Batia Strauss – Musical Pedagogue and Mentor

50th anniversary to Music Education in Jerusalem Academy, June 2023

Dr. Atara Isaacson - Head of Teachers Certificate in Music

One of the people who had the most influence on me was my special mentor and the head of the music education department at the Jerusalem Academy, Batia Strauss. Batia was born in Germany and immigrated to Israel - Pardes Hana with her parents and brother Yitzhak in 1930. She started her musical career at the age of 16 as a pianist.  After studying in Israel with renowned teachers, including Frank Peleg in Tel Aviv and Friedman in Jerusalem, she traveled to Paris in 1947 and studied there for three years at the Ecole Normale de Musique with the pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot (1877-1962). Upon her return to Israel, she immediately began teaching music in Pardes Hana and in the kibbutzim (Ein Shemer, Mishmarot, and Maanit).  She founded high-quality children's and adult choirs, some of which were recorded for the Voice of Israel radio. Among her students were the singers Meir Ariel and Shalom Hanoch. In the mid-sixties, she served as the musical instructor of the "Shemer Sisters" quartet, who performed songs by her good friend Naomi Shemer.

Batia was a performer who understood the essence of music, and I was impressed by her unique way of introducing and engaging those who had no interest in it. I vividly remember one of the sample lessons we observed at the Arlozorov school in Jerusalem. A clumsy boy with a soccer ball between his legs, David, entered the class. He resisted everything and eagerly waited for the bell to release him from class. By the end of the lesson, David was dancing to Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers with her, in the role of Narcissus. It was a miracle.

As there was no established method for experimental music listening, Batia developed a special approach known as "Active Listening". She selected pieces from various musical styles and identified a prominent feature, such as an inviting melody, a captivating rhythm, or a repeating harmonic pattern. Before listening to the piece, she isolated its’ main element and engaged the children in various activities such as moving, drawing, singing, accompanying with percussion instruments, or dancing - all while identifying the musical element.  Batia believed that in the early stages of learning, children lack the necessary listening experience and sensitivity to independently discover the unique meaning of a piece of music. Furthermore, they lack the tools of expression (such as vocabulary or coordination) to articulate their interpretation of the music. Batia embodied the role of both a musician and a pedagogue. As a musician, she needed to be attuned to the special phrasing and expressive content of the piece, while as a pedagogue, she had to effectively convey these aspects to her students. To achieve this, the teacher must familiarize themselves with their students, accurately assess their perception and playing skills, and adapt methods of engagement that allow them to discern the same meaning that the teachers themselves discovered in the music. The teacher's objective is to provide a thorough diagnosis, serving as a conduit for cultural understanding.

Batia recognized that our perception of music is abstract, emotional, and personal, making it challenging to articulate how to instill this perception in others. Additionally, we often lack the ability to evaluate and measure the impact of music listening, let alone identify visible achievements at the conclusion of the process. Therefore, it is natural for many teachers to prioritize more tangible and practical goals, such as mastering the elements of music and musical forms. Compositions themselves are then presented to students as examples to illustrate the concepts being learned. However, Batia disagreed with the notion that every piece should serve as a didactic tool, emphasizing instead that studying the elements of music is only a means to an end, with the ultimate goal being an intimate familiarity with the piece itself. Her educational and musical principles and methods are designed to captivate and foster the cognitive and emotional development of every individual student.

Starting in the 1980s, she conducted several workshops on "Active Listening" throughout Europe. She taught at the Orff Institute in Salzburg, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and even in Argentina. In February 1997, Batia was tragically killed in a car accident.  Martin once told me that the quote "She taught" inscribed on her grave was taken from Bertolt Brecht's book The Exile of the Poets.

Batia is a significant influence on the cultural development of music education in Israel. She was a European individual with a unique fragrance and rich knowledge. I could seek refuge under her wings, draw from her vast insights, and learn from her about music, education, and the enigmatic workings of the child’s brain.  While collecting pecans in Batia's garden in Pardes Hana, I learned not only about these subjects but also about life itself. The bookshelves in the wooden house were filled with books in German, French, Latin, and English. She and her husband Martin were true Renaissance people, fluent in six languages. They even built a separate wing in their house to accommodate their close friend, the poet and songwriter Naomi Shemer. Being atheists, they inscribed the letter "N" on the mezuzah (doorpost) in honor of Naomi. In return, Shemer dedicated her song Pardes Hana on Shabbat to Batia and Martin. Every July 2nd, Batia's birthday, until Naomi's death in 2004, a group of close friends, would gather at Naomi Shemer's house in Ramat Aviv. Naomi would begin the gathering by playing the prelude in F sharp minor from the second volume of Bach's well-tempered clavier. With the descending fourth, she would sing "Bat-Ya." Then, all Batia's colleagues would share stories of the amusing mademoiselle, the exceptional musician who came from the Paris Conservatoire and was adored by the spirited children of Israel, the hooligans from the kibbutzim, the moshavim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Batia was an observant, attentive, and thoughtful woman. She was critical and reflective, and she believed in the importance of cultivating an ability to truly listen to music. Teaching others to listen is a challenging task that goes beyond simply directing their attention. Despite her serious demeanor and lack of smiles, she had a great sense of humor. Whenever everyone burst into laughter, she would question whether her story was funny.  She never understood "how children are able to come to school every day and stay there from 8 to 13". She believed they were terribly bored because all they could see for five hours was the teacher's backside as she wrote on the board.  When she taught children, her ideas were so profound that even in the distant neighborhood of Katamon, you could hear a pin drop. It was a silence filled with both astonishment and curiosity.

My relationship with Batia serves as a benchmark for the level of influence a single teacher can have on a student. I firmly believe that a person is shaped by the sum of their teachers throughout their life. Batia had spread her ideas to everyone because she wanted “to live forever”. "Methodology of Music Teaching" is an annual course at Bar Ilan University, which is inspired by her, also her wonderful book, A Guide to the Orchestra, has already its’ 3rd digital edition. It is incredible to discover that even after so many years, her ideas remain original, innovative, and provide a foundation for a deep understanding of musical structures. I believe she laid the groundwork for contemporary music education in Israel and beyond.