Testimonials: Mason Music in Costa Rica

Posted on 30.06.2017 by Darden

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In May 2017, Mason students and faculty traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica to work with local schools and repair their instruments. Here are their stories.

Krista Pack, International Teaching Scholar | BM Education Flute ’17

As a May 2017 graduate of the School of Music at George Mason University, I was extremely privileged to have been selected to participate in the first International Scholars Teaching program in San Jose, Costa Rica this summer. Costa Rica is a geographically diverse and beautiful country with rainforests, mountains, oceans, and volcanoes. The Mason International Teaching Scholars had the privilege of seeing much of the land by driving through the countryside, visiting the beach, and observing wildlife. The Costa Rican people reflect the beauty of their land with their giving, hospitable hearts. Every single school we went to, we were offered food and coffee, along with requests for selfies and the offer to return anytime.

At several locations, our group was able to perform both for and with students and professional musicians. Our performances were consistently received with specific, positive feedback and enthusiasm. I participated in a masterclass at the Costa Rican conservatory, Instituto Nacional de la Musica, given by the renowned flutist, Gabriel Goni-Dondi. At one particular SINEM school, we were able to sit with the student orchestra and perform a joint concert, with both Mason students and professors conducting! Additionally, our group was able to rehearse with the National Band of Costa Rica–Bando de Conciertos de San Jose, which professor, Mark Camphouse, directed.

As an education major, I was spoiled with the opportunity to observe so many different versions of music education in Costa Rica. At the Instituto Nacional de la Musica, I was able to interact with the college students and learn more about their flute choir and their overall music program. We were able to observe a public elementary school where students who interact with our local Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia, performed for us and excitedly demonstrated an instrument they invented and created–even offering for us to travel back home with it! We went to an arts school, Conservatorio Castella, where music, dance, and art are emphasized. The students were enthusiastic about their music and were ecstatic about having our team from Mason there with them. After our performance of a woodwind quartet and a flute duet, they made us feel like celebrities, even asking us to teach them an extended flute technique. We visited four separate SINEM schools where we saw students arrive after school to take private lessons and then join together for large ensemble rehearsals. At the various SINEM schools, we met directors and instrumental teachers who were passionate about creating a positive social and musical environment to protect students from negative after-school activities. At one SINEM location, I was sitting next to a student flute player during rehearsal who did not speak any English. During the break, he pointed to a solo piece he was working on, requesting that I play it for him. I played it for him, which began our mini-flute lesson between one non-English speaker and one non-Spanish speaker, creating a new friendship and demonstrating the connectivity of music between two people.

Time and time again, I saw students performing the same movie scores and classical repertoire that students perform here in the states.  With each school we went to, music made the world feel a little bit smaller. I am by no means one to claim music as a “universal language” because I know that there are different “languages”, styles, and cultural uses for music. However, after having seen some of the music education systems in Costa Rica, I am more heavily convinced of the community nature of music. I believe that in order for music to achieve its fullest potential in its most beautiful form, we have to embrace its use as a form of community. In Costa Rica, I saw how easy it is to become friends with someone simply because of the mutual knowledge, understanding, and love of classical music. I have experienced firsthand how music can build trust, respect, and even friendships, while crossing over cultural and language barriers. As I set out from Mason with my music education degree, I hope to continue to use music as a means to create and build relationships with people across the globe and to help others discover the power of music through community using music education.

Lisa Eckstein, International Teaching Scholar | DMA Conducting Candidate

On teaching and learning, Leonard Bernstein said, “You’ll see that they are interchangeable words. Basically, deep down, they mean the same thing. So when I teach, I learn, and when I learn, I teach.” This is why I wanted to be a part of the 2017 Costa Rica International Teaching Scholars Program
through George Mason University and the Potomac Arts Academy. I knew that being a part of this program would allow me to teach, learn, and share ideas about the meaning of music with people in Costa Rica. I was not disappointed. My life was enriched through my experiences.

Before traveling, I learned that there is no military in Costa Rica. The country has an agreement that the USA military will come to its aid if needed. This allows for the Costa Rican government to fund other programs like green initiatives. Costa Rica is a small developing country but is a leader in green energy initiatives. Not having to worry about funding an expensive military also allows the country to fund arts education programs. Music education opportunities for elementary through high school aged students exist in government funded afternoon and evening music schools including the national program, Sistema Nacional de Educacion Musical (SINEM). The President of Costa Rica allocates money to the different ministries within the government, and the Ministry of Culture allocates money to fund SINEM schools. These schools were inspired by the El Sistema program in Venezuela. Because SINEM is a national program, it is highly visible. SINEM provides music instruments free of charge to all students! It is the responsibility of each SINEM school director to have their own vision for leadership and direction. Of the four SINEM schools I visited, most had private or small group instrumental lessons and ensemble classes where the International Teaching Scholars were able to jump in and teach private or small group lessons and play in the ensembles. A few schools offer other music classes but I did not see them. Although the SINEM program is generally doing great work, I believe students would benefit even more if the program had a unified curriculum and learning goals for every school.

