When 22 Central faculty members traveled to Merida, Mexico, over winter break for a faculty workshop, they took with them some unusual luggage. For their second carry-on, each faculty member carried a used—but immaculately restored—musical instrument or accessories like sheet music, drumsticks and reeds.
The instruments were donated by campus and community members in Pella, to be donated to the Yucatan Youth Music Program based in Merida. The program—which includes choirs, bands and orchestras—provides music instruction and performance opportunities to underprivileged students from the Yucatan. Although it’s only been in existence for three years, more than 400 students are already involved.
Central’s relationship with the program began last January, when the Jazz Band, directed by associate professor of music Gabriel Espinosa, and the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, directed by assistant professor of music Mitch Lutch, traveled to Merida for their annual tour. Kids from the program traveled hours to listen to the ensembles.
“When it started raining we wondered if anybody would come,” said Lutch. “Then all these people started coming in, all these students who traveled from up to two hours away to attend. They looked really excited to hear us perform. One of our students asked Gabriel how often they get to hear music like this. He said, ‘They’ve never heard anything like this.’”
Throughout the night, the Yucatanean students were on the edge of their seats. Their passion touched Lutch’s heart. At the end, he invited a few kids onstage to conduct the ensemble. Afterwards, Central students showed Yucatanean ones how to use their instruments.
Lutch connected with the program’s director, Jose Luis Chan Sabido, who invited him back to Merida in March to work with the students. He spent a day teaching them a John Williams medley, but when he dismissed the group, no one moved. “Can we play it one more time?” a student asked.
Again, Lutch was touched by their love of music, their desire to keep playing at the end of a long day. He also learned that the Yucatan Youth Music Program relied entirely on donations, since the kids couldn’t afford their own instruments. “Part of all of Central’s work with community partners is based on what the communities need and what they are interested in,” says Val Grimsley, director of the Central College Abroad program in Merida.
When Lutch returned to Pella, he was determined to collect instruments so that more students could get the chance to play. By January 2012, 18 instruments had been donated, along with a variety of reeds, strings, mouthpieces, drumsticks, instrument books and other accessories. Faculty attending the workshop in Merida transported the donated instruments to save on shipping costs.
While they were there, faculty members got the chance to attend a performance by the youth orchestra. “There was hardly a dry eye among the faculty and others during the presentation of instruments,” says Lyn Isaacson, associate dean of global education. “What makes this especially meaningful is the depth of the relationship that has been established between the college and this musical organization. The secretary of cultural affairs for the state of Yucatan spoke at the concert and compared this relationship to a tree, a sacred Mayan symbol of connectedness.”
Grimsley hopes the relationship with the Yucatan Youth Orchestra Program will develop into a full-fledged partnership. In the future, Central students studying abroad in Merida may do service-learning work with the program.”
It’s a way that students from different countries can connect without the language barrier,” says Grimsley. “Even if they don’t speak each other’s language, they can find common ground in music.”
Mitch Lutch is still collecting instruments for the program. Particularly needed are oboes, bassoons, trombones, tubas and percussion instruments, though other instrument donations are equally appreciated. Please contact Lutch if you would like to donate.