Never Wake A Sleeping Sea Lion

Kayla Mernoff stops by to let us in on her summer music volunteering in the Galapagos!

             Within minutes of arriving on the island of San Cristobal for my music volunteering program in the Galápagos, I had already seen a beach, a few sea lions, and probably got a little bit sunburnt. It was an incredible feeling, to say the least. At that point in time I didn’t know how quickly four weeks could go by, and how much of an impact this trip would have on my life.

I arrived at my host family’s house and was immediately greeted by my host parents who were waiting to help me carry my suitcases to my room and introduce me to the rest of the family. I learned pretty quickly that they spoke almost no English, and while this seemed slightly intimidating at first, I was excited to improve my Spanish. After a trip to the office and a tour around the town, I discovered that I would spend my time teaching beginning English, and then working with a teacher at the local music school. While I was not expecting to teach English, I was up for the challenge and excited for what lay ahead of me.

The first few days of work took a little adjustment, but I soon got into a routine. At the time there was one other volunteer working with me at both the office and the music school, and she showed me how everything was laid out and how she went about teaching. The group of five year olds I was working with in the English class liked to run around, climb on top of me, and pretty much do anything except do their work. Though they seemed very against productivity at first, I soon learned how to have fun and teach them the alphabet at the same time. As I do speak Spanish, the language barrier was not a huge issue, but I did learn that it is sometime difficult to understand little kids, no matter what language they are speaking.

At the music school we helped with the violin and beginner music classes, along with teaching private piano lessons. The kids were very interested in learning, and even though they were only between the ages of 3 and 6, I could tell that some of them will grow into talented musicians if they continue with their teacher, Alva. Teaching 3 year olds about the musical staff and treble clef was no easy task, but by the end of my four weeks, they even knew a few notes on the piano. My piano student also improved each week, even though he was always tired and I am not the best pianist, and this was definitely an encouraging feat for me. I was also given a chance to play trumpet (my primary instrument) at a local church, thanks to Alva! By the end of my trip I had two other volunteers working with me at the school, and we are now fluent in what I like to call “Spanish for musicians.” I connected so well with Alva that I am now working on a project to send her students more instruments, as they do not have very many. I look forward to keeping in contact with her and the students, and hope that I can provide them with the instruments that they need to teach more kids the joy of music.

As amazing as the opportunities to volunteer on the island were, I cannot leave out the incredible people that I met and places that I visited. Going into this I was unaware of how many different countries were represented by the volunteer staff. While I met volunteers from the United States, the majority of my friends were from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and even Australia! We met up most afternoons after work, and sometimes again after dinner. We took daily trips to nearby beaches, went snorkeling with sea turtles and sea lions, saw the Giant Tortoises, and even got to travel to two of the other islands to explore, swim, shop, and just spend time together. I’ve mentioned sea lions a few times now, so I should probably mention that they are EVERYWHERE. They lie on the benches, play in the sand, ad make a lot of noise. We were advised not to go near them, and I saw plenty of people try to pet them, unsuccessfully I might add. Beware of the Alpha Male! One of my favorite memories of this whole trip was taking pictures at sunset on one of the nearby beaches, Playa Mann. I was able to bring my trumpet, and take an incredible picture right next to the sea lions. That picture is surely the best representation of my trip.

            Overall, this was one incredible experience. The kids I taught all hugged me on my last day, and one of them even drew mea picture called “La Fiesta de Cumpleaños de Las Profes” (birthday party for the teachers). Between the kids, my host family, and all of the friends I made, I have people all over the world that I share these special memories with.

As much as learned on this trip about music, Spanish, and myself, I learned two major lessons that I will never forget: Glue and glitter do not mix with five year olds, and more importantly, never wake a sleeping sea lion.

