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May 17, 2010

Music program explores diversity

Tolerance is the theme, music is the introduction

By CAROL SOUTH Special to the Record-Eagle The Record Eagle Mon May 17, 2010, 07:33 AM EDT

TRAVERSE CITY — Bridging cultures, fear, misunderstandings — the universal language of music can do it all.

The new nonprofit Building Bridges with Music weaves a message of
diversity and tolerance for school students. The inspired vision of musician Jeff Haas, the diversity workshops explore how to accept others, be open minded and live peacefully with people from different races, backgrounds or cultures.

For the presentations, Haas delves into his broad repertoire of original music, an eclectic stew that showcased everything from classical to jazz to ethnic music. Members of the Jeff Haas Quintet — including bass player Marion Hayden, saxophonist Laurie Sears, Sean Dobbins on drums and trumpeter Chris Lawrence — played for students Thursday at the Old Mission Peninsula School.

Haas' disparate musical and cultural influences create a narrative foundation for the
diversity program he has been sharing since 1994. In 16 years, he and fellow musicians have reached 50,000 public school students in grades K-12.

The range of music they play helps students learn to like, or at least appreciate, other kinds of music. Broadening their outlook can open the way for interpersonal tolerance.

"There's so much variety in music, so much variety in each category of music, it's so important to keep an open mind," Haas said. "Music is really a good and safe place to practice open-mindedness."

"You guys have a big responsibility, you guys are the future of the country and the world," he told the Old Mission Peninsula School students.

Grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and NorthSky Nonprofit Network underwrote last week's 12 presentations by Building Bridges with Music that reached approximately 2,000 students. In addition to the two sessions at the Old Mission Peninsula, other schools visited were Central Grade, Northport, Blair, Kingsley and TCAPS Montessori.

Students participated in discussions about tolerance led by Haas, which alternated with musical portions of the program. They raptly absorbed a personal story of tolerance triumphing over fear and rejection told by drummer Dobbins.

"Every relationship starts with just a smile and saying, 'Hi,'" said Madelynn Brady, a fourth-grader at Old Mission Peninsula School.

Sharing stories from his own childhood and family background, Haas also talked about
hatred and bullying. He noted that fear lies behind a bully's taunting and dominant behavior, whether on the playground or world stage. Haas and students brainstormed how to reach out to students who may look, act or dress differently.

"To make a friend if somebody's from a different country, just use sign language and show them around," said Kendra Nietz, a fifth-grade student at Old Mission Peninsula School, on how to incorporate Haas' lessons into her life.

Formally making Building Bridges with Music a nonprofit this year boosts the reach of
the diversity workshops, both in terms of fundraising and bringing the programs to schools facing tight budgets.

"The hard part was being able have the structure to support the schools and now we have that," said Lisa Robitshek, a board member of Building Bridges with Music.

For more information on Building Bridges with Music, contact Lisa Robitshek at 409-0039 or e-mail: buildingbridgeswithmusic@gmail.com.