Written by Adam Hopper
I’m currently writing this post from 30 thousand feet in the air. I took off from Miami about thirty minutes ago, on the last leg of my long journey home. Next to me sits a person I would conservatively estimate at being somewhere around a quarter ton, and is currently elbow deep in a bag of Cheetos. In this tiny tube, breathing recycled air and Cheetos dust, and while thumbing through my iPod trying to decide exactly which Tribe Called Quest album to listen to, I have time to finally recount this past week. I spent it teaching and performing in El Salvador. I was offered the chance to go by my good friend and trumpeter John Francis, and the conductor of the National Christian Symphony of El Salvador maestro Mauricio Solis. I had planned on presenting a day of clinics on drumset and orchestral percussion, performing with the orchestra, calling it a victory, then blasting off back to the land of the free, all while enjoying the Latin America food and fellowship. What I got, however, was one of the most enlightening and humbling experiences I’ve had in music.
We touched down in San Salvador late on Monday night. The next day, we went to the venue and got right to work teaching the clinics. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in terms of the students’ ability level, and I was pleased to find that they were good. Really good. Far better than I would have ever thought. Are they the most technically proficient? No. Not by a long shot. Can they talk game about “Marimba Spiritual” or the Delecluse book like their American counter parts? No, they have never heard of them. Did they make Blue Devils last year, but couldn’t march because “Some stuff came up.” Um….no. Can they perform with musicality and passion that would make anyone proud? Certainly. Their passion for creating great music and performing at a high level was inspiring to say the least. Honestly, it caught me off guard. They wanted to know everything about everything: four-mallet marimba grips, tambourine thumb rolls, and triangle technique. How to properly tune timpani, play orchestral crash cymbals and exactly how to play concert bass drum, were also questions they had. They wanted me to send them recommendations on things to work on, and websites to check out. These students possessed the kind of voracious hunger that can only come from people who have a single minded focus. They had an attitude toward excellence that, by and large, we see less and less of in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got students with the work ethic of Gordon Gekko, and I am sure you do too. However, I also have students with the work ethic of banana slugs, whose spiritual gifts seem to be riding the coattails of their colleagues’ success and hard work. So then why do these students, from a country with no great national history of music, where you can’t even major in music in college, work so hard? I believe it is the desire to create something out of nothing. They know that things just don’t happen by accident, and that hard work and dedication are the only way to achieve anything. Also, they are extremely patient. Unlike many of their American counterparts-myself included- these students had the patience to work for something and not get it right away. When they fail they quickly reassess the situation, make adjustments and then improve. I saw it time and time again in my brief stay.
Throughout the week, we taught clinics, visited schools, and rehearsed with the orchestra. We also did a series of T.V. and radio promotional appearances. To say the least, two giant white guys (who don’t speak Spanish) on El Salvadoran morning television was probably hilarious. Luckily, we had Mauricio and our translator, Rebeca, to help us not look like complete fools. Finally, we arrived at the central reason for our visit, Saturday night was concert night. It was hot inside and outside the venue. Stupid hot. Despite the heat, and the fact that there are any number of other things to do in a city of 5 million on a Saturday night, it was packed. Not American packed where, “ticket master didn’t confirm my ticket for the lower arena, so I’ll stay home.” It was packed like people sitting in the aisles packed. All the doors opened with people standing outside and peeking in packed. Standing room only on the corners and in the back packed. It was one of the most enjoyable performance experiences that I have ever had. After the concert was over there were standing ovations and genuine love and admiration for these musicians using their God given talents. After the concert, people stayed around and congratulated the performers on a job well done, as well as “los gringos”, like they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium. There wasn’t a mass rush to the exits, trying to beat traffic, or get to a restaurant before the wait gets bad. It was more important for the performers to know the audience’s appreciation for their efforts. Mauricio, who did a beautiful job conducting, fielded countless questions. “When will the next concert be?” or, “How can I be involved?” or, “What can I do to help you and your organization?” In a country where there are so many people who have so very little, seemingly everyone wanted to give something to help grow this orchestra.
Banking left on final approach, I can look over the mountain of human that is currently in a high-fructose-corn-syrup-induced coma, and make out the lights of Louisville through the window. I would like to make sure the gifts that I bought my lovely wife have not been crushed in my back pack, but the thought of having to reach my hand into the dark abyss near the Cheetoh vacuum makes me think twice. Hopefully all will be well. Before I make sure my tray table and seat back are in their upright and locked position, it should be noted that this post was not written to bash American students or audiences. However, I do think that we can learn a lot from our El Salvadoran friends regarding the value of music and value of the hard work required to make it. The people that I had the good pleasure of working with, young or old, established or not, were incredibly passionate and driven to succeed in music. Not success in the way that we measure it here, where we want to win a competition, or a scholarship, or an award, they succeed because it’s important for them to sound good. Also, being a Christian organization, the enjoyment of playing to glorify God is central to these performers’ work ethic. For many of these performers, political and economic situations are completely out of their control, but they have taken a firm grasp of their own musical ability, and are taking it as far as they can. For those who were not musicians, the paying public, they were eager and willing to help give to this orchestra, something that we in America could take a lesson from. The El Salvadorian people, as well as the National Christian Symphony Orchestra of El Salvador, made my visit very pleasant and very enjoyable. They are planning a trip to tour the United States later this year. I just hope that we can present the same kind of environment for their performances here, as I saw there.