I will go into some detail because I believe that the unusual happenings are in the details. I need to give you a little background. You may already know that while growing up, I was a member of the now well-known Junior String Project in Austin. In an assembly I attended at my elementary school, professors of music at the University of Texas demonstrated each instrument and informed us that we could take classes in any of those instruments, free of charge, and the instruments would be provided. After hearing each instrument, I knew I wanted to play the violin, but also was very curious about the beautiful sound of the viola, played by a simply gorgeous man with dark hair, dark eyes, and a sophisticated countenance that even I at that young age of ten, could appreciate. I took the papers home to show mother and we marked the calendar to attend the registration event on the campus of UT.
When the day arrived I was shunted into the group of eager violin hopefuls. There were many of us. Then, that handsome viola professor, Donald B. Wright (the man in this post’s photo-collage) pointed to me and several others in the group, asking us to follow him. My first crush. I followed him, of course. When we were settled in his studio, he proceeded to play a low, sonorous, rich piece on the viola and asked if we’d be interested in trying the viola instead of the violin. I was in love, totally enchanted, and that moment was the beginning of my many years as a violist.
The String Project was formed as a shared initiative of the Junior League of Austin and the School of Music at UT. (Bravo! to the Junior League, who amazed me then and continued to amaze me as an adult, when I was a member of their organization for 14 years, serving as a project chairman for many of those years, experiencing firsthand their impressive abilities to make great things happen in a community).
The String Project at UT Austin was and still is a brilliant program designed to allow graduate and undergraduate music majors at the university the opportunity to gain hands-on teaching experience through a guided, supervised program. This program was dedicated to (this is the best part) increasing the number of school-aged children learning to play stringed instruments. The fact that instruments and classes were provided without cost opened the doors of music to hundreds of children and it is still opening doors today.
I was a member of the string project from the age of 10 until I graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School. I started out in a group class taught by an undergraduate viola major, and within three months I was chosen by Donald Wright to receive private lessons from him. What an honor that was. I will never forget my classes in his studio and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have studied under him for many years.
So, my dream since then has been that one day I could provide the same experience for a child or for children who otherwise would not have the opportunity. When I entered my first Peace Corps site (Yataity) this past August, it was with the hope of finding funds to purchase 8 to 10 instruments so I could teach violin and viola. Once the word was out in that community, I had many youngsters and their parents who were interested. I explored the various grant opportunities and discussed with my grown children the other potential options for obtaining instruments. In the meantime, as you know, a set of unfortunate security events occurred that led to my being removed from that site and placed in San Bernardino, which leads me to my good news.
Typically, once in your new site you are taken by a contact to be presented to the Intendente (mayor) and his staff. Peace Corps volunteers find themselves working often with the municipality on their various projects. My assigned contact told me it would be impossible for me to get in to see the Intendente, and she appeared to be unwilling to try. My host family, who seem to make all things possible, made the appointment. Nuni, the matriarch of the family, made a call. Within moments, the appointment was set for the next morning and I was welcomed heartily into the Intendente’s office! I prepared myself with my best spanish to introduce myself, learn more about SanBer and their needs, and to give him a little information about my potential projects I could offer.
Ramón Zubizarreta Zaputovich is a large, elegant man with a big smile, who immediately stood, shook my hand with both of his and offered me a seat in his handsome office. I noticed that there was something about him that exuded kindness and understanding. He spoke slowly, I spoke slowly, and we were able to communicate beautifully.
As I began to talk about potential projects, he interjected. There was some sort of excitement in the air in that room. He leaned forward and told me he was aware that I’m a violinist and that I have experience in developing organizations and events. I smiled, nodded yes, and he said he had something to show me at Casa Hassler, the Cultural Center. He then placed a call to the director there, told them to expect me and to prepare to show me “the instruments.” What? The instruments? I learned from him that SanBer had been planning to form a music conservatory but had no one who could help to organize the details, pulling together the location, contracts for professors, preparing the instruments, the marketing, procuring potential students, planning the schedules. Hmmm. What’s happening here! I could barely contain myself. He could see that, gave me a huge, knowing smile, we shook hands and I hurried out of his office to see these instruments he referred to.
I walked only a few blocks down the cobblestone street and into Casa Hassler, a beautiful historic home which serves as the office of tourism, a visitor center, a full library, a computer/printer center, and a lovely museum full of artifacts telling of San Bernardino’s history. I met with Mami Villanueva who has now become a close friend. She and her staff had pulled out all the instruments which had been given to SanBer by the Cabildo of Paraguay. I wanted to sing and dance about the room but I decided at this first meeting with these folks, I should behave myself.
Look at this list!
10 violins, five are full size and five are ¾ size for the smaller children
1 string bass
All are new, all are in great condition, all are in new cases.
So, that’s the exciting good news and it continues to be a great experience. Now, over the past six weeks, I have been working fervently on the details to get the conservatory underway. My work, as much as possible, includes a Paraguayan counterpart, so that the project will be sustainable. When I return to the states, it is hoped that the local people will have been so well-equipped and empowered that they can run the project independent of outside assistance. The staff at Casa Hassler and I are together every step of the way as we work together and plan.
We’ve researched and determined the best location for the conservatory, choosing Casa Büttner, the great old three-story building that sits in the middle of town, facing the grand Peatonal, our walkway running through town, lined with restaurants, pubs and stores. The Intendente sent me, along with Casa Hassler’s director, Mami Villanueva, by his car and driver to meet with Director Santander of the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Asunción, where we discussed the potential of sending us on a weekly basis professional professors of music. It was a successful meeting and we are working together towards this common goal; however, there are challenges with them, so I am researching other avenues for obtaining professors as fallback options.
I’ve met with Wolfram, our piano professor who is well-liked and has many students. (I teach him violin every Tuesday night in exchange for his help with this project.) I’ve met with our guitar professor who wants to gain more students and our wind instrument professor, who will begin teaching as many wind instrument classes as there are instruments and interested students. The city architect has drawn up plans for the required renovation and the details for the shelving needed to hold the instruments. We have provided the Intendente with a budget and a request for furnishings, and for funds to purchase sets of strings, a few new bows, our sheetmusic, and other supplies.
Soon, we will have an assembly at both the elementary school and the high school, and it will be fashioned after the assembly I attended way back when I was ten years old! (Luckily, I’ve received from the String Project folks in Austin lots of great forms and information and have feverishly translated them for our use!) After the assembly, the children will have information to give their parents and a date set for them to attend the registration and fitting for the instrument they choose. (I wonder if I will need to pull aside some of them to more fully demonstrate the luscious sound of the viola, to entice them?) Schedules will be discussed and planned with each professor and we will begin!
This is a happy time, sometimes fraught with frustration and delays, confusion, lack of information, language challenges, but mostly I can say that it’s an absolute joy to be doing this project, and I simply cannot keep from grinning about it.
The law that benefits Paraguay’s children: “Ley 858/96 y en el Decreto Nro. 20066/98 que Reglamenta la Enseñanza Musical en la Republica del Paraguay, teniendo por sujeto principal del proceso de aprendizaje en todos los ambits musicales”
– which means that the law “regulates Music Education in the Republic of Paraguay, having as its main subject the learning process in all musical scopes.” Excellent law, the likes of which, if utilized, can change a nation, in my opinion.