This is Jessica with another update from la banda (band)! We’ve spent the past few weeks working through breathing and tuning exercises, basic ritmos (rhythms), plus the B flat and F scales. With these under our belt, the school’s director (Mateo) and I decided it was time to challenge the students with a new goal: learning to read and play the national anthem (el Himno Nacional) of Guatemala, to be showcased during Guatemalan Independence Day on September 15th. This holiday is a big deal — communities throughout the nation prepare songs, dances, desfiles (parades), food, fireworks, and more for an all-out celebration that rivals the 4th of July. We thought this would be a great time for the students to show off their new skills!
But we’ve run into a few roadblocks along the way to learning el Himno. Getting the sheet music was tricky; after scouring the Internet, I couldn’t find a trace of a band arrangement! But with a little help from my music major friends back home, mixed with a lot of time, ink, and white-out, I was eventually able to turn a piano part into useable music for la trompeta, el trombón, and la percusión. Hurdle one down!
Then there’s the matter of learning it. I found out this week that many of the students started playing only months or even weeks before. So before I could start teaching the parts, I had to switch gears and focus more on proper breathing habits, posture, and tuning than on the sheet music itself. While I was eager to get started on the Himno, you have to walk before you can run, and knowing the basics of getting a good sound out of your instrument is crucial regardless of the song you’re playing. I’m finding myself adopting many of the expressions I so disliked hearing as a student — phrases like, “Sit up straight, feet flat on the floor! Don’t play unless we’re all playing together! Don’t everyone breathe on the half note! You’re SHARP!”
Kidding aside, the biggest roadblock to learning the himno has been attendance. While my original intention was to get the entire band on board, it’s more likely now that it will only be a group within the band – those who have regularly attended the lessons. Even after three weeks, there are probably at least a half dozen other students out there who are technically in the band, but who have yet to attend a single lesson, and many more who have attended only one or two. That being said, the students who have been regularly attending have made phenomenal progress! I’ve gotten to know this group on a pretty personal level, and I’d like to introduce you to a few of them now:
Christian is a trumpet player, and one of my favorite students. He has a lot of the classic “trumpet player” personality traits, including an obsession with playing as high and as loud as possible, and a tendency to shout out the right answer before the rest of the class has a chance to respond. But he’s usually the first one to arrive, and has by far the best attendance record. Not surprisingly, he’s made probably the most progress, and already has the first half of the Himno down! In lieu of a good available tuner, we’ve all been tuning to Christian.
Edson is a percussionist, and a seriously talented quads player. He’s picked up the concepts of reading ritmos exceptionally quickly, which is good since the rest of the percussionists look to him as the leader. He has the standard percussionist’s easy-going nature and is always smiling or cracking jokes. When he doesn’t understand un ritmo, he doesn’t get frustrated or ask me for the answer – he just sits on the edge of his seat, clapping and counting until he can do it perfectly. When I told him we were going to learn redobles (rolls) on the snare, his face lit up like a kid on Christmas! He’s definitely got enthusiasm for his instrument, and is a great student to have in any class.
Joseph started the trombone only a few weeks ago, but has already made great strides! He was one of the first students I met when coming here, and I think he has a great natural talent for music – he already plays the xylophone, plus a little bit of trumpet and percussion, and likes to write lyrics. He’s also got a tendency to flirt with the female instructors, and offered to teach Ronnie and me how to drive his motorcycle. (We declined.)
Anyone who has ever tried to teach or learn to play music knows how hard it is, and despite the roadblocks, I’m insanely proud of the kids here – we’ve had some frustrating lessons, but they haven’t given up yet! Stay tuned as we continue to work on the Himno – keep your fingers crossed for having it performable by the 15th!