As Ithaca braced itself for January snow, the Cornell Wind Ensemble traveled to Costa Rica to share musical expertise with disadvantaged students. The tour was the fourth in a biennial series of performing and service-learning tours organized by Cynthia Johnston Turner, director of Wind Ensembles in the Department of Music.
This year a group including 43 students from CU Winds visited eight schools (three more than on their last tour, in January 2010), led workshops for more than 400 students, and performed 10 concerts in 11 days. They also donated 35 professional-quality instruments to advanced music students who could not afford their own.
While the Cornellians had some time to stargaze by the pool and explore the outdoors, they reflected most on playing music with local students. The impact that music had on those students' lives, they said, was truly inspiring.
"Before music, all these kids knew was that one day they would be dead or join a gang," said Robin Ying '14.
This grim reality became particularly apparent when the group visited Leon XIII, a school in the heart of a dangerous neighborhood in the capital city of San José. "You could not leave the school gates on your own, and every building was surrounded by barbed wire," said Ritchie Iu '13. "After we performed in the cathedral there, the priest came up to us and thanked us for our music. He said people were accustomed to hearing the sounds of gunshots, so it was wonderful to hear our music instead."
Each day began with a two-hour conducting master class for the teachers in the schools they visited. "Surprisingly, the Cornell students said that was their favorite part because they learned more about conducting and communication through conducting," Johnston Turner said.
Afternoons, the group led instrumental workshops with Costa Rican students, followed by a recital in which the students showcased what they had learned. Each evening they performed a concert for the community, sometimes joined by student musicians from local schools.
For Albert Chen '12 the most surprising thing about the trip was how enthusiastic all the Costa Rican students were. "Though we went to a different school every day, we occasionally saw the same students twice because they would visit another school just to work with us again," he said.
Johnston Turner first came up with the idea for the tour in 2005, when family members who do service work in Costa Rica asked if she knew how to obtain instruments for music students there. She had always believed in touring with ensembles as an enriching and transformative experience for students, so the following year she and the Wind Ensemble brought 50 donated instruments. In January 2006 the group visited a small town, Matapalo, and led workshops with local students. In 2008 and 2010, the trip expanded to include other schools.
Each tour has been slightly different. This year, six Costa Rican students accompanied the Cornell group. "I really didn't know how it would play out," Johnston Turner said. "But it was better than I even imagined. The relationships formed, through teaching, traveling and performing together, were true and deep."
For one of those students, Marco Molina, the Cornellians' return was particularly meaningful. In 2010, he had received a donated flute from a CU Winds member. "When [the Cornell student] gave me the flute I couldn't believe it," Molina said. "My teacher was telling me for a year that I have to buy a new flute, but I don't really have the money. So when he gave me the flute, I cried. It was one of the most happy days of my life."
This year, walking to one of the group's last concerts, Molina told Johnston Turner he had decided to someday donate the flute to another child.
Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle