Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina
Editor’s note: Jane Spelce served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, South America, from May 2013 to May 2015. She served in two communities, Yataity and San Bernardino. Prior to joining the Peace Corps, Jane worked in non-profit development. A native Texan, Jane recently moved to Charleston, to James Island, to be closer to her children and new grandbaby.
Article By Jane Spelce, Special to the Post and Courier
Just recently I returned from a two-year journey into another culture faraway. There are many things that touched my heart and soul during that journey that I had not anticipated.
Two years ago at age 62, as I made ready for the move to Paraguay, I felt confident that I understood and knew what life would be like as a Peace Corps volunteer. Little did I know, I’d return home at the end with a heart so full of love for a group of people.
I’m describing to you one of the most meaningful parts of my two-year service in the Peace Corps, the Conservatory Project.
Here’s the background: While growing up in Austin, Texas, in the 1950s and ’60s, I was a member of the well-known Junior String Project. In an assembly at my elementary school, professors of music at the University of Texas had 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.
The viola was played by a simply gorgeous man with dark hair, dark eyes and a sophisticated countenance that even I, at that young age of 10, could appreciate. I took the papers home to show mother and we marked the calendar to attend the registration.
When the day arrived, I was shunted into the group of eager hopefuls. Then, the handsome viola professor, Donald B. Wright, pointed to me and several others in the group, asking us to follow him. My first crush. I followed, of course.
When we were settled in his small studio lined wall-to-wall with mahogany shelves that were filled with music books, he proceeded to play a low, sonorous, rich piece on the viola. 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 the University of Texas at Austin, dedicated to increasing the number of school-age children learning to play stringed instruments.
So, waiting in the back of my mind has been the desire to one day provide the same experience for a child or for children who otherwise would not have the opportunity.
I began my service in Paraguay, making myself at home in my new site, San Bernardino, a small resort town situated near Lake Ypacarai, several hours down the road from the capital city of Asuncion.
I was presented to the Intendente (mayor), thanks to a call by my host, Nunila, the matriarch of the family. The intendente was a large, elegant white-haired man dressed in linen shirt and slacks. With a big smile, he immediately stood with an air of formality so often seen in Paraguay, shook my hand with both of his, nodded and offered me a seat in his handsome office. After a little while, he leaned forward and told me he was aware that I’m a musician and that I also had worked in the states in developing organizations and events.
I smiled, nodded yes, and he said with a grin that he had something to show me at the Cultural Center. Placing a call to the director there, he told them to expect me and to prepare to show me “all the instruments.”
What did he say? The instruments? I leaned over to hear more, and learned from him that San Bernardino 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, marketing, planning the schedules.
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.
I walked a few blocks down the cobblestone street and into a beautiful historic home that serves as the office of tourism, a visitor center, the library, a computer/printer center, and a lovely museum full of artifacts telling of San Bernardino’s history. I met with Mami, the director, who has now become a close friend.
She and her staff had pulled out all the instruments which had been given to the community by the Cabildo, the Cultural Center of the Republic of Paraguay. I wanted to sing and dance around the room but I decided at this first meeting with these folks, I should behave myself.
Look at this list of instruments they had stored in closets, lying dormant and dusty, just waiting for the hands of hopeful students to begin playing them. There were 10 violins (five full-size and five 3/4-size for the smaller children, four violas, two violincellos and one string bass, along with a high-quality full-size keyboard.
What’s more, there were 18 guitars, six clarinets, three flutes, five trumpets and two saxophones. All new, all in great condition.
Over the next six weeks, I worked on the details to get the conservatory underway. As much as possible, we needed to include a Paraguayan counterpart, so the project could be sustained once my service ended. We held an assembly at each of the eight area elementary schools and high schools, fashioned after the assembly I attended more than 50 years ago. Many students raised their hands to show interest in taking lessons, but time would tell us how many would show up to register. Paraguayans are sometimes shy, reserved, and hesitant, so I hoped the parents would feel encouraged to come forth with children, with interest.
