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The Music of Strangers - Curriculum Guide

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The Film — The Music of Strangers

Institutions may purchase the educational DVD and streaming access through Ro*co Educational. 
Film excerpts for The Music of Strangers lessons can be found via this private DropBox folder. (Password: ensemble)

In 2000, the internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought together a diverse group of musical virtuosos from around the world in Lenox, Massachusetts, at the Tanglewood Music Center. Musicians collaborated and improvised for 10 days in preparation for a concert at which 16 new pieces of music were premiered. The vitality of musical exchange coupled with the vision of global connection led to the formation of the Silk Road Ensemble, the subject of the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble follows an ever changing lineup of performers drawn from the ensemble’s more than 50 instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers as they gather in locations around the world, exploring the ways art can both preserve traditions and shape cultural evolution. Blending performance footage, personal interviews, and archival film, director Morgan Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers focus on the journeys of a small group of Silk Road Ensemble mainstays to create an intensely personal chronicle of passion, talent, and sacrifice. Through these moving individual stories, the filmmakers paint a vivid portrait of a bold musical experiment and a global search for the ties that bind.

The film follows the stories of Yo-Yo Ma as he reflects on the creation of the Silk Road Ensemble and the role of art and culture in forging global connections; Wu Man, a pipa player, as she travels throughout her country, China, to preserve folk music traditions; Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist and composer who travels to Jordanian refugee camps teaching music to children living in the camp; Kayhan Kalhor, an internationally acclaimed master of the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument, who studied the musical tradition of his native Iran; and Cristina Pato, a Galician bagpiper now committed to the cultural exchange and preservation of the musical traditions of her native Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain.

The Curriculum Guide Available for Free

Journeys in Film has prepared a set of lessons to help your students understand the role the arts play in inspiring connections with other subjects, with each other, and with current events.

Students learn the history of Yo-Yo Ma’s founding of the Silk Road Project and his reasons for this endeavor. A visual arts lesson asks students to design a DVD cover for a Silk Road concert film or a film about an artist. There is an introduction to the pipa player Wu Man and a dynamic simulation that opens student’s eyes to the difficult realities of the Cultural Revolution in China. The humanitarian crisis ignited by the popular uprising in Syria and the history of the Iranian Revolution are the subjects of other lessons.  Students learn about the layers of culture, consider their own cultural identities, and discuss how cultural connections can occur. A music lesson and accompanying PowerPoint give students more information about the traditional instruments that come together in unexpected ways in the Silk Road Ensemble. Finally, a lesson in visual literacy explores the issue of bias in documentary filmmaking and viewing and looks at some of the filmmaker’s techniques.

Preview Lesson Plans

  • Introduction to The Music of Strangers
  • Lesson 1: Yo-Yo Ma and the Intersection of Cultures (Music, Language Arts)
  • Lesson 2: Interpreting the Silk Road Through the Graphic Arts (Visual Arts)
  • Lesson 3: Everything Old Is New Again: The Chinese Cultural Revolution and Its Legacy (History, Social Studies, Language Arts)
  • Lesson 4: The Ongoing Syrian Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis (History/Social Studies, Language Arts and Literacy, Music, Visual Arts)
  • Lesson 5: The Iranian Revolution (History/Social Studies, Music)
  • Lesson 6: Preserving Culture in a Globalized World (History/Social Studies, Music)
  • Lesson 7: Ancient Instruments, New Music (Music)
  • Lesson 8: Viewing a Documentary Film: Developing Film Literacy (Film Literacy, English Language Arts)

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