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Engaging in Cultural Diplomacy

In a lecture at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, William Harvey (’02, violin, composition; M.M. ’06, violin), founder of the nonprofit organization Cultures in Harmony, demonstrated three different ways to engage with other people using his violin. First, he played rhythms on the violin and asked the audience to clap the same rhythms back to him. Next, he asked a volunteer from the audience to use her body and voice to make sounds, and he responded, sometimes with variation, on his violin. In the third method, which he did not demonstrate, he would have asked the audience to leave the room while he taught one man to play the violin, with the goal of performing the 24th Paganini Caprice for the rest of the audience 15 minutes later. As Harvey describes of the last technique, “this is essentially how the United States has been conducting its cultural diplomacy in the Middle East.”

Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire

(Photo by Susan Wilson)


Engaging in cultural diplomacy means engaging in meaningful dialogue. Too often political leaders demand change and foster hostility from the highest levels of government down to the individual citizens they represent. While hostile behavior and warfare may quickly and temporarily cause change—though not necessarily, as our ongoing “war on terror” has shown—individuals must engage with other individuals from the bottom up.

Cultures in Harmony functions on five principles: respecting others and engaging in mutually beneficial activities; engaging spontaneously, thoughtfully, and at every level; researching cultural customs; listening and allowing teaching to be mutual; and being self-critical and available for change. It is simply not enough to teach someone else to be like you. Progress in a chamber-music rehearsal does not happen when a violinist informs the rest of the group about the appropriate technical methods to play the piece. Sending American ambassadors abroad to lecture on American values and teach the English language are not thoughtful and mutually engaging activities. A successful cultural diplomacy program would equally stress learning about other cultures while promoting our own culture.

The elements of successful programs include collaboration and integration with different cultures. A string quartet traveling abroad should conduct workshops with local musicians to present their own music, learn about the local music, and create a performance that integrates the two groups. Working with children is important because, as Harvey states, “today’s children are tomorrow’s decision-makers.” Partnership with local humanitarian aid organizations can lead to themes for the children’s workshops. A workshop in a sub-Saharan country affected by the AIDS epidemic could focus on writing poetry about coping with the implications of AIDS and then setting them to songs and dance. 

The concept of conflict resolution is also important for children. The Apple Hill String Quartet uses music to bring people together in areas of conflict such as Syria, Israel, and Palestine, and students they meet in these gatherings are invited to take part in chamber groups the quartet sets up through its Apple Hill Music Festival Playing for Peace program. A quartet made up of students from Israel, Palestine, Boston, and New York, for instance, would not only learn music together but also be be coached in the chamber music (and life) skills of listening, watching, adjusting, and being flexible. 

It is also important to educate our own people about other cultures with language, history, literature, and the arts. We must be able to understand each other, and we cannot always expect others to understand our way of speaking. Though understanding the Spanish, French, and German languages of our friends and neighbors is important, perhaps we should also start educating more of our youth in Middle Eastern and Asian languages such as Arabic and Korean. Much of the history taught in our schools is U.S.-centric, and while ethnomusicology courses are becoming more widespread at the postsecondary level, they are virtually nonexistent before that. As we work to create a more positive American image abroad, we must also act to realize that image in ourselves.


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