John Eckstein: the experience that opened our eyes

This April cellist John Eckstein travelled to Jacmel in Haiti as part of a Utah Symphony Orchestra outreach project – the Haitian National Orchestra Institute. Here he reports for IAM on the experience of working with young, talented musicians who lack the opportunities many young Western musicians have.

Reality checks are always somewhat disorienting, and witnessing a population with an entirely different set of life circumstances is more than a little food for thought. Not to get too far into the clichés of ‘what we take for granted here’, but seriously – we take so much for granted here in the US!

During the summer of 2016, three of us from the Utah Symphony travelled to Haiti to volunteer our services at the Holy Trinity Summer Music Camp located outside Port-au-Prince. My long-time friend and BLUME Haiti president, Janet Anthony, was our host for a challenging week of teaching and performing. The conditions were not comfortable, but the students provided an inspiration that would long outlast our memories of oppressive heat and mosquito nets. They offered a reminder of musical exploration in its purist form: a warm-hearted, open approach that was all about the love of the art.

Utah Symphony Orchestra musicians arrive in Haiti

In the US finding teachers who have had rigorous training, getting good instruments in acceptable playing condition and obtaining sheet music are all things that are part of the normal student experience. None of these are givens in Haiti. In a country ravaged by a history of corrupt government and natural disasters, it’s almost a miracle that anyone would be playing Beethoven. But that is exactly what many students are doing.

When I asked Janet why so many music programmes popped up after the 2010 earthquake disaster, she responded with a far off look and said she had wondered the same thing many times. The best theory seems to be the desire for transcendent experiences in a place that needs them. I’m sure the parents of these students also know that it’s hard to hold a gun if you have a violin in your hands. 

The genesis of an idea

After a week of teaching at the Holy Trinity Camp, the three of us visited the coastal town of Jacmel. There we treated ourselves to a nice hotel with a gorgeous view and air conditioning. It seemed like paradise.

After a little teaching at the local Dessaix-Baptiste Music School, I was sitting on the patio staring at the ocean when a very simple idea occurred to me. I happen to know a lot of people who know a lot about music and their instruments. As graduates of conservatories and universities such as Curtis, Juilliard, Eastman, Indiana and Northwestern, the legacy of teaching at the highest level dwells within these people. Now as members of a professional American orchestra (Utah Symphony), they are uniquely qualified to pass that legacy on to those who need it. I had just met a large group of people who needed it. It wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius, more like connecting the dots. After several conversations with Janet, the idea for the Haitian National Orchestral Institute took shape.

Volunteering within our field of expertise

Since I am a cellist, I spent my days in Jacmel with the cello students. We worked on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and selections from Bizet’s Carmen. One particularly enlightening activity was singing our most important phrases as a group. Free from the technical challenges of the instrument, these musicians sang with both beauty and intelligence. Perhaps a national strength, their singing was not only in tune and lovely, it was insightfully phrased. Notes of significance were treated as such and resolutions were unmistakable.

John Eckstein and Anne Lee leading cello sectionals
John Eckstein and Anne Lee leading cello sectionals

It was at this point that I realised that musical talent was not an issue here. (It also didn’t hurt to see one of the violinists play both tenor sax and trumpet with panache at the post-concert party. None of us could do that). What we were witnessing were highly talented musicians who lacked a direct connection to the conventions of their instruments. These were students who were playing from a Xerox of a Xerox, who didn’t have a practice space, who didn’t have a teacher whose teacher had studied with Casals – who often times didn’t have a teacher at all. The realisation that we could be the link between our art, our advantages, and these wonderful people was an inspiration to us all. Naturally we believe in the power of music to cure, and now we had the chance to be practitioners.

When you’re surprised by your friends – in a great way

It takes a leap of faith to trust a colleague who says, “come with me to Haiti, we’ll make a difference.” My sales pitch was simple and always the same. “Let’s take that one vacation week in the spring, travel to Haiti and teach some very deserving students. It should only cost you around USD1000 (€915).” Surprisingly, it worked with nearly all of the colleagues I asked! Populating the programme with a remarkable faculty proved to be the easiest part of the entire project.

What are the costs of launching something like this?

Given that we all donated our time and airfares, the whole project ended up costing just under USD30,000. The institute served students from 19 different music programmes from throughout Haiti. The round-trip bus transportation and room and board for the 75 students from outside of Jacmel represented over half of the total budget. Student transportation within Jacmel, lunches for the students from Jacmel and other smaller expenses took the total north of USD20,000. Hotels and transportation within Haiti for the faculty represented the rest of the budget.

US Photo 2
Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer rehearses the National Institute Orchestra


It was done on a shoestring, but everyone seemed happy with the remarkable experience. The Institute was entirely free to all of the students, a necessity in Haiti. We also took with us 17 instruments and a dozen bows that were left for BLUME to distribute to music programmes of their choice. In addition to the orchestral programme, our luthier JP Lucas came and taught string instrument repair to a rapt quintet of eager students. Scott Harrison, executive director of the LA Chamber Orchestra and BLUME Board member also joined the project, leading an arts management seminar for the week.

Where do we go from here?

The list of organisations that have dedicated great effort to Haiti in the short term is long. If we want to have a truly meaningful impact, we need to be the rare organisation that doesn’t give up. The perseverance of these student musicians is the very best example. Operating in an environment that is stacked against them, they have reached great heights. Their ability to sit down as an orchestra and play Beethoven’s Fifth is a remarkable achievement given the circumstances. It is our hope that this enterprise can continue on a yearly basis, cementing musical relationships and having a lasting impact on the study of music in Haiti. The ready availability of highly trained volunteers would make anything less seem like a missed opportunity.

You can read violinist Yuki McQueen’s account of the trip here.