Last year my family had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Panama. The main purpose of our visit was to feed the passion of our son Henry, an avid birder. Every few months, Henry convincingly pleads his case to travel to great birding destinations near and far. Sometimes he wins the battle. Even when Henry doesn’t win, he finds a way to make any trip into a birding trip.
Prior to our departure for Panama, my husband Dave Griffin (CSO French horn player) and I brainstormed ways to make this trip more meaningful for our family. How could we soak up the culture of this fantastic country while at the same time teach our children about giving back? The answer was right in front of our eyes: perform a family concert at an orphanage in Panama City.
We purposefully planned our concert for our first day on the road, hoping to avoid the inevitable instrument neglect that sets in while on vacation. After a morning spent watching the slow motion ballet of ships moving through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, we were picked up by a driver sent from the orphanage.
Several Catholic sisters greeted our family at the entrance to “Hogar San Jose de Malambo,” a huge compound of small buildings perched on an urban tropical hillside. The sisters led us into a multipurpose room where we set up the supplies brought from home: my clarinet, Dave’s horn, Henry’s trumpet, several music stands, and a bluetooth Bose speaker for playing our Music Minus One accompaniment.
Seventy-five children filed into the sweltering room and sat in little chairs with our six-year-old daughter Pearl bravely sitting in their midst. With rapt attention their beautiful brown faces watched our performance of dixieland, ragtime, folk, and classical music. One of the orphanage workers served as translator between us, the children, and the good sisters. Eager volunteers held up Dave’s 10-foot garden-hose horn and squealed with delight when he tooted “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Following the concert we gave gifts of toys and candy to the children and presented a donation to the orphanage.
A teen worker guided our family through the orphanage compound: dozens of simple huts that housed specific ages of children, each hut with its own resident nanny. Some huts were dedicated to special needs children in wheelchairs or on crutches. Another boarded those who were HIV positive. As we walked past, some children shyly waved. Others daringly shouted out a word or two.
“Hola!” “Clarinete!” “Trompeta!”
This was the moment for which we had waited--as a simple family of four, we had connected cross-culturally through the amazing power of music.