Musicians of the Utah Symphony in Haiti

You may be aware that the Musicians of the Utah Symphony have recently started a new educational outreach effort in Haiti. The origin story of the Haitian National Orchestra Institute (HNOI) has to do with the longtime friendship between Utah Symphony cellist John Eckstein, and BLUME Haiti (Building Leaders Using Music Education) president Janet Anthony. In short, 17 Musicians of the Utah Symphony and Maestro Thierry Fischer traveled to Cap Haitien in late March 2018 for the second annual HNOI.

One hundred of the most advanced musicians from throughout Haiti were selected by audition to form an orchestra, and experience an intense week filled with private and group lessons, sectionals and full orchestra rehearsals. The Institute culminated in an inspired performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 led by our very own Maestro Fischer. This year, in an effort to chronicle our project, we brought a film crew.

Working with our students, who mainly speak Haitian Creole and French, we used all of our nonverbal communication skills. Our HNOI students, often the music teachers in their own communities, were very hungry to learn. Meeting other music students from other regions of Haiti for the first time, they seemed to thrive on the excitement and creative energy all around them. The students also realized the significance of working with a conductor of international stature, and professional orchestral musicians working directly with small groups. But the learning occurred both ways. It opened our eyes on so many levels, and the Utah Symphony musicians who participated have kept in touch with their new friends in Haiti via social media, and look forward to the next time we can work together.

I’m constantly amazed at what an astounding organism an orchestra is. Sometimes the violin section (my point of view) seems like a school of fish that can change direction with a collective mind of its own. The nonverbal communication between conductor and orchestra, and among musicians, feels almost like magic. Stand partners (two violinists who share one music stand) because of our proximity, can pick up on each other’s energy and at the same time feel the intention coming from all points of the stage. The more advanced the orchestra, the clearer our communication. I’m sure that some of our audience members amuse themselves by watching all of the complex interactions occurring during a performance. It is a wonderful thing when a large group of people can come together with a common purpose, perhaps a metaphor for society.

In Haiti, a place so near and yet so far removed from the comforts we take for granted, we were moved by the joyful, eager, and talented students. This effort has become a passion for John and myself, and we feel very fortunate to be able to bring together these dedicated Haitian students with our outstanding friends and colleagues in the Utah Symphony. Recruiting our colleagues was extremely easy both years, even though they volunteer their time and pay most of their own travel expenses. Upon hearing of our plan to create an outreach effort in Haiti, Maestro Thierry Fischer immediately volunteered to come and conduct. Suddenly everything had fallen into place better than we could have ever imagined. Much planning and fundraising led to the first-ever HNOI, which took place in March 2017 in the seaside town of Jacmel. Its resounding success has been enough to fuel our continued passion for this initiative.

Maestro Fischer put it well when being interviewed about the significance of the Haiti project, pointing out that “involvement in the arts makes life better and worth living, and music has as much of a place in a struggling rural village as in a thriving cultural city… it gives us the chance to see the beauty of the collective and to move away from being just an individual even for a moment.” I wholeheartedly agree. Sharing music, whether it be at Abravanel Hall, or in some unexpected environment such as Dinosaur National Monument, or Haiti is vital and miraculous.

Violinist Yuki MacQueen joined the Utah Symphony in June 2000. When not playing in the symphony or volunteering in Haiti, she enjoys playing chamber music, baking sweets, and traveling the world.

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Off-Score: A look into the off-stage passions of Utah Symphony members

Principal Flutist Mercedes Smith strives to empower youth through the natural structure and leadership opportunities an orchestra provides.

“I’ve been here for five and a half years,” Smith said. “It’s such a beautiful place to live, it’s so wonderful waking up and seeing the mountains every morning.” Prior to living in Utah, Smith lived in Dallas as the Principal Flutist for the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestras. In her free time, she loves to cook, work with non-profit organizations, practice yoga, and slowly but surely renovate her home.

In March of 2017, Thierry Fischer and 14 Utah Symphony musicians volunteered during their spring breaks and teamed up with BLUME Haiti (Building Leaders Using Music Education) to teach 100 young Haitian musicians. Every section of the symphony, with the exception of tuba and harp, was represented. “I was slightly hesitant at first because it was my vacation week,” said Smith, “but I went and had the best time. It’s such a beautiful place.”

