SALT LAKE CITY — When a group of musicians from the Utah Symphony took off recently for a week in the Caribbean, they weren’t going there to hang out on a beach.
They went so they could put their musical skills to work helping young people in a downtrodden place. In one of the world's poorest nations, they found something uplifting: pride, joy and musical talent.
"I think Haiti has a rich cultural history," said concertmaster Madeline Adkins, one of 17 Utah Symphony musicians who recently put on a weeklong workshop in Cap-Haitien. One hundred young instrumentalists from towns and villages scattered across Haiti attended the free workshop held Sunday, March 25 to Friday, March 30.
In developed countries like the U.S., if someone aspires to play music at a professional level, there are many opportunities for lessons and advanced training. But in a poor country — especially earthquake-and-hurricane-ravaged Haiti — kids are lucky to get any high-level training at all.
"Music education in Haiti goes to a certain point, but it certainly doesn't go to the university-conservatory level," symphony cellist John Eckstein said in an interview at Abravanel Hall.
A couple of years ago, Eckstein recognized that he and his fellow musicians had the skills to provide the high-level training that Haiti needs. He organized the Utah Symphony's first workshop in Haiti in 2017. On this year's second trip, the Utah musicians were joined by several players from the Cleveland Orchestra.
Although their average age is around 22, many of the Haitian musicians are already teachers themselves. The visiting professionals from the United States found that many of the workshop attendees had considerable musical skills.
"It's really impressive actually," Adkins said. "A lot of them may have had lessons but some of them, a lot of things they've learned off the internet."
She noted the contrast with aspiring musicians in the U.S.
“We’re so privileged to have lessons, many of us from childhood. And so (in Haiti) their dedication and determination is really inspiring.”
During the five-day workshop, American musicians conducted some individual lessons, but much of the teaching was in larger “sectional” rehearsals for each instrumental section of the orchestra. The climax of the workshop was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in a free public concert conducted by Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony.
"This is wonderful to have some professional people who work with us,” said John Carly Fils Menard, a young Haitian bass player who attended the workshop. “It's an opportunity, it's a gift, because here in Haiti … most of our schools don't have teachers."
Although the Utah musicians didn’t have much time to tour Haiti or to observe its poorest areas, they were well aware that many musicians at the workshop probably came from families with big challenges.
"I don’t see them in their everyday lives, but I know that it’s a struggle,” Eckstein said. “And so the fact that they have gotten where they’ve gotten is pretty remarkable.”
The Utah musicians donated their time and money to the trip, and they raised funds to pay for each student’s transportation, room and board for the workshop. They also handed out 20 musical instruments in Haiti that were donated by Utah Symphony supporters.Comment on this story
And they brought home a sense that their visit had done some good in Haiti.
"They treasure their arts there, it's such a sense of pride and the joy that they bring to that,” Adkins said. “We get just as much out of it as they do. I think it's really inspiring for us."
Eckstein said Utah Symphony players are already planning to go back next year. Future goals, he said, might include the creation of a youth orchestra or perhaps a Haitian national orchestra.
"And we hope,” Eckstein said, “it leads to individual lives being, you know, bettered.”