 

 

On Running Away and Joining a Costa Rican Circus

emily-priceEmily Price is a senior studying Creative Writing with minors in Theatre and German at Arizona State University.  This summer she went on PAA’s Circus Arts (Theater) in Costa Rica program where she had the time of her life learning Spanish…and how to juggle.  She is currently a Performing Arts Abroad Ambassador at ASU.

I wanted to do something epic this summer. So, I told my parents I was going to run away and join the circus – in Costa Rica. They didn’t believe me.

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A random sloth I found while out walking around the University of Costa Rica

But I actually did. I hopped on a plane (well, three planes, because that was cheapest) and went to San José to start the Circus Arts Program offered by Performing Arts Abroad. I had never been anywhere like it. Coming from the Arizona desert, I was thrilled to be surrounded by such lush tropical trees. I remember my first evening there – after eating a delicious meal with my host family, I went out on the balcony and watched a black cat crawl across the rusty roof of an adorable house across the street, while the sun set and the very air seemed to teem with life. Then I made sure to let my parents know that I was in Costa Rica. They have since forgiven me.

I had no knowledge of the Spanish language prior to my trip, other than what DuoLingo had taught me in the couple months before I left. So it was a good thing the first week of the program consisted of Spanish classes at the Costa Rican Language Academy, which were extremely helpful, as well as held in the prettiest school ever.

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The courtyard at the Costa Rican Language Academy

After a week of classes in San José, I took a bus ride through a surreal landscape of mountains to the little city of San Isidro. How do I even describe San Isidro? Surrounded by foggy mountains on all sides, it is the most picturesque town with the friendliest people, bakeries on every corner, and butterflies wherever you look. I lived with another volunteer from the United States in the house of an adorable woman who gave us entirely too much food at every meal.

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San Isidro del General, Costa Rica

I spent three weeks in San Isidro, training and volunteering with the circus group, Circo FantazzTico, which helps the local youth gain confidence and reach their full potential through juggling, aerial silks, trapeze, fire-dancing, and acrobatics. There were other volunteers from around the world who each contributed their own talents to the group. Every day groups of volunteers went to different places in the area to train. My favourite place to go was to a home for girls, where the young, smiling girls just wanted to hold my hand or show me their plate-spinning skills. They were such sweethearts – a bit difficult to keep focused, but sweethearts nonetheless.

One of the insanely talented young men in the circus

One of the insanely talented young men in the circus

Eventually my Spanish was good enough to have actual conversations with the delightful people in the circus, provided they spoke slowly enough. I was learning how to juggle and how to climb silks as well, and I helped teach some theatre games and spot with acrobatics. I had never learned so much so quickly, nor had I ever had so much fun in my life. When we weren’t training, we volunteers had parties, went out dancing, watched fire-dancing shows, and one weekend we went to the nearby beach.

The magical little town of Buena Vista, one of the places we volunteered in

The magical little town of Buena Vista, one of the places we volunteered in

My experience with Circo FantazzTico and Performing Arts Abroad – and this is going to sound dramatic – changed the course of my life. I am now taking aerial classes twice a week, I can speak in another language, and I am much less introverted. I’m even considering returning there to volunteer for a year after I graduate, instead of going to Germany like I had originally planned. I just fell in love with it. In Costa Rica, I learned to just go with the flow. There was much confusion during my time there, with the language barrier and everything, but things always seemed to work out, and the people there have such positive attitudes. They greet you there with a kiss and a “pura vida.” I’ve never been so inspired anywhere else, and I’d recommend it for anyone else who has a love of travel, language, and the performing arts. The circus program in Costa Rica blended all of those passions of mine so perfectly, and I hope I get to return very soon.

An Invisible Impact: Music Volunteering and Social Change in Costa Rica

now - 1 copyMary Kate Mutze studies Music Education at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY Queens College.  She dreams of becoming a high school music teacher in her home borough – the Bronx.  She volunteered with PAA’s Music Volunteering in Costa Rica program.  (And was very excited about bringing home as much coffee as she could.)

