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Chamber musicians strike a chord with students

As seen in the Palo Alto Weekly

Musikiwest teaches middle and high school students conflict resolution through music

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


by  — April 11, 2018


Musikiwest at The Palo Alto Unified School District

The Launching of Musikiwest!

The launching of Musikiwest was a huge success and accomplished all and more than we had imagined. We met our moderator, psychiatrist Dr. Rona Hu, at our first rehearsal. As we worked, Dr. Hu observed our working process and interactions. She helped us imagine and own into our roles we would take on in our “open rehearsals” for the students of The Palo Alto Unified School District. It was difficult to rehearse bullying each other, shaming and being just plain rude. However, when we saw the strong reactions elicited from the students in the classrooms, we were empowered to carry on our roles as authetically as possible. With the guidance of Dr. Hu the students were invited to reflect on what they observed in our collaboration and suggested alternate ways of behaving to help in resolving our conflicts. In the process we were reminded, adults and students alike, that no one is alone in having endured bullying and sometimes even delivered some ourselves. Learning to recognize destructive behavior is equally as important as having the courage to intervene and help when you witness it. The magic of teaching this through chamber music is that so much of what we did had nothing to do with words but with our actions.

The concert in Mitchell Park Community Center that closed our week on Nov. 30 was spectacular! The feel in the space is very cool and unpretentious, acoustics are very clean and clear, the audience is close to the action. We stand so there is no visibility issue except of course for the cellist who is on a riser. Kristin Lee and Ian Rosenbaum rocked Deciduous by Andy Akiho, I can’t get enough of that piece. And that was the most satisfying delivery of Mariel by Golijov that I have ever made with Ian on marimba. Comments from our enthusiastic audience were overwhelmingly positive. Someone said they couldn’t believe it would be any good because the tickets were so cheap! Musikiwest breaks barriers, we surprise you with our program both on stage and in the classrooms, we may even change your assumptions about classical musicians. We invite everyone to enjoy our performance in a setting that belongs to the community and at an affordable price (18 and under are free!), most importantly, we aspire to engage the youth of today to become the great leaders of tomorrow. Mark your calendars now for April 19th, you really want to hear this program of rarely heard String quartets gems by movie composers John Corigliano and Erich Korngold and the Five World Dances of Sergio Assad for guitar and string quartet!!!

Thank you to my colleagues for your willingness to join Musikiwest on our quest to build peaceable communities, thank you to the teachers and administrators of the PAUSD for allowing us to interact with your community of students, thank you to our audience that turned out for our concert, and thank you to those who have made this program posssible through their generous contributions.

Here are a few pictures of some of the classroom events from our fall launch. Stay tuned for a video release of our first week as well as some sound clips from the concert.

Be well, Michelle

Listen to Musikiwest from this performance:

“Deciduous for violin and steelpan” by Andy Akiho

“Mariel for cello and marimba” by Oswaldo Golijov

Getting ready to rehearse with the marimba!

Musikiwest musicians and Dr. Rona Hu sit talking with student.

Musikiwest performers working their way through the "problem" with Dr. Rona Hu while students look on.