. I’m starting to use Skype as a way to give lessons. That’s a trip, but it’s amazing what the technology is doing. And so now I’m thinking, okay, I went in there thinking, Oh, these kids are, they’re shut out from the rest of the world and they’re having to make do on their own.
But you know, this is where technology can really help and is opening doors and the accessibility. It’s not so dire or forbidding as one might think.
Rob Brodnick: Garrett has another question about a book list that we’ll get to in a second, but anything you want to share in
John Cramer: general? Just one thing, because for me, I’m reminded of the Eisenhower quote, planning is everything, the plan is nothing.
So, we went in, the faculty, we had plans, they were scheduling conflicts as well because, because of the timing of the time we were there. We had to cut short. Typically, it would have been a two week endeavor. We only had 10 days with them because there was a, you know, on the Sabbath, you had to close for a weekend.
So anyway, there was very limited time and we wanted to do a big concert and invite everyone in and make it a big deal. But we knew we weren’t going to have enough time to pull it off and it created a lot more stress. So we decided, you know what, let’s not call it a big grand Festival concert. We’ll call it an open concert.
We just kind of came up with a title. We didn’t want to call it open rehearsal. What it did was it removed the stress for the faculty, but also for the kids of trying to be performance ready by a certain time. By doing that, We shifted instead of the whole point of the festival is to culminates in this grand performance where people can be awed by the musicality of the group.
Instead, it shifted focus on for the 10 days that we’re with them, what can we do to really give them this nourishing experience of being able to co create music together and how that can actually Inform the rest of what they do. So in that sense, the aha for me was letting go of the expectation of having to do a concert, and it was all about the final concert and instead about the practice and about the experience the day to day.
So it was a constant. reminder to live each moment of each day. And by doing that, to me, that was the secret sauce in the magic. And such a
Karyn Zuidinga: powerful lesson that we can just apply in all kinds of places. Work, life, love, all of it. Isn’t
John Cramer: that a beautiful thing? So in a week and a half, two weeks, I’m heading down to Costa Rica.
I’ll be working with a refugee camp for some Nicaraguan refugees. I’m going to be doing some similar things. So new area of the world. I will just be quick to say that, you know, it’s not about going to all parts in the world, though, if that’s the case, you know, I’m open to that. But I think it’s wherever I’m at and it doesn’t necessarily just have to be young kids and music kids and young people now in business.
They need mentors, they need guidance, they need support, they need non judgmental love. We all need that. So that to me is, I guess, where I feel like, okay, that’s my daily practice to myself. And if you all remember, I shared a Franciscan blessing at the opening of when I talked there about being there for others and fighting for justice.
Karyn Zuidinga: John, it has been an absolute pleasure to hear your story again and to, to learn a little bit more about it to get that depth. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think there are such rich lessons.
John Cramer: You’re welcome. And I feel like we had a great conversation. I know I talked a lot. I hope this will work its way into a useful podcast.
Oh, absolutely. You will. But you guys have been awesome. I don’t know why I was so anxious about it, but you made it very easy for me. So I appreciate that.
Karyn Zuidinga: John is truly a shining light in the world, isn’t he? If you want to learn more, pop over to positive turbulence. com and go to the page called podcast.
We have YouTube links to this project and more information about John there. If you’re a small or medium sized business looking for that bump to get you over the hump, check out nextwaveinnovation. io. They are masters at learning who you are, crafting smart, effective apps, and helping your business grow.
That’s nextwaveinnovation. io. Thank you to AMI, who have nurtured us in developing this podcast, is the source of so many of our guests, and of course, the founder, Stan Griskevich, is also the author of the original book, and dare I say, the torchbearer of Positive Turbulence.
Rob Brodnick: AMI is a pioneering nonprofit organization comprised of committed individuals who foster and leverage creativity and innovation in organizations and society.
AMI identifies leading ed innovation. Shares experiences, sponsors research, and recognizes innovation and creative processes. Find out more at aminnovation. org. And thank you to Mack Avenue Music Group, our contributing sponsor, for providing our podcast soundtrack, Late Night Sunrise.
Karyn Zuidinga: If you want to find out more about your hosts, Positive Turbulence, our guests, or check out our very cool and very diverse reading list, head over to positiveturbulence.
com. Until next time, keep the turbulence positive.