I spent an incredible four weeks this summer teaching music to children living in impoverished areas of Costa Rica. It was a transformative teaching experience for me, and reshaped the way I think about music education, social and economic inequality, and the world. I packed big dreams in my luggage: the idea of positive social change through music education, and the knowledge that music has the power to bring hope to children in hopeless situations. But my dreams were sometimes clouded by the challenge of language barriers, a lack of resources, and spotty student attendance records due to the rainy season.

MK Teaching 3 copySome days, I felt amazing.  When my students shrieked out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on violin, in spite of the hairless bows, my limited Spanish and the noisy construction site we were using for a school, I felt like a pedagogical superhero.

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Magic can happen anywhere.

On other days, I struggled to see any musical progress, and I questioned whether I would even be in Costa Rica long enough to make a small impact on these students. MK Teaching 6 copy

When I returned to school this week for the last year of my music education program, a professor said something that hit home with me. “So much of what we do is invisible,” she said. Those words reminded me of a public school classroom in back in San Jose, Costa Rica and a group of girls with liras learning the song “Soy Tico” by rote. For two weeks, we sang and reviewed phrases over and over to perfect problems with syncopation and notes. Despite the mundane repetition, the girls remained cheerful and laughed with me as we sang parts of the song over and over.
MK Teaching 9We laughed at ourselves as we sang and danced and I taught them the
accented syncopations of the traditional Costa Rican folk song. Although seeing them practice during their lunch breaks in little duos or trios in the courtyard gave me a sense of accomplishment, I still questioned my impact. Realizing that an influx of music volunteers must be the norm in their lives, I doubted any of the girls would remember me. I consoled myself in knowing the girls were mine for a few short weeks this summer, and that our shared enthusiasm and love of rhythm and percussion had bonded us together, even if for just a short time.MK Teaching 2

As a music teacher, so much of what we do is invisible to the naked eye. We teach for the love of it – and because we know that music has the capacity to bring people of all backgrounds together. This summer, I experienced the joy of teaching and the small victories that resulted from my day-to-day interactions with these children. It was not until the final day that I realized the full impact of my volunteer experience. Two of the girls shyly handed me notes they had made for me – envelopes and all – and written in English. “Para Merry” (For Mary) they read. “I love you. Have a lot of yoga and takes coffee.” I cried when I read those notes.MK Teaching 10 copyMK Teaching 7 copy

I realized that I was hoping for a tangible sign that I made an impact in some way while I was there. Those notes were my “aha” moment. They brought home the impact these kids had on me. I will never forget the kids, and this experience. And those notes were packed alongside those big dreams that went back home with me in my luggage. They now have a special place on my desk and in my heart.MK Teaching 4 copy

Confidence to do Anything: Music Volunteering in Costa Rica

Bailey CookBailey Cook studies Vocal Music Education at Iowa State University.  This summer she volunteered on PAA’s Music Volunteering in Costa Rica program.

Before I left for Costa Rica, multiple people told me that the trip would be “life-changing”. I thought that was just a cheesy expression, but that’s exactly how I felt when I returned. Throughout the trip, I was able to build my confidence within myself and confidence with the language immensely and I now feel as though I can accomplish anything. IMG-20160724-WA0028I stayed with a loving and nice host family just outside of San Jose, and took Spanish classes for five hours a day during the first week. The language school I attended, Costa Rican Language Academy, was incredibly helpful as the employees went out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable. I was able to book weekend trips through the school and get a student discount. People from all over the world came to study at CRLA, so studying at the school was a unique experience as I befriended people from Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Dominican Republic.13680494_1200633729987618_30600100985178773_n

