Music in opening pathways for connection

Three years ago, my youth group worked with Burmese refugees, or Sun Youth with their adjustment to America by teaching them about the English language and American customs. We did a lot of activities together to learn about culture and tutor them to get them ready for exams or job applications.

One instance in particular stands out to me: during our first time meeting them, a man in a corner of the room caught my attention. He refused to talk to other people, but he was cradling a guitar and I just wanted to listen to him, so I sat next to him. He glanced at me, but ignored me and continued. Suppressing the nagging fear that my presence might worsen his unease, I remained, listening to his singing and to the beautiful melody with foreign syllables. All I knew from the way he sang was that the song was incredibly special to him. 

I expected that listening remotely would be the closest interaction that this man would allow, but when he finished, he looked at me - paused - and handed his guitar to me. Uh oh. I returned his gaze with widening eyes, trying to indicate that I was just an amateur (who literally knew nothing but the simplest chords from Taylor Swift songs), but he insisted. It struck me then, that this was a crucial moment; instead of the other way around, he was reaching out to me... So I played. I played the few songs I knew and as I sang, I looked up at him and found that he was listening. His eyes darted between me and the instrument, but the curves of his mouth held a hint of a smile, prompting me to continue. I wanted to grasp this moment of connection for just a little longer, and by that point, I had forgotten everyone else. When I looked around the room, what beheld me was a small group composed of both Sun Youth and youth group volunteer members sitting in front of us, watching me curiously, at which point I both marveled at how quickly they'd gotten to know each other and became too shy to continue.

When I returned the guitar to the man, I thought he would continue ignoring me, but he just smiled, and, in broken English, haltingly spoke of his village and his past. The foreign song, he said, had been popular there. He revealed his name and we talked until the session was over.

From then on, we conversed easily at every meeting, but I view music differently now; it's not just a studiously practiced form of entertainment, but also a language in itself. As a writer, I used to think words were everything, but music, I've recognized, transcends that. Truly, "when words fail, music speaks."

(Fun fact: this is the experience that made me interested in music therapy. Still deciding between Piano Performance and that...)