Teaching Children Peace through Music

Liz Shropshire, BYU alumna and founder of the Shropshire Music Foundation, has used grassroots music education over the past 16 years to bring peace to children in war-torn countries. Shropshire discussed the development of this organization and its impact on the lives of war-zone children at a Humanities Center lecture.

IMG_5969PROVO, Utah (Nov. 2, 2015)—In 1999, just weeks after the end of the Kosovo War, BYU music graduate Liz Shropshire found herself in a brick-factory-turned-displacement camp with a volleyball and dozens of violent children.

At a Humanities Center lecture, Shropshire discussed her initial journey to Kosovo and how this one moment would one day lead to the creation of the Shropshire Music Foundation, a grassroots music education program that has brought free instruments and music classes to more than 15,000 war-impacted children in Uganda, Northern Ireland and Kosovo.

After hearing interviews from female refugees in Kosovo on NPR in 1999, Shropshire felt motivated to help in some way. Not long after, she found herself in the middle of a displaced persons camp, surrounded by hundreds of war-torn children and frightened refugee women.

“I started playing games with the children, and about five minutes in they started hitting each other,” Shropshire said. “I grabbed the ball and I told them that if they didn’t stop trying to kill each other, I would take the volleyball and go home.”

One refugee woman, intrigued by Shropshire’s efforts, invited her into her home, and from that time forward Shropshire was initiated into the community of refugee camp women.

Shropshire began to notice, however, many ignored teenage girls in the camp who were forbidden to go outside as a precaution against rape.

It was then that Shropshire thought she might be able to help these young women in some small way. She decided to teach them music lessons with harmonicas and penny whistles, which soon attracted groups of younger girls and eventually young boys.

Shropshire, unsure that the young boys would be able to behave or resist acting out violently in a music class, initially declined their pleas to have a class of their own. Her heart soon changed, however, when the young boys approached her one day, motioning that they were collecting their tears to give to her so that she would teach them.

They became the best class she had ever taught, Shropshire said.

“This camp, this place that had been so full of sadness and trauma, became this place with all this light,” Shropshire said. “It wasn’t beautiful music, but they had something to do six days a week.”

After her first experience using music to help war-impacted children in Kosovo, Shropshire made it her life mission to continue providing this service to not only children and teenagers in Kosovo, but children and teenagers in Northern Ireland and Uganda as well.

“What happened about 30 years ago is that the face of warfare in our world changed,” Shropshire said. “Children went from being victims of war to being targets.”

In order to combat the aftermath of war on victimized children, Shropshire uses music as a motivator by giving them something to do and by helping them to recognize self-worth.

Shropshire also uses music education to bring peace and teach religious tolerance to children living in Northern Ireland. “What we’re doing in Northern Ireland is a little bit different,” she said. “We’re bringing the Catholic and the Protestant children together for music classes.”

She continued that when the children first come to the music class, they sit on opposite sides of the room – Catholics on one side, Protestants on the other. Yet within a few classes, the children start sitting and talking together.

So why does music work? Shropshire asked.

“I don’t really know,” she concluded. “The one thing I do know is that most of these kids have never had control over anything in their lives. When we give them an instrument, it doesn’t matter if they have a father, if they live in a camp, what their ethnicity is or what their religion is. The only thing that matters is them deciding that they want to learn to play an instrument, and if they do, we will teach them.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17) 

Sylvia covers the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.