Many of our plans faced detours and potholes, but, luckily, we already had an amazingly talented guitarist who attracted 80-100 students whom he taught in groups of 18 at a time, using the guitars we had available. I taught violin in the same manner, teaching groups of five per hour, on the instruments we had. We had an accomplished professor already in place who taught piano.
That fabulous piano professor and his wife, Wolfram and Hanna, a German couple who have lived in the community for the past 25 years, would be the most influential in helping me through the process. Wolfram was very well-liked, had many students and would be a mainstay in the conservatory for the years to come. I taught him violin every Tuesday night in exchange for his help with the project. His knowledge of the community and the politics of the municipality were invaluable, helping us to move forward with fewer obstructions.
So, we began, and the Cultural Center was filled each day with music. At any given moment, there were elementary school-age children tuning their guitars in the garden with their professor, while Professor Wolfram taught piano inside. My violinists and I would be on the outdoor stage that held an enormous, wall-size mirror as the backdrop, a perfect setting for training students in proper stance and positioning of their instrument.
On many days, the temperature in Paraguay rises to well into the 100s, so teaching outdoors to take in the breeze was typically the way to go. Cars filled with interested well-wishers would honk their horns and wave as they passed. No wonder Paraguay is known as the happiest nation in the world.
First of the week, I would teach group violin classes with the girls: Naty, Sofia, Jhoanna, Maribel, Solange and Pacita.
Then would come violinists, Nico, Cristhian, Ivan, and Luciano, along with my only cello student, Naruel, a persistent 15-year-old who had insisted I could teach him cello. Later in the week, were the private classes.
They learned so quickly that it took me by surprise. In a matter of just a few weeks they went from learning how to tune and hold their instruments to pulling out one strong, pure note after the other from their violins, by use of proper bowing and fingering.
Within just a month, that little orchestra was performing several simple pieces together, and solo pieces were introduced. Their diligence and desire was amazing. On any given evening I would hear an applause at the front gate of my home, (the customary form of announcing oneself at someone’s home) and there would stand one of my precious students with instrument strapped to their back, giving me the traditional kiss on both cheeks as a salutation and asking if I might go over their pieces with them. Of course I would. It puts a lump in my throat today, just thinking about it.
The sensitive sweetness of the Paraguayan people would take me by surprise and I realized the need to slow down and take the time to honor that. I explained the significance behind each piece I had chosen especially for them. Those were very special and endearing moments.
Wolfram agreed to accompany us on our group pieces as well as the solos. He is such a wise, talented individual. He accompanied each piece in such a way that it enhanced each performer. I remember how, after the orchestra had practiced for several weeks without accompaniment, the day came when my students heard themselves play their lilting melodies for the first time with Wolfram’s full, rich piano accompaniment. We all simultaneously began to be tearful, smiling at each other with excitement and joy at how good it sounded. It was quite an emotional and satisfying moment for us all.
We decided the concert would be held in the gardens of my host family just a few days before Christmas. Parents and family of each student were invited, as well as friends and members of the community.
Since my fellow Peace Corps buddies living in other sites were homesick for their families during the holidays, they were invited to come celebrate with us.
My grown children, David, Bess and Lee, came to Paraguay, too. It was a magical night under the twinkle lights covering the arbor where the students performed. The audience sat in chairs scattered throughout the yard, each with a printed program and a candle in hand, which was lit as we sang “Noche de Paz” (“Silent Night”) to the music of that tiny string orchestra.
During my stay in Paraguay, I had stuck a note to my bulletin board that I liked to read regularly. It’s a quote by former President John F. Kennedy, who founded the Peace Corps:
“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose — and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
I left Paraguay knowing that when hearts and souls meet together, great things happen, enhancing every situation, every project, every endeavor, every accomplishment and every life. Music, as with any art, can reach those places inside us, influencing us in more ways than we know, improving the quality of our own life and of those around us. That little orchestra taught me the value of engagement, friendship, and bonding relationships.