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.



Florence in the Dark: What it’s Like to Study Abroad While Blind


Christina Ebersohl is a Music Performance major (viola) at Portland State University.  She just completed Performing Arts Abroad’s Summer Study Abroad semester in Italy.

I’m not exactly a discrete study abroad student in Italy. I mean, I don’t exactly have the olive skin of the Italian women (the Irish is strong in this one), I constantly have a giant red viola case strapped to my back, and, if that isn’t bad enough, I don’t eat meat.

Oh, and I’m blind.

But honestly, the Italians are far more upset about the not-eating-meat thing.

“Sono cieca.”
I spoke a decent amount of Italian before arriving in Florence, which I credit a huge amount of my success to. But when you come to a new country, especially when you come with a disability, it is indescribably helpful to have a few pocket phrases already in your repertoire. My winning gem is: “mi dispiace, ma sono cieca”, or “I’m sorry, but I’m blind”. It’s not that they ignored my glaringly obvious white cane, or missed the fact that I had to press my face against the glass case to see if that was a croissant or mortadella (always a crowd pleaser in a touristy café, let me tell you). But Italian customer service is far different from American service: If you don’t ask for help, often times, you won’t be offered any. They aren’t being rude. They just believe in giving customers space and time to decide what they want or need.

“How do you get around?”
I joke that I get around Florence better than my sighted classmates, and truthfully, I do to some degree (she said with a HUGE helping of humbleness). Honestly, Florence is a confusing city to get used to no matter what. Streets like to zig zag, veer off into alleyways, and randomly develop new street names without warning. But unlike my classmates, I don’t squint at buildings trying to make out the impossible street signs, or glare at the map on my phone with disgust. I look up directions before leaving the house, and use meters and landmarks to guide me. If my directions tell me to walk 200 meters down a road, then turn right, I judge a pretty accurate distance, and when I reach my corner, I find something to distinguish it—a smell, a noise, a color, etc.

IMG_20160709_123105608 copyOn my first walk to the sQuola building (where we have Italian class), I had to take a left on Via dei Giori. At that corner, every morning, was a cart. And every morning, a man would be filling that cart with books to sell while singing American pop songs in the most wildly out of tune Italian imaginable. But he was always my landmark. And because of him, I was twenty minutes early to my first Italian class, while others were late because they couldn’t find the street (But don’t worry—I, too, have gotten plenty lost in this city!).

“But are they nice to you?”
The people of Florence have been extremely thoughtful and generous towards me. My teachers have gone out of their way to make sure I feel included and comfortable in my classes, and the faculty of the university have made the field learning excursions as accessible as possible—going so far as leading me, arm in arm, through the Parma cheese factory and describing what they are seeing. The residents have been just as kind-hearted: the owner of the Parma factory gifted me a block of his specialty cheese because he admired my spirit, and the bartenders at my regular café always greet me with kind conversation, even during a mid-morning rush. I haven’t experienced any sort of gruffness or impatience from the Italians.

But I don’t think that it is all good luck.

The people of Florence, specifically, are constantly bombarded by tourists of all nationalities, often times rude and demanding, and usually unwilling to attempt any real communication short of unintelligible grunts and finger pointing.

So when business owners encounter an (obvious) foreigner (like my delightfully pale self) who expresses an interest, desire and partial ability to communicate in polite Italian, it goes a long way. I can’t count the number of times I have listened to a long rant from Italians (in Italian, mind you) about how people (Americans specifically) need to be more open minded about learning a language when they come to another country. To them, it is a sign of respect—for the culture, the history, and really, the people whose lives you are affecting daily.

All in all, I have received more negative reactions from some American students I have met while abroad than I have from any Italian my whole time here.  But like everything else, you just have to take it in stride. Being successful in a study abroad program isn’t just about what the university or program can offer you, but the attitude and motivation you bring with you every day in your new country, and the ability to shake off the things that just don’t matter. Much like anywhere else, it truly helps to be kind and cheerful to others you meet—it always perpetuates good things in the long run.

Or, if all else fails, just smile…

received_493419024161620…because you know that fresh biscotti and a frothy cappuccino await you at your local café.


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.



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

To the Opera, in Italy

Marson - 1
Stephanie Marson was an Arts Administration intern in Italy with a focus on Music in January of 2015.  She is a Vocal Performance major at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

My experience in Italy was very exciting as I not only learned about how a small opera company operates, but I also was immersed in a culture that was different from my own.

marson 7For Jan Term, I completed an internship in Florence, Italy through Performing Arts Abroad which is affiliated with the Florence University of the Arts (FUA). I stayed in student housing that was provided by FUA. My apartment, which I shared with five others, was on the side of the Arno opposite the Duomo.

My major is Vocal Performance so I wanted to have an internship that related to it. I worked with St. Mark’s Opera Company, a non-profit music society that performs in St. Mark’s English Church in Florence, as well as other locations.

