What do Mussorgsky and Burt Bacharach have in common?
Besides being prolific composers—with equally prolific heads of hair—not much. But when three Colorado Symphony musicians landed in Haiti to teach the students of Orchestra St. Pierre this summer, Mussorgsky and Bacharach were played with equal gusto from the tops of chairs in a student concert that could probably be heard from the Front Range.
From Denver to Haiti: A Map
First, a little background: For the past two years, The Colorado Symphony has partnered with local high school student Zach Harris to collect instruments and supplies for the Orchestra St. Pierre, a high school youth orchestra in Mirebelais, Haiti.
Zach, who has two adopted Haitian siblings, founded the Haiti Youth Orchestra when he was just 14 years old through Road to Hope Haiti. Since then, he’s been collecting and delivering musical instruments through the HYO to the Orchestra St. Pierre. For more about our the Colorado Symphony and Haiti Youth Orchestra’s work together, read our previous HYO blog post. After several years of collecting instruments for the HYO, traveling to Haiti to meet and teach the HYO students was an exciting next step for our own Colorado Symphony musicians. In the second week of June 2016, Colorado Symphony trombonist Paul , clarinetist Abby Raymond, and violist Helen McDermott traveled to to bring about 30 donated instruments and supplies, and to teach the students side-by-side.
Eager to Learn
The teaching schedules were as intense as the early summer heat: swarms of students would come and go for single, small group, and large orchestra lessons for 8 hours each day, sometimes without electricity or running water. Despite being in the thick of their final exams, the HYO students were eager and ready to learn: “Most remarkable was the energetic enthusiasm they brought with them,” commented Helen, “and their willingness to work without rest once they arrived.” She pointed out that students showed up for as many lessons as possible, and would help one another catch up with on-the-spot peer tutoring.
The days were challenging—but immensely rewarding—for both the students and the teachers. “As a teacher, I was definitely stretched by my experience in Haiti,” explains clarinetist Abigail. “I learned some flute so I would be able to have some idea what the flute players should be doing. I also tried to brush up on my French so I would be able to communicate with the students.“ Another “stretch” for our musicians was arranging the Haitian national anthem “La ” (you can listen to a version of it here) for full orchestra, so that the students would be able to play it for the first time. “I knew it wasn’t all that simple,” Helen said. “The tune would be no problem, but the harmony was another issue.”
A Finale to Bring Down the House
Yet the students were able to learn the anthem—and many more songs—within just a few days and played it proudly when the music lessons culminated in a final concert-turned-jam session. The teachers and students played everything from “La “ to Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev“ and Burt Bacharach’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”
“I will never forget the last two pieces of the concert,” recalled Paul, “where we all stood to perform and those in the back rows, including myself, were actually standing on our chairs while playing an intensely enthusiastic rendering of … ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’“
“The brass section played the most energetic version of Star Wars you can imagine,” Helen said, “in spite of never having heard of the movies. Paul had quite a time trying to explain the plot to them.“
The Haiti Youth Orchestra Comes to Denver
The teaching experience in Haiti was a resounding success, and Zach Harris was able to bring three Haiti Youth Orchestra students—siblings Peter and and David Marcellus—to Denver for the first time in their lives to study and perform with members of the Colorado Symphony.
David, Peter, and will be in Denver November 10-15, and will perform in the lobby of Boettcher Concert Hall before each Ben Folds Masterwork concert, as well as in front of the November 14 City Council Meeting to highlight the Arts & Venues Denver‘s Imagine2020 project. The Colorado Symphony will continue teaming up with Zach and the Haiti Youth Orchestra to collect donated instruments for the students in . Another trip to Haiti for our musicians is yet to be determined, but the last trip has left an indelible impression on our musicians.
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” Helen said, “with confidence that I and our program are welcome.”