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Arts & Ends: Musikiwest helps kids tune in to conflict resolution

As seen in the San Francisco Chronicle

Classical musicians acquire many skills to navigate their competitive, hierarchical profession. But conflict resolution and speaking up about shaming, bullying and being excluded “are not part of our grooming,” says cellist Michelle Djokic.

A professional chamber player and mother of two, she’s helping children in schools deal with those daunting issues by staging rehearsals where the musicians dis each other. With the help of a friendly observer played by Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Rona Hu, they examine and resolve the tensions, giving way to a beautifully collaborative performance.

A member of San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra, Djokic founded the Palo Alto nonprofit Musikiwest last year when she realized, she recalls, “I could bring something to the schools regarding conflict resolution and share great works of music played by some of the best chamber musicians out there.”

Djokic is speaking by phone from a quiet spot in Manhattan’s Penn Station, on her way to New Hope, Pa., for a concert in an old restored barn with the Concordia Chamber Players. She founded the group in 1997 in New Hope, where she’s playing much the same repertoire planned for Musikiwest’s season opener Thursday, Sept. 20, at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center: Kevin Volans’ “White Man Sleeps” (recorded by Kronos ages ago), Arvo Part’s beguiling “Fratres (Brothers)” and John Zorn’s string quartet arrangement of the traditional Jewish “Kol Nidre,” performed the night after the close of Yom Kippur.

The group includes violinists Alexi Kenney, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and violists Siwoo Kim and Dimitri Murrath, the latter joining in for Mendelssohn’s Quintet in B flat.

In addition to performing, they plan to visit about 20 middle and high schools in the area during the year, playing scripted rehearsals in which members of the quartet are rude or hurtful to each other. Somebody taps a cell phone while a colleague speaks to the audience. Others whisper. A missed note triggers a dirty look or exasperated sigh. Missing it again, the guilty player receives a verbal lashing.

By the time Hu steps in — she’s been sitting in the back row like somebody’s mother — “most of the kids are suspicious we might be putting on an act,” Djokic says. “But as musicians, although we are acting at the moment, this is something we’ve all experienced in our professional lives. We share our own experiences. We want them to know that you’re not alone, and how to cope with these situations.”

The students, she adds, “get drawn in by our scripts, which speak to their lives. They’re paying attention more than they normally would, and as a result, are hearing the music at a deeper, profound level.”

It’s a potent experience for the musicians, too, “a little bit like therapy for us. When we come out, we all feel we’ve been on a journey, beyond just making music together.  It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever thrown myself into.”

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by Jesse Hamlin – September 17, 2018