Music-making can help prepare students for democratic citizenry. Rehearsing with colleagues requires listening, absorbing, reflection, and communicating. A musician’s daily practice entails identifying how best to give voice to the other in partnership with one’s self. In this regard, much like human rights, making music involves respecting rights and responsibilities: the musician must find a balance between her own artistic expression and that of the other musicians; the musical ensemble, as a collective, must honor individual expression yet ensure a unified, successful performance.

MFHR engages students about human rights through projects on themes including immigration and asylum, the rights of the child, access to water and food, the right to culture, and freedom of expression. Inspired by a particular right, human rights advocate, or significant historical event, a composer is commissioned to create a musical work designed to be rehearsed and performed by student and professional musicians seated side by side. Human rights experts join classroom school teachers in introducing human rights concepts and examining historical and contemporary issues.


Human Rights Orchestra musicians guide rehearsals with the students, culminating in a free public performance for the community. In advance of the concert, students propose and vote upon human rights organizations to receive funds raised through their performance. Students solicit donations at the concert with speeches to the audience.


On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in April 2014, high school students at the Kantonschule Reussbeuhl in Lucerne, Switzerland were engaged in a four-day residency on the right to culture. Underwritten by the Lucerne Festival, the project comprised 14 musicians from the Human Rights Orchestra and composer Riccardo Panfili. Mr. Panfili’s composition, The Last Land, incorporated a Rwandan lullaby and the text of a song written by young Rwandan music trainers titled Umuco, "Culture".


Students studied the recording and video of Umuco made by the Rwandan young adults and children, rehearsed their own adaptation of the song, and performed it for their Rwandan friends live via Skype video. 


Younger students were introduced to human rights definitions, principles, and issues. The older students were engaged in a discussion of the Rwandan genocide, how the arts can be manipulated and abused for political ends, the human right to culture, and threats to the survival of culture.


Three days of intense rehearsals included a warm-up performance in the school auditorium for the entire student body and faculty.

The students also encountered the musicians in small group meetings, without instruments, to become acquainted with the musicians' lives and values.

The residency concluded with a free public performance in Lucerne featuring the world premiere of Riccardo Panfili's The Last Land. The audience viewed a video of the Rwandan youths' performance of their song Umuco that was followed by the Lucerne students' rendition. The program also included works by composers whose music was banned or labeled as destabilizing to public order: Felix Mendelssohn, Rudolf Karel, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Bela Bartok.


The students solicited contributions from the audience and donated CHF 4,200 to the human rights organizations "Kinder in Not" and Musicians without Borders Rwanda Project.