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Music education in Israel, a glorious field up until about two decades ago, is now in a shameful state and in danger of extinction - despite the wealth of activities ostensibly being offered to students.

If a child wants to learn music after school hours, the public institutions, such as the conservatories and the community culture centers, vie for his enrollment. If a school principal is interested in providing music lessons to pupils, a list of teachers approved by the Education Ministry and a selection of educational programs developed by private foundations and orchestras are available as well as a series of morning concerts covered by the national basket of cultural activities.

Children can sing and play in youth choirs and bands and enjoy special programs that offer scholarships and competitions for those who excel. When they grow up they can specialize in performing, composing or teaching, at local colleges and universities.

From a distance this looks like paradise, but a closer inspection reveals a frightful and withering system: The teachers - who have been studying all their lives - are the victims of exploitation, working for minimum wage under poor conditions and without job security; the conservatories are starving for lack of budgets and the financing burden on the parents' shoulders is heavier every year (it has doubled since the late 1980s); the colleges are disintegrating, music instruction hours at schools are shrinking, the academic level is declining and youth music organizations are living hand-to-mouth in uncertainty.

Everyone is looking out for himself, reaching into the almost empty dish in order to scrape up the last crumbs at the expense of his colleagues - while commercial entities invade the arena and entice parents, teachers and students with cheap but flawed musical experiences. Thus, the circle of children doomed to musical ignorance is growing ever wider, while a child's right to learn music - anchored in the free education law in England, for example - is being violated.

`No instant solutions'

Anyone who understands the importance of music education to social and cultural strength is truly shaken by this deterioration. Uri Ben-David, a musician and educator from Kiryat Tivon who directs music projects at the arts center in the Jezreel Valley, created a program designed to correct this injustice. After two years of actively promoting it, his labors are bearing fruit: "Tnufa" (momentum) will be implemented starting September 1, 2005.

"We are dealing with a shattered system that was musical education, and there are no instant solutions," says Ben-David. "Artists and educators should be social leaders and change this situation. Just like during the Yom Kippur War, we are on the brink of Israeli culture. If we throw up our hands, we are lost."

The program created by Ben-David to halt the fall recognizes the potential of music to mold social-educational processes and he feels it lays the groundwork for a new effort based on cooperation.

"In a small country we have to divide disciplines and share resources," he says.

To this end, Tnufa is meant to be a model of human and budgetary cooperation between all the bodies involved in music education: the formal and the informal, the Education Ministry and the contributing foundations, the academies and the teacher training institutions, and the orchestras.

"One regional center will serve several branch programs," continues Ben-David, "such that there will be music activities in schools, instead of islands of institutions that are subject to the caprices of local council heads. This will foster cooperation instead of competition, with everyone fighting his own battle."

The region chosen for Tnufa's trial period, which will last three years, is the central Galilee. The local authorities that will be involved are Upper Nazareth, Nazareth, Migdal Ha'emek, Yafia and the Jezreel Valley, with the regional center to be in the Jezreel Valley arts center, which is under the supervision of the Education Ministry.

Students will come to the center for in-depth studies and rehearsals with performing groups such as classical and jazz orchestras, choir and chamber ensembles and ancient music ensembles - composed of both Jewish and Arab students, and will then travel to all the communities covered by the project to give concerts and recitals.

At the same time the elementary and junior high schools throughout the region will offer high quality music studies: choir classes and music lessons during school hours, including listening to live music. These classes will be part of the "Mafteah" (key) program being run by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the "Lagaat Bamusica" (touching music) program of the Jerusalem Chamber Orchestra and the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra.

This year, for the first time in Israel, Arab junior high and high school students in Nazareth were offered music studies, and come September there will even be a preparatory program for matriculation studies in music for ninth grade students in that city. "We are saying `no' to the term `sectors,'" says Ben-David, "and the cooperation here is not artificial integration, but rather the fruit of human musical fraternity and a shoulder-to-shoulder struggle. When the whole area takes responsibility and presents its needs and desires to the government ministries in a reasonable fashion, there can be real political change.

"The population of the central Galilee is a representation of all the social groups," continues Ben-David, "kibbutz workers, Christian and Muslim Arabs - who form the majority in the Galilee - religious and secular Jews, new immigrants and veteran Israelis, urban and rural communities. The demand for equality is therefore all the more insistent, as is the aspiration for a civil society. It is also the nature of musical endeavors to break the barriers between people and cultures."

Like a Bach fugue

"In order to bring about change," explains Ben-David, "a person must first be himself, to sharpen and clarify that change in himself. Then he can extend the circle to other people; from there to a whole region, and then to the entire country. Like a Bach fugue - the subject is the individual: It is he who forces the multi-vocal unfolding of the events, and he ultimately determines the whole complex structure. This will not happen from the opposite direction, because no one at the top is taking responsibility.

"The country's leaders will not figure out on their own that music studies are the most efficient measure in the struggle against the rising violence, for example, and in achieving democracy and tolerance."

This is the path, from the individual to the whole public, that Ben-David traveled in late 2003. Like the subject of a Bach fugue he began this work on his own - meeting with senior officials in the Education Ministry; heads of the music academies, cultural foundations and music centers; with colleagues at conservatories and the heads of the orchestras, local councils and youth music organizations.

Gradually all these joined their voices to his, contributing their part to the multi-voice effort both in developing the program as participants on steering committees - national and regional - that Ben-David set up, and as donors of funding or its equivalent. As September approaches, Ben-David can look back with satisfaction on the fruits of his labors: key figures in the music, education, and political worlds have joined forces to raise a budget of NIS 1 million for each of the three years of the trial period. The Education Ministry is giving the lion's share: NIS 600,000 per year.

"In the end, everyone realized that if they were going to cooperate it had to be all the way," says Ben-David.