In Israel, joining the amy doesn’t mean the end of your musical career, in fact for many of the country’s most talented musicians, it’s just the start.
Twenty-year-old Leah Korchemny has been playing the viola since she was seven. Two years ago, when she graduated from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, she was considered one of the top teen musicians in Israel.
So when it was time for her mandatory two years of service (males serve for three years) in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), she was delighted to learn about the army’s Outstanding Musicians program, one of the varied ways young soldiers with musical talent can continue to develop their skills, even during their army service.
“The program combines doing a job in the army – usually for six hours a day – and playing the rest of the time,” Korchemny tells ISRAEL21c. “I study at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and I practice long hours at home. If you’re not strong and motivated, you can’t do it. I sleep on buses.”
Service and a stepping stone
For every high-profile case of an Israeli star like supermodel Bar Rafaeli finding a way to wriggle out of mandatory service in the IDF, there are hundreds of examples of celebrities and unknown, but gifted, musicians who utilize the army framework both to hone their craft and as a stepping stone to a blossoming career.
Lt.-Col. Moshik Aviv, 38, tells ISRAEL21c that the Outstanding Musicians program is currently allowing 35 soldiers (15 female and 20 male) to continue to play and develop their skills during their army service, while still contributing to the IDF and to society. For the last year and a half he has headed the cultural branch of the IDF, which is part of the Education Corp.
“It’s very important that while they get to keep developing musically, their army service still needs to be meaningful. They may be out of the country performing 90 days a year, but when they’re here, they’re absolutely part of the army, doing drills, going to the firing range and all,” he stresses.
Aviv oversees all aspects of culture in the IDF, and that includes the 17 different musical army bands and troupes that enable hundreds of gifted soldiers to develop their musical passion and skills during their mandatory service.
“In the old days, almost all the top entertainers in the country emerged from an army band – from Sassi Keshet to Yardena Arazi. And that trend has continued with current favorites like Idan Raichel and Moshe Peretz getting their start in IDF bands,” says Aviv.
“We send 15 delegations abroad every year through other organizations like the Friends of the IDF, The Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. There’s a big demand and it’s important that people around the world see the army represented by these fine musicians,” he adds.
It’s not who you know, but how talented you are
Roie, a 19-year-old pianist, singer and arranger from a small community near Beersheba, also graduated from the Thelma Yellin school as a jazz major and tried out for one of the IDF entertainment troupes before he enlisted last year. After an arduous audition process, he was accepted.
“It’s really enriched me. I’ve learned a lot, and still have much more to learn,” he says. “We have all the tasks that other soldiers must do – guard duty, firing range, providing security for settlements – but most of our time is devoted to music. We get courses in voice and music enrichment,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Roie’s troupe has focused on a musical project called Bereishit that utilizes Jewish sources and is performed at army bases around the country.
“Every Thursday we get a schedule for the next week. We have about four performances a week. When you finish a show, and you see all the smiles and know you’re making them happy, it’s all worth it,” he says.
Aviv relates that only a small percentage of those soldiers who audition for the IDF troupes or the Outstanding Musicians program are accepted – about three to four percent. But he insists that there’s no favoritism, or protekzia as it’s referred to in Israeli slang, in the selection process.
“It’s a fairy tale that you need to know somebody to get in, and we’re very circumspect that this doesn’t happen,” he insists. “There’s usually a six-or-seven-person panel that sits for each audition, made up of music professionals doing their reserve duty. If the son of somebody famous arrives for an audition, it doesn’t mean that because his father’s famous, he’s going to be accepted.”
Nurturing their ‘cultural side’
However, when a well-established teen celebrity does enlist in the IDF – like model/actress Esti Ginzburg, Aviv concedes that every effort is made to accommodate his or her unique circumstances. “We have many soldiers who are already celebrities before they enlist, and we take into consideration that they already have a career, and work with them to ensure their careers won’t be damaged during their service,” he explains.
Aviv adds that the army – from the Chief of Staff on down – places great importance on nurturing the ‘cultural side’ of its soldiers, and sees the musical troupes as a tool to open up the creativity of the rank and file.
“I see what we do as a meeting place for all the various social elements that make up today’s army,” he explains. “We’re obliged to provide culture for all soldiers, and by exposing them to the music and shows of the IDF troupes we’re imparting some of the educational values we think are important and also creating a greater sense of belonging to the country.”
Viola player Korchemny believes that her experience in the Outstanding Musicians program has allowed her future plans to crystallize at just the right pace, and that if she had lived anywhere else, she wouldn’t have had the advantage of participating in a program which allowed her to make decisions about her future according to her own rhythm.
“In Israel, we wonder how high school graduates around the world finish school and go straight to college. Here, we have time to feel things out, to learn what we want. I don’t understand how people can do that at 18,” she says. “If people are blessed with a gift, others can’t choose it for them. The Outstanding Musicians program is an amazing opportunity to let us make our own choice.”