Many musicians struggle with this concern: Is music an emotional or cultural expression? Though it may seem lofty and philosophical to the rest of us, in the music world, it’s a practical question because the answer can affect the way music is either heard or played.

“In the West,” explains LSA alumna Katie Van Dusen (dual degree B.M.A. ’12 and A.B. ’12), “we hear sadness in a certain chord progression that Korean listeners might not hear if they don’t have traditional Western reference points. We’ve ascribed emotions to classical music’s harmonies and complexity, and to its elements and phrasings.”

Van Dusen has some experience considering music through a cultural lens as a violinist with the National Arab Orchestra (NAO) and its youth education program, Building Bridges Through Music. The orchestra began as the Michigan Arab Orchestra at U-M when its founder and music director, Michael Ibrahim, was looking for musicians who could learn Arab music well enough to perform it within a short period of time. U-M music students were an excellent fit for the job.

“The music we played as a student orchestra had parts that, thanks to colonialism, were written for Western instruments,” recalls Van Dusen, “but they also included parts for Arab instruments like the plucked dulcimer or the oud, which we didn’t know how to play.”

The orchestra filled these gaps by reaching into southeast Michigan’s vibrant Arab community until, gradually, the student orchestra became more of a community ensemble.

The National Arab Orchestra, comprised of many people from many different backgrounds, hopes to spread harmony—in the literal and the metaphorical senses—by playing classical Arab music for audiences in the United States. Photo by Nafeh Abunab

In addition to encountering unfamiliar instruments, the students also had to learn new techniques to play the instruments they already knew. Arab music includes melodic and rhythmic modes that don’t exist in Western music. Some Arab music is written with different notes that are akin to Western music’s half flats and half sharps. To create these sounds, musicians must place their fingers on a guitar or violin string in a different spot than the ones they’d learned playing Western music. “It took me two years to stop fighting my instincts,” Van Dusen laughs, recalling her early efforts.

The non-Arab members of the orchestra also encountered cultural differences when they performed. Classical Arab music audiences follow a different performance norm, explains Van Dusen. Rather than sitting quietly, as a Western audience would, Arab audiences are more interactive and expressive, she says.

Van Dusen gleaned her insight and understanding about Arab culture from playing Arab music and spending time with her fellow musicians.

“I see music as an underutilized resource in building cross-cultural understanding and creating social change,” she explains. And she’s determined to make such experiences available to others. It was this determination—and an organizational studies class—that helped her to make this possible through Building Bridges Through Music.

Building Bridges

For a time, the Arab orchestra existed on a concert-by-concert basis, so the musicians decided to seek out more resources to give the group some stability and support. Van Dusen saw that chance with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, which invests in arts projects in Detroit that give communities collective cultural experiences.

“I had taken an incredible class on nonprofits in organizational studies with Victoria Johnson,” explains Van Dusen. “The class’s capstone project was to write a full grant proposal with a budget and present it. Because I really loved the Arab Orchestra, I structured my proposal around them. And when the group decided to apply for the Knight Foundation grant, that assignment was the framework for our proposal.”

The proposal was awarded $100,000 and raised another $100,000 in matching funds, which was part of the grant’s requirements. With those funds, the National Arab Orchestra started its Building Bridges Through Music pilot program.

Building Bridges Through Music is a free, after-school program for Detroit Public School students that tries to cultivate cultural understanding by teaching Arab classical music, language, and culture. The program includes choir rehearsals and lessons in traditional Arab instruments, such as the oud, frame drum, and qanun. Last May, the program’s students performed in Detroit’s Music Hall Center for Performing Arts with the National Arab Orchestra to a full house.


Students in Building Bridges Through Music learned the classic Lebanese ballad “Zuruni,” which they sang in Arabic with the National Arab Orchestra. In turn, the NAO performed Ibrahim’s arrangement of Pharell Williams’s “Happy” while the students sang. Photo by Kameel Sulaimon

Van Dusen says there was always an intention to include an education component in the National Arab Orchestra, and creating that program in Detroit Public Schools was compelling. “The city of Detroit has a very rich musical legacy,” says Van Dusen. “Jazz and Arab music share common origins, and they share techniques such as improvisation. Detroit is a very diverse city that has two big ethnic racial communities. This was a chance to counter misconceptions and discover common ground.

“Playing with the NAO has done that for me,” she says. “This is the fifth year I’ve played with the NAO, and I’m grateful to be a guest in this cultural space, and grateful to be included. Vic, one of our oud players, once said to me, ‘Arab people think non-Arabs don’t appreciate our music, and couldn’t play it well. It’s really great that you enjoy this so much, that you find our music beautiful.’

“His observation really motivated me,” Van Dusen says. “When people invite others into their culture, as the NAO has with me, it can create a beauty that is just as amazing as the music itself.”