Conservatorio de Castella is a public school similar in some ways to our arts magnet schools here in the US. The student population is about 1,100 (this number includes elementary through high school ages). Students receive education in the core subjects in the morning. After lunch and until about 4pm, the curriculum is all arts based including dance, music, and art classes. I visited this school two consecutive days. On the first day, I was proud to watch Jenna and Jason Day from Day Violins take over the music instrument storage room called the “Instrument Bodega.” They shared their talents by doing a LOT of string instrument cleaning and repairs and even taught some of the music teachers how to do maintenance and repairs. They worked hard all day and I couldn’t believe how much they got accomplished! It was amazing to watch. I was able to contribute just a little bit: I cleaned two bassoons and made the joints on one bassoon better. Read more.

Prof. John Kilkenny, Director of Percussion

Nearly three years ago I visited Costa Rica for the first time, taking a group of Mason percussionists to perform and teach at the Central Conservatory of Music in San Jose. During that visit I first learned in detail about a program called SINEM. This system for music education developed by the Ministry of Culture for the country of Costa Rica is a fascinating experiment in the use of music as a vehicle for community development and personal growth. I was determined after this first interaction to bring both my colleagues and my students back to Costa Rica to perform, teach and learn more about the program.

Nearly three years and multiple visits later, we accomplished a great thing. Through our partnership with the Potomac Arts Academy and engagement with the Costa Rican embassy and Day Violin shop, we shipped 55 refurbished instruments, repaired another 50, and brought musical performances and educational programs to hundreds of students across Costa Rica. Our students learned about the mission of SINEM, saw firsthand the benefit of the program, the challenges of implementation, and the unique place that classical music holds in the lives of young people in Costa Rica. They were able to collaborate with student musicians from the National Institute of Music, perform side-by-side with professionals in the National Concert Band of San Jose, and present their own concerts.

This program would not have been possible without the generous support of many friends, including JP Phaup, Jason and Jenna Day, and the faculty leadership of the School of Music and the Potomac Arts Academy. I am proud to have conceived the program and honored to see it come to life.

Libby Curtis, Director of Potomac Arts Academy

We are all so proud of our International Teaching Scholars and the exemplary work they did in sharing their talents, smiles, and love of music with all the wonderful Costa Rican students, musicians from the Banda Conciertos de San Jose, and everyone else they encountered during this exciting and rewarding adventure. They went into each situation with enthusiasm and open arms, making lifelong friends and meaningful connections through music.

There were so many extraordinary moments, but I must make a special shout-out to Potomac Arts Academy Board Member Jenna Day and her husband Jason, founders and owners of Day Violins. They joined us for several days and volunteered their service, providing an experience that was beyond what any of us could have imagined or hoped for. They arrived, along with our own Teaching Artist Faculty Member – Claire Allen, at Conservatorio de Castella (a wonderful arts magnet school for children) lugging cases of repair tools, clamps, strings, tailpieces, bridges and so much more, and went to work with expertise, joyful exuberance, and lightening force speed.  Clearing the instrument storage shelves of a huge but unusable inventory of broken and dusty violins, violas, and cellos they went to work and in less than two days repaired, polished and transformed 45 instruments into “almost new” condition – enough for a new full orchestra for Castella! It was truly a Herculean effort and we couldn’t be more grateful to them. The excitement and appreciation from the students, staff and administration from Castella was overwhelming!

Those 45 instruments, along with the 50 we shipped down from our Instruments in the Attic Donation Program (which will be used in various outreach locations), means almost 100 more Costa Rican children can now experience the joy if music!  It was an extraordinary two weeks!

Prof. Mark Camphouse, Conducted the Concert Band of San Jose

I cannot recall having a more musically and personally satisfying guest conducting engagement than the one I recently experienced with Costa Rica’s premiere Banda de Conciertos de San Jose at the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.  It was a great honor to be invited to lead such a first-rate professional  ensemble in rehearsals and performance.  Their musical excellence, personal warmth and spirit of cooperation was extraordinary.  It was a special joy to witness our six George Mason University School of Music International Teaching Scholars playing along side so beautifully with the professionals. Mason students distinguished themselves not only through their performance abilities with the professionals but also in numerous in-school chamber music performances and teaching opportunities with Costa Rican school children over the two-week period. The organizational and coordinative contributions made by Potomac Arts Academy Executive Director Elizabeth Curtis and School of Music Professor John Kilkenny were exemplary and provided a truly memorable artistic, educational, and culturally enriching experience for all.