KSU Music Professor Helps Bring Music to Afghanistan's Youth

October 31, 2016

After listening to a radio segment about Negin Khpolwak, Afghanistan’s first-ever female conductor, Kennesaw State University music professor Christopher Thibdeau was inspired to pursue a life-changing residency in Kabul where he worked with her at the country’s premiere music academy.

Thibdeau, who is an assistant professor of music education, director of the KSU Strings Project and the conductor of the KSU Philharmonic, spent ten days in August participating in a summer residency at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The program saw him teaching cello lessons to middle and high school students, and teaching conducting lessons to students aged 18 to 19.

Part of the experience included working closely with Khpolwak, who has become ANIM’s most famous student. At the age of 18, she is the country’s first-ever female conductor and is the leader of an all-girl ensemble. Khpolwak gained international acclaim in 2013 when she was invited to represent ANIM in the United States, where she performed at concerts in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Negin Khpolwak

Negin Khpolwak, a student at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the country's first female conductor

“I had the opportunity to instruct her privately and in a group lesson,” said Thibdeau, who worked with Khpolwak on basic baton techniques and on score study. “The experience was quite enjoyable. Negin has limitless enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. It was a pleasure working with her.”

ANIM was founded in 2010 by ethnomusicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast to offer music education to Afghanistan’s young people, with special attention paid to orphans, street-working vendors, and girls. ANIM’s goal is to preserve Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage while ensuring that the country’s children receive comprehensive, globally-focused educations.

ANIM Orchestra

The ANIM Orchestra

Thibdeau was brought to ANIM under a residency program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. During his ten days at the school, Thibdeau helped students identify cello pieces that suited their skill levels, and studied several traditional Afghani pieces. While he originally thought it would be difficult working with students who spoke another language, he was surprised by how much music acted as a sort of universal language.

Chris Thibdeau

KSU Music Professor Christopher Thibdeau with ANIM students

“The experience was amazing,” he said. “As an educator I was surprised at how relatively easy it was to teach music in a completely different culture knowing very few words of the local language. We used solfège to identify note names and I used every tool I know to communicate ideas and concepts across the language barrier.”

Thibdeau began his journey to Afghanistan two years earlier. While casually listening to the radio, he happened to hear a segment about Khpolwak and the ANIM.

“This piqued my curiosity,” he said. “I asked a few musician friends what they knew about the program. However, it wasn't until this summer that I got the courage to send an email to the director of the institute. We had a Skype call and he invited me to apply to the Summer Residency Program.”

Although the program was relatively short, Thibdeau said it will stay with him for a long time. He described the inspiration he felt working with students who, until recently, were unable to receive any formal education, let alone one in music.

“As a musician, it was incredible to witness how music can empower a society,” he said. “Many of the students from ANIM hope to continue their musical studies abroad and then to return to Afghanistan and rebuild their country.

“I’m hoping to see some of the students enrolled here at KSU in the next few years.”

-Patrick Harbin