Marson St-Marks-Church-01St. Mark’s Opera Company was founded by Franz and Ilse Moser 13 years ago. The singers come from different opera houses in Tuscany, most of them from Florence. The church is part of an old Medici Palace that was owned by Machiavelli and has been renovated in a neo-renaissance style with beautiful icons. It is also an important venue for Firenze Lirica, a well-established Florentine society for the promotion of operatic performance and study.

Marson St-Marks-Church-03I also took an Italian class as part of my internship for two and a half hours per day. My Italian class was located near the FUA Student Life Office near the Santa Croce Church. At night I worked with the opera company, both in preparations, serving refreshments during intermission, cleanup afterwards, and later, performing.

When the company discovered that I was a music major, they asked me to sing an aria for one performance. Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 1.28.12 PMI sang “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” from “La Serva Padrona” by G.B. Perolesi. After that, they kept me as a permanent part of the program for the rest of the month!

Franco Rossi (baritone); Claudia Ciabattini (soprano); Franz Moser (piano)

Franco Rossi (baritone); Claudia Ciabattini (soprano); Franz Moser (piano)

It was an honor to sing with such talented professionals.  The opera program fro January was “Love Duets” from famous operas.  Lucky for me, someone recorded one of my performances on their cell phone.

The time went by quickly. On my last night in Florence and the last night singing with the St. Mark’s Opera Company, all I could say was Fantastico esperienza! Ciao Firenze.

For more, I created a blog about my experiences.


Programs for High School Students!

Do you want to know one of the toughest parts of working at Performing Arts Abroad?  It’s when someone inquires about a program and you can just tell they’d be an amazing participant.  They’re bright, they’re engaging, they’re talented, and they’re passionate.  But then you find out they won’t be 18 by the time the program starts and you have to tell them they can’t apply.

It’s not that we’re ageist.  There’s a long history of amazing young performing artists.  (Heck Mozart started composing when he was three!)  So if Yo-Yo Ma can perform for the president at 7 and Anna Paquin can win an Academy Award at 11, why can’t a 17-year-old study dance in Spain or teach music in Ecuador? Well the boring and frustrating answer is that it has to do with things like insurance and liability and other words that lawyers throw around when they tell you you’re not allowed to do something.

Anna_Paquin_Comic-Con_2012 copy 2

“Seriously?”  We know Anna Paquin, we know.

This has bugged us fro years and for months our director has been toiling away, so we are so excited to announce two new programs available to high school students!

hallelujah-squirrel-editedThey’re both modeled after existing programs that are hugely popular with just enough tweaks to tailor them for high school aged participants (and they’re concerned parents.)

The first is the High School Musical Theatre Training Program in London.  Our Musical Theatre training program in the West End is one of our most popular programs for a reason.  You get to train under some of the best dancers, actors, choreographers, and directors in the world, all in famous studios where West End shows are rehearsed.  We made some phone calls, worked out some details, and now we’re running a special summer session for high schoolers.  It’s going to include all of the same amazing perks, just with a few additional arrangements to help your parents feel more comfortable.

The second is High School Costa Rica Summer Experience, and this one we designed just for you! (Assuming “you” are a teenager who’s into the performing arts and wants to explore another country with other performing artists in a cultural exchange unlike anything you’ve experienced that will change both you and the people you work with in amazing ways.)  It’s a two-week program that winds through Costa Rica and includes everything leading workshops at a volunteer placement to collaborating with other young artists to create a performance piece combining your various talents.

You can click the links to find out more, but for right now, suffice it to say we are so thrilled about these programs and the fact that we don’t have to turn away amazing artists just because they haven’t turned 18 yet!

Wolfgang approves!

Wolfgang approves!

If you’re just such an interested dancer/actor/musician or if you know just the kid who’d LOVE one of these programs, let us know and let’s get the ball rolling!  You can communicate directly with a program advisor at or just go ahead and apply now.  (If you apply before the end of April you can get $500 off the program fee!  More info on that here.)

Ben Abbott is PAA’s Outreach Coordinator. Before that he was a program advisor where he had exactly the conversations with disappointed applicants that he describes in this post which clearly traumatized him more than we realized at the time.


Making Music in Mpumalanga

Alison blogAlison Feuerwerker is a violinist and music teacher from Ontario, Canada, and she was a PAA music volunteer in South Africa in January and February of 2016.  

On a January morning I am singing along with Toto’s song “Africa” while I do dishes. My heart sings too, and my feet dance at the kitchen sink. This afternoon I fly out, and tomorrow night I will land on my beloved continent, Africa. Though I have lived in Tanzania and spent time in Rwanda and Ghana, my destination this time is South Africa – a brand new country for me. I am going to volunteer for three weeks with the Casterbridge Music Development Academy, based in White River, Mpumalanga, South Africa. This opportunity has been arranged through Performing Arts Abroad.