Over the weekend, I traveled to Monteverde where I went on the longest zip line in Latin America! I was terrified, but my motto for the trip was “Do what scares you”. I found I enjoyed more of my trip when I set my anxieties aside and was brave for a few minutes. The next day, we went to La Fortuna, which is the town outside of Arenal Volcano. I hiked around the volcano in a thick forest for about 5 hours, and ended the day relaxing in a natural hot spring. I loved seeing a large and diverse population of foliage and animals (including a few sloths). Sunday morning, we hiked to a waterfall and swam for a while, even though it was freezing. 13754452_1200633679987623_8785741842825833604_n

During the second week, I began my two volunteer placements. In the morning, I went to an elementary school for children. Working with them only reassured my decision to become an elementary music teacher, as all of their eyes lit up when they walked into the music room. The children were overflowing with passion and energy for music and they respected their teacher, or “profe”. I was in charge of teaching “Ode to Joy” on the xylophone for the class, and I even had the chance to run a sound board during a school performance.20160728_080551 (1) copy The music teacher I worked with and observed was truly incredible and I am thankful for the opportunity to have built a lasting professional relationship. The teacher is also the director of the private music school, Sion, where I worked in the afternoons. I worked one-on-one with young students on piano and violin. The most difficult part of the volunteer work was the language barrier, but I was able to struggle through as the children were understanding and helpful. 13737499_1756621557908984_3133658259456876966_oI highly recommend this Performing Arts Abroad program to anyone who is interested in studying, volunteering, or working abroad. Now more than ever I am ecstatic when I think about my future as a teacher abroad.

Open Minds, Open Hearts: Discovering the Meaning of Volunteering

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Mona Sangesland is now an active flutist and teaching artist in the Boston region.  She is currently finishing her Master of Music degree at the New England Conservatory.  This summer she participated in the Music Volunteering in Costa Rica program.

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

–Australian Aboriginal, Elder Lillia Watson

Before embarking on my adventure that was music volunteering in Costa Rica, I told my acquaintance, Sunni, (who works for Engineers Without Borders) about my grand life plans to use music for gender and social empowerment in foreign countries. Costa Rica was to be my first taste of what global outreach could be like, and I applied for the program with no idea of what to expect. Normally, this type of declaration is met with encouragement and positivity, because, honestly, who isn’t supportive of social change? Contrary to what I expected, Sunni warned me that undertaking such an endeavor without understanding the culture or language can do more harm than good. I’d never thought of volunteering in such a way, and I’m sure most other people haven’t either, but up through my departure, I thought about her words frequently (and still do, every day).  

image1Most of the time we enter volunteer programs with preconceived notions of what we want to accomplish, what we think the other group needs, and maybe even what we need in order to feel like we are making a difference in the world. Often, we forget the beauty of simply listening to the group we wish to assist. Because we have the tools to help them, we think we know what’s best. For me, this is how I first approached the idea of volunteering in Costa Rica. Initially, I thought, “I will teach underserved children the flute and it will be exciting for everyone. Maybe I can inspire some to become flutists, and by focusing on music they will forget about the hardships of life”. Once I got there, I realized the students I worked with weren’t too interested in learning the flute. Some were interested in playing the recorder, but most wanted to play games. So we played games that involved music, the types that you would encounter in 1st or 2nd grade. image10The lesson plans I had drafted in my head were all scrapped on day one because 1) there were no flutes, 2) I had little to no assistance from authority figures in the schools, and 3) the children just wanted to play. As a conservatory-trained musician, playing musical games with 10-year olds would probably be seen as a waste of my skills. However, this situation gave me the opportunity to be creative and step outside of my comfort zone.

image11Through extensive international travel prior to my volunteering in Costa Rica, I feel that (over time) I have developed the ability to “go with the flow”, which can be very hard for Americans to do. My pre-departure orientation also stressed the importance of being open to a change of plans on a whim (and now I know why, because Costa Rican society is less structured than what I am used to!) I also think it helped that I didn’t know very much Spanish, because that encouraged me to listen to the children in ways that transcended language, by approaching each day with an open mind and heart. I could not verbally communicate with them very well, but I wasn’t going to let that deter me from listening and sharing music!

