Visiting Cuba has always held a special fascination for me, with its fusion of Afro-Cuban and Spanish music, dance, art, not to mention the old cars and cuisine. My desire to experience the culture was in conflict with the oppressive political system pervading this country. I found a way to accomplish one and get past the other.
All visits to Cuba must have a designated purpose and traditional tourism as we know it is not allowed. Extensive research led me to David Lee, owner/founder of a company called Cultural Cuba, which provided all licenses and necessary state department approvals. This would not only allow us to visit Cuba, but more importantly, provide us with the opportunity to "give back" and make a difference in a small, but meaningful way. We explored opportunities that would apply to our interests, and David suggested two organizations that needed help: the "Alejandro Garcia Caturla" Elementary Music Conservatory and the “Habana Compas Dance Project.” This mission consumed my family for the next couple of months. We asked Cultural Cuba for a "wish list" so we could focus our aid and be sure that we were actually bringing items that were desperately needed.
About 2 weeks before our departure, I casually mentioned it to a few friends, and suddenly, I was flooded with an outpouring of generosity from my colleagues who donated strings for violin, viola, cello, and bass, not to mention double reeds. These items were all on the wish list. We packed a large suitcase devoted entirely to this mission of bringing aid to the music conservatory and local dance school. It contained: an oboe, a piccolo, oboe/ bassoon reeds, methods books, 15 trumpet, French horn, and trombone mouthpieces, multiple violin, viola, cello, and bass strings, and 6 pairs of assorted xylophone mallets.
Although the music conservatory was officially closed for winter break, a group of students was organized to play a concert for us. They were dressed in their finest clothes and played with an intense and passionate enthusiasm, at a high level for their age. The experience was emotionally overwhelming. The director of the conservatory kept telling her staff that our coming was like "Christmas" and they could not believe how much we were giving them. When we asked what kind of piccolo they currently had (as we thought ours would be some kind of upgrade), we were told that they had none! Ours would be the first, which is why it was on the wish list. Also, we learned that they were functioning with 1 pair of xylophone mallets for the entire school, which currently has 387 students in it.
Cuba has an economic system in crisis and a political system that cannot support the arts. So many things we take for granted are not enjoyed by Cubans. Resources for the basics in music education such as rosin, valve oil, and cork grease, are scarce. It is typical to find 1 cake of rosin for every 5 students, wire for substitute strings and a piano that is out of tune. They cannot receive packages and everything is regulated, including the internet. During our visit, a government official was on hand, taking copious notes, listening to everything we said, and cataloging every item.
This particular conservatory is 1 of 4 in Cuba. Currently, there are 387 students from Havana, ages 8-14, accepted by audition. They have lessons, rehearsals, and all subjects such as math, chemistry, Spanish, and English, plus a music curriculum. Instruments are loaned to the students from the school, but if repairs are needed, they cannot be done unless the professors are able to assist. Tuition is free and the government provides all materials. Two hundred teachers supervise a tough schedule with a combination of personalized, small, and large group instruction. Upon completion of the conservatory curriculum, the 14- year- olds must take an exam on their instrument, music appreciation, and solfeggio. If they do not pass, they have two more chances to retake the exam until age 17. One of the graduates of the conservatory, Sheila, age 23, currently plays piccolo for the National Cuban Symphony and has been awarded a full scholarship to the Boston Berklee College of Music.
Totally overwhelmed by the sincerity and great appreciation of the music school students and director, we got in the van and proceeded to the dance school. Serving 400 students, ages 5-18, they offer salsa, flamenco, ballet, and Afrocuban dance. Students attend regular school in the morning and learn dance/percussion from 5-9pm. They use wood and leather chairs as instruments, as well as hand carved conga drums. Also visiting was Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist, who was traveling with faculty from Harvard. Before the performance, we unpacked our gifts: 10 pairs of drumsticks, 20 pairs of dance tights, and 11 pairs of dance sneakers. There were all kinds of audible "oohs and aahs" as they immediately opened packages and used them in the performance for us that afternoon.
I would like to personally thank all my colleagues who contributed their support, encouragement, and materials. Aside from the moment I was offered a position in our orchestra, this experience has been one of the most emotional of my entire career. To make a difference in the lives of young musicians is gratifying and heartwarming and was clearly the highlight of our trip.