A violinist and music teacher by profession, an African music enthusiast who also plays djembe, ukulele, and Reggae keyboards, I am looking forward to connecting with musicians and music students, sharing what I know through teaching, learning from everyone with whom I come in contact, and experiencing life in a new country. I do not really know what I’ll be doing, and I have no specific attachment or expectations. I am eager to plunge in.

Beauty of surroundingsTwo days later, after an enjoyable overnight stay in Pretoria with friends of friends, I disembark from a small commuter plane in Mpumalanga, a province in north-eastern South Africa. I am met at the airport by Mike, director of the CMDA. During my time in White River I will experience the wonderful hospitality of Mike and Andrea in their peaceful home – peaceful despite (or perhaps because of) the three dogs and three cats who are part of their family. I have the weekend to settle in and catch up on sleep. Mike and Andrea take me for a drive in the country on one of the days and I am awed by the beauty of my surroundings. Monday begins my first week of work.

The Casterbridge Music Development Academy is a non-profit organisation providing young people aged 12 to 25 years the opportunity to learn music. Its central office is in White River. Six “hub” centres offer music programmes in local communities, mostly in the townships. I soon find a pattern for my days. Mornings I spend at the office, assisting with proofreading and editing music theory learning materials. These music theory materials are being created by local music teachers, carefully following the school curriculum set by the South African government. They are part of an online platform called 2Enable, designed to deliver educational content at no cost to all South Africans, in particular those in rural areas.

Each afternoon I visit a hub with CMDA staff members Mpho or Trevor. The hubs are located in schools or community centres. Students arrive after school for lessons in music theory, guitar, piano, recorder, marimba, percussion, and for band practice. Every day is different and each hub has its own flavour. One day, I assist with teaching music theory to a group of high school students. Another day I get out my violin and jam with an enthusiastic and well-trained marimba ensemble. marimba ensemblOn yet another day I find myself playing djembe with a group of young percussion players. I am given opportunities to speak with students about the benefits of music education, to answer questions, and to offer encouragement. Everyone is so welcoming and I feel very much at home.

That is the pattern of the first and third weeks of my stay. I spend the middle week in Mashishing, a mining community high in the mountains. The Mashishing hub’s full time coordinator, Themba, is developing a music program to take into public schools in the area. Mornings, I visit classrooms with Themba and we teach a basic music class, mostly focusing on rhythm.focusing on rhythm We start with some simple clapping exercises, move on to more complex divisions of the beat and to counter-rhythms, and I throw in some music notation to show the students a visual representation of the music they are making. We bring marimbas and djembes with us, and the students tumble over one another and almost come to blows in their eagerness to have a turn to play. I am thankful for Themba’s kind but authoritative presence and carrying voice. In some classes, the students end up singing and dancing to the beat – one class evolves into a Zulu break-dancing competition!

After school, students come to the Mashishing hub in a local community centre for music lessons: music theory, recorder, piano, marimba, and brass instruments. There is a violin at the hub, though no one to play it, and one day I ask all the kids who are interested to line up, and each gets a chance to try the violin.Chance to try violin Everyone wants a try, but several kids are particularly interested and on another day I teach a few students and one of the teachers some basics, including the first few phrases of ‘Nkosi Sikele’iAfrika’, the South African national anthem. I also enjoy helping with recorder, piano, and music theory lessons. The busy days fly by, and at night I am grateful to rest and recharge at the guest house where I am staying for the week.

So many memories stand out from my three weeks in South Africa. Meeting and jamming with Danmora and Tendayi, two brothers from Zimbabwe who teach at the CMDA. Playing violin with the marimba ensemble at Masoyi Hub. Teaching a group of several hundred students outdoors early in the morning with Themba in Mashishing. outdoors early in the morningRiding out to the townships with Mpho and Trevor and chatting about our lives as musicians. Jamming with Mpho and Trevor in the CMDA office building. Meeting an elephant up close at Elephant Whispers. Elephant whisperersTouring a huge cave with Mike and his daughter Samantha. Spotting wildlife from a safari vehicle in Kruger National Park. Kruger 2 Kruger 1Quiet early mornings and spectacular sunsets. Knowing that I have been able to contribute at least a bit to the work of an organization that is changing the lives of young people in South Africa.

Too soon, three weeks have passed and it is time to depart. Andrea drives me to the airport, from which I will fly to Tanzania. I plan to spend a week in Tanzania visiting friends and doing some recording studio work before returning home to Canada. Goodbyes are hard. It is the other side of the world, and despite the best of intentions I do not know when I will be back. Musicians’ hearts connect so easily. Even though we live in very different cultures, there is so much we share. I want to stay and perform and jam and record and teach. At the same time, my life in Canada awaits and I am eager for that too. I am grateful for the experience, grateful to Performing Arts Abroad for organizing it, and to the CMDA for welcoming me. And to all musicians: if your heart is drawing you toward an overseas experience, go. We all – the worldwide community of musicians – will become richer for it.End