The Haitian National Orchestral Institute Nurtures Talent Under Pressure

By John Eckstein

Photos by Yuki MacQueen

Even after spending most of the previous seven months fundraising and planning for that exact moment, it was still surreal to see 15 of my friends from the Utah Symphony and one from the Detroit Symphony standing with me on a little stage in Jacmel, Haiti. The large room was filled edge to edge with 104 of the most talented and dedicated music students gathered from 19 different schools throughout the country. This was the first day of the Haitian National Orchestral Institute, a weeklong workshop, and we were about to get to work. The following day, Thierry Fischer, the Utah Symphony’s music director, would arrive, and the institute would be at full strength.

Blue rotary fans, perched high on the walls every few meters, whirred at full speed. The tropical sun streamed through the deep arched windows across the mottled golden-orange walls. The building, with its well-worn wooden floor and open shutters, exuded an old-world atmosphere, and it was easy to imagine Jacmel’s heyday as a thriving colonial port town. The air was heavy with humidity and a faint, musty scent, but the excitement of the students and the freshly arrived symphony musicians was palpable.

On one edge of the stage stood Janet Anthony, my friend of 30 years. Transitioning with ease between English and Haitian Creole, she introduced each of the visitors to the applause of the rapt student orchestra. If this project was the union of two cultures through a shared love of music, it was also the joint effort of people from two organizations—the Utah Symphony and Building Leaders Using Music Education (BLUME) Haiti. Janet is the president of BLUME, which is dedicated to developing leadership skills and awakening individual potential through the study of music. She is a hero to many.


Since I am a cellist, I spent my days in Haiti with the cello students and my colleague Anne Lee. We worked on Beethoven 5, Schubert Unfinished, 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 instruments, these musicians sang with both beauty and intelligence.

Perhaps a national strength, their singing was not only lovely and in tune, but also insightfully phrased. Notes of significance were treated as such, and resolutions were unmistakable. At that moment it became strikingly clear to me that musical talent was not an issue here. (It also didn’t hurt to see one of the violinists play tenor sax and then trumpet with remarkable panache at the post-concert party. None of the professional symphony musicians could do that.) We were working with very talented musicians who simply lacked consistent access to the lessons, instruments, and conventions afforded by more affluent circumstances. Hearing them sing crystallized in my mind the value of this great effort. These students needed our help to unlock more of their musical gifts, and that made this the best place in the world for us to be.

Utah Symphony musicians

When I first concocted the idea for this institute, I shared it with Janet, but I wasn’t sure how my colleagues would respond. “How about using your one vacation week in the spring to go to Haiti? We’re going to teach some wonderful students. By the way, it’s all volunteer work and you need to pay your own airfare.” But the response was unequivocally enthusiastic. Almost everyone I asked jumped in, including our music director!


Though I refer to the institute’s participants as “students,” “participants” might be closer to the mark. In Haiti there isn’t a violinist down the street with a Juilliard diploma on the wall. In many cases, these students are also teachers at their own schools. Partly for this reason, we spent much of our time working on pedagogy and exercises. We also brought my good friend and favorite luthier, John Paul Lucas, with us. JP spent his days on the roof imparting his knowledge and technique to a quintet of eager Haitian luthiers. In the process,
he brought two cellos back to life. We had also brought nine flutes, two clarinets, three violins, three violas, a dozen bows, and many other donated musical supplies for BLUME to distribute to Haitian schools.

While I’m sure it is difficult to put on a music program anywhere, Haiti offers some unique complications. Due to the financial realities there, we needed to make the institute entirely free to all of the participants. This included round-trip transportation to Jacmel and room and board for the 75 students from outside the area, as well as lunch and transportation within Jacmel for the 30 local participants. We raised almost $30,000 and needed every penny to make it work. This was truly a team effort. It could not have happened without the hard work of everyone, including Utah Symphony board members and management.


Our one week passed all too quickly, but we accumulated a trove of vivid memories. The students spent mornings with their instrumental teachers in sectionals and lessons, and afternoons with maestro Fischer and his assistant, Haitian-born conductor Canes Nicolas. Each day saw vast improvement, leading up to a very special concert of the Haitian National Orchestral Institute on Friday evening. By this time, we were heavily invested in these musicians, and enjoyed the concert as if it were at Carnegie Hall. After the concert, we celebrated the conclusion of the institute with a party featuring a massive jam session, lots of local food, and the absolute best dancing I’ve ever seen.

The trouble with doing something important and successful is that it makes you want to do it again. If we are to have a truly meaningful impact, we need to follow the example of our new Haitian friends. Through their relentless perseverance, determination, and optimism, these students have soared to great heights, despite operating in an environment where all odds are stacked against them. Their ability to sit down as an orchestra and play Beethoven 5 is a remarkable achievement given the obstacles they face.

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 remarkable willingness of my highly trained, eager, and compassionate colleagues would make anything less a lamentable missed opportunity.