Musical mission grows for CU Winds in Costa Rica

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Joe Schwartz

CU Winds extended its cultural outreach mission considerably on its third biennial tour of Costa Rica, Jan. 9-21. The student musicians' 12-day sojourn over winter break was longer than the two previous tours and involved "more concerts, more schools, more teaching and more interaction," said Cynthia Johnston Turner, director of wind ensembles.

"In 2006 we went to one school and the rest was touring and performing," she said. "In 2008, we visited three schools and held three days of master classes. This year it was five schools."

The 45 wind and percussion players also brought along 95 donated, refurbished instruments they had collected to distribute in the five schools. To date the group has given 225 instruments to Costa Rican music students, in addition to method books, reeds, mouthpieces and other materials.

The tour included concerts, master classes and workshops in Poas, Pavas, Desamparados, San Isidro, Limón and San José, at locations ranging from community centers, churches and a retirement home to a theater in San José and Earth University in Limón.

Education was a key part of the tour. The ensemble worked with young children and with music students their own age.

"Two weeks was a long time for nonstop traveling, teaching, performing, and setting up and taking down percussion instruments; but whenever we saw the eagerness to learn in the eyes of the students, we became even more excited to teach them," said Vivian Li '10. "Teaching was not easy, because we had no idea what the students' levels [of competency] were. Some of them could barely read notes, and some were even better than some of us."

CU Winds also participated in a weeklong music camp in San Isidro; the group also acted as a laboratory for new and established conductors, there and in Pavas.

"What I found really rewarding and heartwarming about this tour was the level of teaching," Johnston Turner said. "The Cornell students really committed themselves to learning how to teach. I watched the flutes in Poas teach a section; the first time they were a little bit awkward and their Spanish was rusty, but by the time they got to Desamparados they were excellent."

Students also enjoyed brief home stays with host families, side trips for zip-lining and a guided rain forest tour in Hacienda Baru, and visiting waterfall gardens in La Paz and a mountain camp in Pacuarito.

"We had a couple of Ithaca College students come along this year, all music education majors," Johnston Turner said. "One of them said 'We're not doing this at IC, and we should be. You're doing incredible work here.'"

The final concert, at the Centro Cultural in San José, raised almost $2,000 for "a fund that makes repairs on schools. We felt good about that," she said.

About 16 members of the entourage had toured Costa Rica before, including percussionist Patrick Yu '06, Cox Music Library staffer Cayenna Ponchione and alumna supporter Ronni Lacroute '66.

"One of the most rewarding experiences on this tour was going back to the school in San Isidro," said 2008 tour veteran Thomas Weber '09, M.Eng. '10. "It was nice to see familiar faces. I reconnected with the current percussion section leader -- at dinner, he thanked me for teaching him to play snare drum two years ago and told me that I had inspired him to practice hard to become section leader. It was incredibly moving to know the impact that our visits have on the students in Costa Rica."

Local author/columnist Amy Dickinson accompanied the group; she and student musicians Iona Machado and Zachary Montague filed blog posts from the tour at

"For the people that hadn't gone before, it can be a somewhat frightening experience -- you're going to a developing country, you don't know what to expect, you've got a home stay, you're going to be teaching in Spanish, and you're going to be performing more concerts in 10 days than you are in a semester at Cornell," Johnston Turner said. "So it's interesting to watch those students come alive and discard their fear and be completely turned on by the experience. For most of us, the Costa Rica tour is a transformational experience."

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