Lessons from Haiti

MET Orchestra Assistant Principal Violist Milan Milisavljević spent his 2013 mid-season break teaching music in Port-au-Prince, Haiti --  where he learned just as much as he taught.

by Milan Milisavljević, violist

I have always been interested in teaching and education. The joy of relaying knowledge and sharing something lasting and meaningful with a student has always inspired and fascinated me.

I have been teaching for years, giving masterclasses at schools across the United States and coaching at the Verbier Music Festival in Switzerland, alongside other members of the MET Orchestra. In addition, I received a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree in viola from Rice University several years ago, having written my dissertation while I was already at the Met. A DMA is primarily obtained by performers who aspire to teach at the university level. The memories of my teachers on both violin and viola, and the wisdom they shared, still resonate strongly in my mind, and I aspire to do the same for younger generations of musicians.

That is why I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at the Sainte-Trinité School of Music in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My longtime friend and fellow violist, Enrique Márquez, told me about his work with the Music Education for Social Development Agency Group (MESDA), a Harvard-based nonprofit organization he helped found that is devoted to music education. MESDA offers after-school orchestra programs for at-risk youth in Mexico, Haiti, and Venezuela, and I was so deeply touched by his stories of the students' enthusiasm that I immediately volunteered my services.

The Met's punishing schedule allows for almost no time off between early September and late May, and so I knew that finding time to participate would be problematic. The only possibility was our annual mid-season vacation week, a guaranteed time off we badly need after many weeks of intense, full-on mental and physical effort. By February, I was already exhausted, but once I arranged for that week off, I immediately called Enrique and committed. One month later, in March 2013, I departed on a flight from New York to Port-au-Prince on a seven-day educational mission.

The Met's Assistant Principal Viola, Milan Milisavljević (center, rear), with some of the MESDA faculty and the school's students.

The Met's Assistant Principal Viola, Milan Milisavljević (center, rear), with some of the MESDA faculty and the school's students.

There were seven of us working with MESDA on this trip. Emi was a Juilliard-trained flutist and educator, Céline was a graduate student in clarinet at Boston University, and Lee Ann and Andrea were undergraduates at Harvard, who in addition to their many talents, played the cello and bassoon, respectively. Enrique and I were to teach violin and viola, and a journalism student came along, as well, to shoot documentary footage. We all arrived within days of one another, and were lucky the school had a donated SUV to ferry us between our school and the housing, which were many miles apart. And it was on to teaching right away.

The uniformed schoolchildren who greeted us were smiling, instruments in hand. The violins they had at their disposal were donated low-grade factory instruments, shared between multiple students. To make matters worse, the strings on the instruments were, for the most part, years old and unable to produce an adequate sound. Strings, I realized, were a luxury item; after all, how could the school afford a new set of strings several times a year for each instrument when an entry-level set costs more than the average monthly wage in Haiti? Classical music is an expensive proposition, and that was all the more obvious here, in the Western hemisphere's poorest country. I had come from the most sophisticated music-making environment only hours before, but here was dealing with the very basics of music training and education.

Signs of devastation in Haiti are everywhere. Here, MESDA founder Enrique Márquez visits one the of school's destroyed buildings with a student.

Signs of devastation in Haiti are everywhere. Here, MESDA founder Enrique Márquez visits one the of school's destroyed buildings with a student.

The great earthquake of 2010 killed 160,000 people in Haiti and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings in and around Port-au-Prince. In 2013, the consequences were still visible everywhere. The shacks the school used as classrooms, while spacious and airy, had no glass windows and almost no electric lighting; meanwhile, the school itself had no good pianos or wind instruments. Some of the rubble around the school (in fact, around a lot of the city) had not yet been cleared. We had to find corners in the schoolyard, or a corner in the hall - really, any place without too much noise around us - and just teach right then and there.

The outdoors served as a classroom most of the time.

The outdoors served as a classroom most of the time.

We taught all day, for three to four hours both in the mornings and afternoons, giving individual lessons and sectionals (i.e., rehearsals held for separate orchestra sections before they play with the full ensemble). Occasionally, we were asked to teach an extra lesson to an especially eager student, and we happily obliged. Not only did we teach the students, but we also worked with some of the teachers, none of whom had studied music beyond high school. In addition, I gave a well-received lecture in French to the students' parents, about how to motivate their children to practice consistently at home -- an age-old, universal predicament!