“The people are so positive despite all the hardships they’ve been through. They don’t lack in intelligence or work ethic, just opportunities, so we went there to create the opportunities for them.”

The musicians worked with students from 9 AM to 1 PM. “We would do everything from the basic fundamentals of scales and tone exercises, to private lessons, to masterclasses. Really anything that filled up four hours.” Following their instruction, the students rehearsed for their concert as an ensemble with Maestro Thierry Fischer.

She taught five young adults that all had their own students. Pupils that were too old for the program could audit the class, and students that were too young benefitted from trainings their teachers received. “There were around 100 students in the program last year, but I think we reached closer to 1,000, and that’s in schools all throughout Haiti,” she said.

Before arriving in Haiti, Smith had no idea what to expect. “I was surprised at the high level some of them played at,” she said. “It’s clear that had they had the opportunities that we have here in the U.S. … they would have been able to excel far more than the level they were currently at.”

Political crises, natural disasters, and economic struggle make upward-class mobility extremely difficult. “It’s nearly impossible to get out of the middle class—and it’s not like our middle class. It really is poverty.” BLUME Haiti provides leadership opportunities, teaching youth that they are not stuck—differences in their community are possible.

After returning from Haiti, Smith continued to think about music as an agent of social change. “The thing is, we have a bit of this problem in our own country too,” Smith admits. “Kids that are poor tend to stay poor, or I guess we’re now starting to understand that not everyone has the same upward mobility that we may have once had.” She partnered with Salty Cricket Composer Collective’s ‘El Sistema,’ a non-profit after-school music program that provides 17 hours of after-school music instruction, free of charge to Jackson Elementary students in Rose Park.

Ms. Smith found BLUME Haiti and El Sistema worked hand in hand. “[El Sistema] is essentially doing the same thing BLUME Haiti is doing—empowering kids and teaching them about teamwork and leadership,” she said.

Based off the Venezuelan music education program, El Sistema is located in cities all throughout the United States. “I don’t know how long this program has been going, but it’s new,” Smith tells me. “Maybe 3-5 years old.” Currently, it only offers violin instruction but will be expanding to cellos and violas next year. “They need instrument donations, and they need to expand their budget,” she said.

Wanting to raise awareness and involve the Utah Symphony even further, Smith created “Saturdays with the Symphony,” a near-monthly exchange where one musician spends two hours with young students and their parents. “It’s basically a show-and-tell that’s 20 minutes long because the kids are so little.”

The musician plays a few pieces, speaks about their instrument, and discusses their journey studying music. “Then they have a little orchestra rehearsal, and we have the symphony member sit and play the little ‘Ode to Joy’ tune they’re working on,” she said. Following the concert is a potluck dinner where students and their families meet the musician. “It’s really such a motivating thing for the kids!”

Smith has made it her mission to expand the program to its full potential by utilizing the world-class talent available in Salt Lake City. “I really just want to help increase the visibility of this organization,” she said. “I want the symphony to do everything it can to help—that’s why I started this very small gesture of having one musician a month reach out to our community.”

In her experience, local Salt Lake initiatives don’t hold nearly as well as a large-scale Haiti trip would. “It amazes me how easy it is to fundraise for Haiti than it is to fundraise for children in our own community,” she said. “Jackson Elementary is a five-minute walk from the Utah Opera Production Studios.”

Interested in getting involved? You don’t have to be a professional musician to directly impact the lives of Salt Lake City youth.

First off, this Friday, February 16th, MOTUS (musicians of the Utah Symphony) After Dark will be holding a fundraiser at the jazz club Avant Groove, starting at 9 PM. Tickets can be bought online or at the door for 5$, and all the money raised directly benefits to El Sistema. “I think we’ve almost sold out all the VIP booths,” she said.

Secondly, El Sistema is accepting donations to expand the program to its full potential. Donations can be made online here.

If donations are not possible, Salty Cricket accepts volunteers of all kinds. If interested, please reach out to Victoria at Victoria@saltycricket.org, or by calling (919) 274-3845.

“[El Sistema] is small now, but it’s growing,” Smith says. “I can tell it’s going to be a huge thing in the future that affects so many children’s lives.”

To learn more about El Sistema’s Jackson Elementary program, visit their website.

 

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