image8And so, faced with a situation over which I had no control, and with Sunni’s words in mind, I decided that my reason to be here is to spread the joy of music, hopefully encouraging the students to see how fun music can be. To be honest, I am not the person who is going to elevate them from their social sphere, to make them have a life that is “successful”. But maybe by being there, I was able to encourage even just one student to see that music is fun, and perhaps they will turn to music when times are tough. And, for me, that alone is enough to make what I do valid. The students benefit, and I benefit. Because we are sharing something in common, this is a perfect volunteering scenario.

image9I left America thinking I knew what being open-minded was like, but Costa Rica showed me how valuable it is to have an open mind each and every day of your life. I never knew what each day would bring, but there is some beauty in living your life that way, because it allows you to be creative, to improvise, and to be attuned with your surroundings, and these are the skills that will take you far in life.image5

Teaching Music in the Galapagos Islands

Olivia KapellOlivia Kapell is a musician and English Literature student at Columbia University-Juilliard School Exchange.  She participated in the Music Volunteering in the Galapagos Islands program. 

Upon signing up to be a music volunteer in the Galápagos Islands, I had no idea what to expect. Of course I thought of Darwin, as most people do when referring to these islands, but I did not know much more than that.

36290019 copyFrom the moment that landed, I knew that I had never been anywhere as beautiful as the Galápagos Islands, and now I will forever be a spoiled traveler because I do not think that anywhere else in the world compares. I lived on San Cristobal, which had a much more residential feel to it, unlike the most populated island of Santa Cruz. On San Cristobal there were countless beaches, such as Lobería, Playa Man, and Punta Carola which all boasted fantastic snorkeling. All I needed to do was to swim off the shore with my mask and my flippers, and I was instantly immersed in some of the richest biodiversity in the world, playing with sea lions, and swimming along side giant sea turtles.36280021 copy

But perhaps more impressionable than the outstanding natural scenery on the Galápagos, are the people who inhabit this island. Everyone I met was genuinely kind hearted and generous with their time. My students’ parents, my host family, and other young people on the island were not hesitant to engage with me and show me their island. They all wanted to know how I liked the Galápagos and my response was always that I think it is the best place in the world.

received_1024954690919881In terms of my actual volunteer work, this is perhaps where I was challenged the most. I taught at the only after-school music center, teaching students ages 3-16 depending on the hour and the day, and all one hundred percent in Spanish. I taught group music lessons on how to read and write music, as well as group piano lessons, which was especially challenging in learning how to divide up the attention. I also taught private instrumental lessons on piano and violin. I realized after my first day that I would need to learn how to play these instruments at a basic level, and I came out of my program learning how to do that. Thankfully another volunteer played guitar and could teach me the chords, and through my knowledge of string instruments in general, I could teach myself enough violin to get by. On my last day at the music school, all of my students sang a song for me and wrapped their arms around me, asking why I was leaving and wanting to know when I would return. I was even offered a job, as the main professor told me that she would be waiting for me until I decided to come back.

13474935_10208884940393961_4978703141641420732_oI want to return to the sea lions that lined the beaches, the beautiful, luminescent starry nights, the 2am merengue dancing, sitting with my host family on their hammock, meeting so many interesting and friendly volunteers from all over the world, and mostly I miss the sense of peace and tranquil energy that permeates these truly unique islands. I am determined to find a way back one day, but until then, these moments will just be memories that have left me with a new sense of wonder in which I now view the world. 13443068_10208884929073678_8638741165445269027_o

Mid-Project Reflections on Teaching and Confidence

Diana McLaughlin just finished her sophomore year as a Music Education and Spanish double major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is in Costa Rica as a music volunteer from May until July 2016.

