Posted by: Project MicroMundo | September 16, 2010

Happy Independence Day! (But that’s not what this post is about.)

Jessica again, with another update from la banda! Since my last post there have been breakthroughs and there have been challenges – I’ll talk about the latter first.

We are still struggling with note accuracy and reading music. Consistency in attendance continues to be a big problem, and this translated into a lot of problems in learning the Himno. Even after rewriting the 2nd trombone and trumpet parts to limit it to only five notes, and going through the part note-by-note with students individually, I was still getting way too many wrong notes.  I’d be lying if I said that teaching the band has been entirely without moments of frustration. One day I have a group of five students who can play anything I throw at them. The next, I have an entirely different group of five who struggle just to read the notes, let alone play them. But if nothing else, I think working with me has taught my students about perseverance, and the amount of discipline it takes to really learn a song ciento por ciento (one hundred percent).


Practicing the Himno with Eduar and Javier.

Now on to some breakthroughs: In my last post, I mentioned that in addition to teaching, I’ve been marching as well, and I’d like to tell you about a couple of our performances now.

A few weeks ago, the band loaded up in a minibus and drove two hours to an aldea (small town) called Aguacate – literally, Avocado. We were there to help put on a school and community desfile. As we began, I suddenly realized I was the only one marching in time – turns out the band has never studied marching fundamentals! As we walked along, tired under the midday sun (it’s HOT in Guatemala), the directors Oskar and Javier tried to get the band to dance and – surprise, surprise – none of the teenage boys were into it. Fortunately, years of being both band member and tour guide have rid me of the fear of looking ridiculous in front of crowds, so I marched and danced! While the students didn’t exactly join me, they didn’t think it was a crazy idea either, and it gave them an idea of the difference between a marching band and a tiredly strolling band.

So for a fun next lesson, I taught a band dance workshop. We learned the basics of marching in time, then jazzed it up with some sweet moves borrowed from the UMD truck and my high school band. We debuted our “marching dance” at the noche cultural (cultural night) of the neighboring town, San Jose, and it was a huge hit – a perfect ego boost for our band! We marched in time, counting aloud to the dance, and brought a thousand times more energy to this parade than to the one in Aguacate.

In addition to our progress as a band, there are a few individual students who have made serious breakthroughs in terms of learning music. Today I’d like to introduce you to one of them, named Marcos.


Marcos practicing the guitar.

Marcos plays the lira (xylophone) in the marching band, and picked up music theory faster than anyone I’ve ever met. First, we learned the Himno Nacional using sheet music – piece of cake. The next day, he wanted to continue studying, so I told him we’d learn some scales. I was wrong – we learned all of the scales! We got through the entire Circle of Fifths, all in one lesson! I was a little skeptical that he’d retain all that, so in the next lesson, I quizzed him – “How many sharps are in the key of E? What are they? In B flat? In F sharp?” But he really got it. We’re progressed to learning major and minor cuerdas (chords), progressions, and now even a little bit of guitar.

Mateo, whose school of Natural Resources Steph has discussed in previous posts, has struck a deal with Marcos: if Marcos comes to Mateo’s school next year and can keep his grades high enough to graduate, Mateo will pay for him to study music at the university level.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of hurdles for Marcos, and for many of my other students. The majority come from homes with serious problems — alcoholism, domestic abuse, absentee parents, or all of the above. Marcos’s dad is against him learning music, and Marcos takes a pretty big risk every time he chooses to study with me at the library anyway. He has no access to the Internet or theory books, and students receive only a basic music education in school.

Students like Marcos make it hard to move onto a new location, but tomorrow we’ll be heading out to Lake Atitlan, our second stop. I wanted to leave some materials behind for students like Marcos to continue studying, so I searched high and low for some good theory books. But they literally don’t exist anywhere around here. The band and written theory trend is too new. It makes me crazy to think that once I’m gone, their access to music education will be too, so I’m issuing a wishlist to anyone up to the challenge back in the U.S.! If you have access to any of the following, please let me know!


  • A teach-yourself guitar book – the catch is that it has to be in Spanish, as none of my students speak enough English to read theory in it.
  • Any basic music reading and theory books (also in Spanish)
  • Books for trumpet or trombone (Spanish)
  • Care-and-cleaning kits and oil for brass instruments (this can be in English, haha)

If you do have any of these, or would be able to get any, we can figure out the transport. Please let me know ASAP, it would be a great help!! And don’t forget to stay tuned to hear about our big Independence Day performance!


  1. Jessica, I am so impressed and proud of what you are doing! I’m also impressed with your knowlege of music and musical instruments. Guess I haven’t been paying too much attention! I knew you were in the band at Maryland — but—that’s about all I knew. I’ve been keeping up with all the posts and it’s great. Like I’m there with you. Good luck with your next destination! I’ll keep reading about your experiences.
    Love, Grandmom Harriett

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