By Margaret Winter
Something joyful is happening at the Dolores J. Torres public school on Calle Luis Cordero at Juan Jaramillo: a student band has been created for kids who have had virtually no hope until now of getting a musical education.
The school launched the project a few months ago in collaboration with three local musicians, a native Cuencano and expats from Canada and the U.S. The project, dubbed by the school “La musica ayuda a los niños (Music Helps Kids), has already begun to transform the students’ lives.
The inspiration for the project comes from Canadian Sarita Flautista. She adopted that handle as her professional name when she moved to Cuenca less than a year ago, after a long career as music teacher, performer, and promoter. Since then she has been playing flute at the Jazz Society Café, El Jardin restaurant in Hotel Victoria, and other venues in the historic center.
A few months ago, eager to make a contribution to her new community not just performing but also teaching music to kids, Sarita visited the Dolores J. Torres school and offered its director, Blanca Romo, her services as a volunteer in the school’s music program. Romo explained that, unfortunately, the school’s music program barely existed; practically the only instruments available were a few battered bugles, drums and lyres.
Sarita proposed that she collaborate with the school to develop a band program. Romo enthusiastically agreed, offering the full support of the school administration, including the help of the school’s dynamic assistant director, Piedad Vintimillia.
The first order of business was to figure out a way to acquire musical instruments. Sarita kicked in some seed-money from her own savings, set to work cajoling donations of used instruments and funds from Canadian and American friends, and started planning a fund-raising event in Cuenca.
With some of the first money Sarita raised from Canada, she visited a music store in El Centro to shop for trumpets. There she met trumpeter Juan Torres, a native of Cuenca, who plays professionally in a mariachi band. Juan agreed to help Sarita organize the band and serve as trumpet teacher. Torres believes that band teaches kids “art, persistence, solidarity, and empathy.”
Jeff Jones, a percussionist who moved to Cuenca from North Carolina and who performs locally with Paco’s Blues Band, agreed to join the project as drum teacher.
The three musicians are now working with nearly forty students, age ten to twelve, to develop a band of trumpets, drums, and lyres. Jeff Jones explains that they aim to have the students achieve basic mastery of their instruments and learn to read musical scores within a year.
Meanwhile, says Sarita, they hope to recruit one of the Cuencano police bands to play a Christmas concert at the school, in which the student players can participate as their first performance.
Director Romo has high hopes for the band. “The great majority of our students come from very poor working families, with parents obliged to be away from home from early morning to late at night. The band project not only gives these kids their first chance to learn music, it also develops their intellect and their sense of self-discipline and self-worth. It opens up their world in so many ways.
Assistant Director Vintimillia concurs. “We’re committed to providing our students with opportunities to enlarge their lives. Without community support, we just wouldn’t have resources for projects like the band, and we know that projects like this could change these kids’ destinies.”
During a recent band practice session, groups of students who had not been selected for the band crowded around the classroom doorway where Sarita, Juan and Jeff were giving instruction. The children were shyly pleading – mostly with their eyes — to join the group. Sarita had to explain that for now, at least, there simply aren’t enough musical instruments or instructors to include all the children who want to join.
With the continuing support of the community, however, there’s hope that more of those kids will be able to join the band in 2018.
Sarita recently organized a benefit for the school band under the auspices of Restaurant Lirón Lirón. The musicians who contributed their talent included Paco’s Blues Band, singer-guitarist Luis Ullauri, singer Cindy Benson, and Grupo Añoranzas — a band composed entirely of doctors from Hospital Santa Inés. The event drew a full house, and raised enough money to purchase seven more trumpets, musical scores, drumsticks, and lyres. With the additional instruments, seven more students were able to join the band.
The group’s next goal is to acquire more trumpets, plus trombones to provide the bass notes essential to rounding out the ensemble’s sound.
The Dolores J. Torres school band project is seeking donations of funds and used instruments, as well as a volunteer trombone teacher. Contact Sarita Flautista, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are interested in supporting the project.
Margaret Winter is a constitutional lawyer. Among the many landmark cases she has won are a due process case before the U.S Supreme Court, a challenge to conditions on Mississippi’s death row, and a challenge to the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO operations against Viet Nam era antiwar groups.