I arrived in San José, Costa Rica three weeks ago, and am now halfway done with my 6-week music volunteering experience. In my first week, I took Spanish classes in the morning and volunteered at Sion Institute of Music, a privately run, extracurricular music school, in the afternoons. There, I have 2 classes of students, ages 4 – 11, that are learning music fundamentals so that they can choose an instrument and continue with private lessons at the school after I return to the U.S. Every class starts with singing. Sometimes I sing solfege notes (do re mi), and the kids repeat, and sometimes we learn a song, but the first thing I always sing is “¿Cómo estás?” and every student answers, singing: “Estoy bien.” During class, the students learn rhythms, how to read music, and how to play the recorder. We sing, clap, and dance frequently. I never thought that I would enjoy teaching kindergarten age kids until I got to design this class. I love it! Every class ends by listening to music and the kids draw a picture of how it makes them feel. This way, they are learning to connect with what they hear, and when they look at their peers’ drawings, they learn that the same music can mean many different things, depending on the listener.

These classes are my own; the school’s director oversees my work, but I teach everything. If you ever want to test your second language skills, younger kids are wonderful because they can be completely unforgiving, especially of terrible English accents. 🙂

Despite the language, I thought that my biggest challenge would be organizing activities for the students and making coherent lessons because although I am a Music Education major, I still have minimal experience planning classes.

Fast forward to Week Two.

I finished my week of Spanish classes, and began to spend my mornings at a new placement, although I still teach at Sion in the afternoons. SIFAIS is a non-profit project designed to empower students through music, art, and sports. It is located in La Carpio, one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Costa Rica. La Carpio is in San José, but is surrounded by 2 rivers and a landfill. The area benefits from humanitarian outreach programs and volunteer work, but there is still a lot to be done. Some streets are still unpaved and so narrow that a car can barely fit down them. Somebody from our language school takes the other volunteers and me because they don’t want us to take the bus. Driving down the streets, it is clear that there is a need for arts empowerment.Untitled design

My first week there, two other volunteers and I went together and about ten students, ages 8 – 11, greeted us. We started by sitting in a circle and singing together. In college, sight singing is extremely difficult for me, and I was never really sure how I would handle my insecurities when I started teaching. But now, with ten kids sitting restlessly waiting for instruction, uncertainty is not an option. I either sing or they lose focus. Same thing when a student walked up to me with a violin at the end of the week. The student showed a genuine interest and asked me for help, so it didn’t matter that I was desperately trying to recall my one semester of a strings method class.DM3

As a music ed major, I need to have experience in every aspect of music. When I graduate, I can go on to teach band, orchestra, chorus, etc. Even in the U.S. some schools only have one music teacher, so although I am a French horn player, I know that teaching violin is a very real possibility in my future, and my experience at SIFAIS is preparing me well for that. I teach something different everyday, such as strings, voice, and piano. I think that musicians are inherently very aware of their weaknesses, so even though I am technically able to teach strings (or voice), it terrified me at first to think that I had one semester of classes in each respective area and here I am actually teaching. But in that sense, it is also amazing; this experience is real life. Sometimes I think that the kids deserve better: someone who actually has years of experience teaching and singing, or at least someone who can play more than “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (“Estrellita” en español) on the violin. But I’ve realized that right now, I might the best that the kids have, so I need to act like it. I challenged myself to use this as a learning experience, because this will not be the last time that I teach any of these instruments. So I have a lot of violin to learn, although the kids act like I’m super cool when I play “Estrellita” for them.DM4

I have also been able to incorporate my horn. Sometimes I play for the students and they dance based on the music that I’m playing, but a lot of the time, they just want to play themselves.DM5

I am very thankful for the other volunteers that are here with me. We all have different backgrounds (thankfully some play piano and/or string instruments), so we work together, learn together, get stuck in torrential downpours together, and they only make fun of me a little bit when I read the map wrong and get us lost in the city.

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And of course the kids make it all worth it.DM8 Untitled design (1)

And yes, when I’m not at school, I’m being a total tourist.DM10 DM11