There are very few highly qualified people in all of Haiti to teach music. One of them is Father David César, who hosted us and wears many hats: a Temple University graduate, he is an Anglican priest, and also the School of Music's head, its orchestra conductor, and a violin and viola teacher.  Besides him, there are only a few others, including a blind, Juilliard-trained violinist who was badly injured in the earthquake of 2010. (In fact, dozens of students and teachers of this school alone perished in the earthquake.)

We could only devote about thirty minutes to each student, and did our best to find solutions to the technical problems we were seeing. Interestingly, despite their shabby instruments, most violin students produced a nice, warm tone. Their sound went hand in hand with my firm belief that a strong inner musical voice will transcend equipment and its limitations, whatever they may be. It was just one of many reminders of the metaphysical in our line of work, and a heartwarming reminder of the kids' talent.

The school's new facilities were teeming with students and teachers. Students could be seen practicing almost anywhere.

The school's new facilities were teeming with students and
teachers. Students could be seen practicing almost anywhere.

It was obvious we could not turn things around in seven days, but we did our best to impart knowledge and enthusiasm. Everyone tried hard, and we felt like our efforts were deeply appreciated on all levels. Father David César did his best to make our stay more enjoyable, generously taking us out on the town on several occasions. We also had the assistance and friendship of two young American music teachers who had already been working at the Sainte Trinité School of Music throughout the school year, as part of an unrelated community service program. They had almost become locals, with their fluent Creole and intimate knowledge of Port-au-Prince.

We stayed in the housing of the Anglican church with which the School of Music is affiliated, next to the live-in custodian and his family, who shared their simple food with us. There was no hot water, and the water we had was unsuitable for drinking. Electricity went in and out a few times, and the water supply suffered from interruptions as well -- and we were in one of Port-au-Prince's nicer neighborhoods. But we had camaraderie and a sense of mission. When we wanted a break, we sneaked out in groups for a snack or a drink at nearby establishments catering to foreign NGOs operating in Haiti. This, in addition to the church's wireless internet, greatly improved our daily lives.  

Milan performing with the Sainte-Trinité Philharmonic Orchestra.

Milan performing with the Sainte-Trinité Philharmonic Orchestra.

I had the honor to be invited to perform with the Sainte-Trinité Philharmonic Orchestra, the only regularly performing orchestra in Haiti, consisting of the school's students and other musicians. We performed at a monastery near the city, which seemed to be on a different planet. French-Canadian nuns operated a gorgeous campus there, with impeccably tended gardens and charming architecture. In addition to several concertos performed by student soloists, Enrique and I performed Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by J.S. Bach, and I played a concerto for viola and strings by Henri Casadesus in the style of G. F. Händel -- a little played, but lovely piece of music. My dear colleagues, Michael Ouzounian, Principal Viola of the MET Orchestra, and Rosemary Summers, an Assistant Librarian (now retired), offered invaluable assistance in helping to prepare the sheet music for my performance on short notice. Michael also gave me some sheet music to donate to the school once he heard of my trip.

Our trip ended all too soon, and it was time for me to go back to New York. It had been a grueling and overwhelming week, and I felt bewildered by everything I had seen and experienced. I staggered onto my return flight with serious food poisoning and without my wallet (which had been stolen during one of our nights out), and yet, I was profoundly sad to leave. New York was cold and snowy, and the difference between the place I had just left and the place I called home could not have been more jarring.

Despite my illness, I attempted to return to work at the Met the next day, and found everything to be sterile and incomprehensibly foreign. As I walked around my home, I would suddenly start crying, beset by memories and many unanswered questions. The powerlessness I felt was hard to deal with. The scope of problems in Haiti was overpowering, and what we did to help was just a drop in the bucket. I could not help but wonder what the lives were like of the people I had met. Although I did not know for sure, it was not hard to imagine the tremendous hardships most of them must have been through. And yet, the children showed up every morning on time, in their freshly pressed school uniforms, and eagerly played Bach, Telemann, and Mozart. If anything was perfectly clear to me at that point, it was that whatever cards you're dealt, that's what life is really about: to persevere, to keep trying. 


For information about MESDA and how to donate, contact Enrique Márquez, Founder and CEO, at enrique_marquez@mail.harvard.edu.