JAZZed November/December 2013 : Page 14

student travel student travel Exploring Cuba Firsthand ana Norgaard Leads a Massachusetts high school Jazz Ensemble to havana by Matt Parish he streets of Havana can make for an eye-opening experience for anyone not familiar with Cu-ba’s bustling lifestyle. The noise, sounds, smells, and action demand that visitors think fast and adapt quickly, while the culture’s tendency for improvisation can keep the best trip planners on their toes. It’s a long way from Massachusetts, home to one small group of high school stu-dents who recently traveled to Cuba for a life-changing musical exchange. Their teacher, Ana Norgaard, says that the cul-tural friction is one of the best parts of the experience. “I’m positive that it was overwhelm-ing to them at frst,” she says. “Yet, what was so nice about getting these kids to experience something that made them uncomfortable at times is that they got to question their own views. As an educa-tor, that’s the true grit of it all. Sometimes when you get your hands a little dirty, that’s when the best things can happen.” Norgaard (who’s also a busy profes-sional musician, performing constantly in the Boston area) is the Upper School jazz band director at Beaver County Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where she leads a vibrant music program that houses classes full of bright musi-14 JAZZed • November/December 2013 T Norgaard with Beaver County Day’s “Siete Golpes.” cians in all directions, including straight up jazz, funk, rock, and Afro-Cuban. Last year, though, she took the program up a notch with an ambitious plan to build a two-semester curriculum around in-tensive study of Cuban jazz and culture, culminating in an immersive experience in Havana. The group would interact with Cuban music students on their home turf and visit authentic cultural institutions like the Buena Vista Social Club. There was no guarantee it would work. But Norgaard found her students, who had dubbed themselves Siete Golpes, putting their all into the efort for a full year. When they closed out their expe-rience at the Escuala Nacional de Arte with an impromptu jam session that transcended language barriers, Norgaard knew she had a success on her hands. “It was, without question, the pinnacle of our trip.” The students made lasting

student travel

Matt Parish


Exploring Cuba Firsthand
Ana Norgaard Leads a Massachusetts high school Jazz Ensemble to Havana

The streets of Havana can make for an eye-opening experience for anyone not familiar with Cuba’s bustling lifestyle. The noise, sounds, smells, and action demand that visitors think fast and adapt quickly, while the culture’s tendency for improvisation can keep the best trip planners on their toes. It’s a long way from Massachusetts, home to one small group of high school students who recently traveled to Cuba for a life-changing musical exchange. Their teacher, Ana Norgaard, says that the cultural friction is one of the best parts of the experience.

“I’m positive that it was overwhelming to them at first,” she says. “Yet, what was so nice about getting these kids to experience something that made them uncomfortable at times is that they got to question their own views. As an educator, that’s the true grit of it all. Sometimes when you get your hands a little dirty, that’s when the best things can happen.”

Norgaard (who’s also a busy professional musician, performing constantly in the Boston area) is the Upper School jazz band director at Beaver County Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where she leads a vibrant music program that houses classes full of bright musicians in all directions, including straight up jazz, funk, rock, and Afro-Cuban. Last year, though, she took the program up a notch with an ambitious plan to build a two-semester curriculum around intensive study of Cuban jazz and culture, culminating in an immersive experience in Havana. The group would interact with Cuban music students on their home turf and visit authentic cultural institutions like the Buena Vista Social Club.

There was no guarantee it would work. But Norgaard found her students, who had dubbed themselves Siete Golpes, putting their all into the effort for a full year. When they closed out their experience at the Escuala Nacional de Arte with an impromptu jam session that transcended language barriers, Norgaard knew she had a success on her hands. “It was, without question, the pinnacle of our trip.” The students made lasting connections with their Cuban peers, and were surprised when the Cuban students sent them all concerned emails a month later after the Boston Marathon bombings. They’d made true friends.

JAZZed spoke with Norgaard about the trip, its effectiveness with her students, the magic of exploring new cultures with young musicians, and what trips like this can mean for how schools handle their curriculums in general.

JAZZed: Just for starters, Ana – this was an incredible project.
Ana Norgaard: For me, it was personally one of the most ambitious things I’ve ever done in my life. It took me a year and eight months to prepare and for the whole project to come to fruition. I really wanted to make sure that it was a comprehensive class and not just a trip. Once I got the green light, I was able to dive in and teach them with depth many stylistic nuances of Cuban music. That work previous to the trip was phenomenal because when my students finally got there and played Cuban music for the Cuban musicians, I couldn’t have felt prouder. They did a fantastic job.

JAZZed: There must have been an immense amount of preparation that went into this.
AN: Looking back, it was a tremendous amount of work, but it was so worth it to see them being immersed in something real rather than me simply writing about Cuba up on the whiteboard. This was a true hands-on experience in every way. While we were in Cuba, the students definitely felt uncomfortable at times. Culturally speaking, Cuba is a very different place from the U.S. Imagine throwing seven high school students from Boston in the middle of Havana with all the smells and chaos and music – I’m positive that it was overwhelming to them at first. It took a few days for them to adjust to being in this very different city and culture.

Yet, what was so nice about getting these kids to experience something that made them uncomfortable at times is that they got to question their own views. This experience rattled all of them at the very least. As an educator, that’s the true grit of it all. Sometimes when you get your hands a little dirty, that’s when the best things can happen.

Once I did the legwork and made sure everything was legal by going myself first and saw how safe it is and how eager and open-minded the Cubans were to meet us and work with us, I was able to report back to the school’s administration and got an unequivocal approval to carry out the project. On my first trip, I was able to meet with the head of international cultural affairs to make sure they were open to the exchange. She was immediately very enthusiastic and mentioned an exchange that Wynton Marsalis led in December of 2010 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. So there has been some precedent with professional musicians, but not many programs like this involving high schoolers.

JAZZed: That must have been great for you personally because of your background in Afro-Cuban music.
AN: Yeah, it certainly was – Afro-Cuban music is my true passion and is what I perform professionally. So this was a marriage of my two music related worlds: jazz education and Cuban music. It was amazing to be able to teach my specialty, and to bring the kids down there with me. I’m still kind of in disbelief that it happened. So many magical moments occurred during the trip that I often found myself thinking, “This is crazy. Is this really happening?” In a good way.

JAZZed: Sometimes a little flexibility is necessary in trips like this – was that the case in your experience?
AN: That’s the other thing about Cuba – you have to be flexible because sometimes things won’t happen quite how you think they will. As with a lot of the South American and Caribbean countries, there’s an unpredictability factor going into everything. While in Cuba, magical things started to happen that were totally serendipitous.

A few good examples: Our spontaneous jam session with the Cuban students was without question the pinnacle of our trip. But there was also the time when we realized that the Buena Vista Social Club was playing in a jazz club next door to our hotel. We got to go watch them, or at least one of their many versions. Right now, BVSC is like a brand – everyone in Havana calls themselves that. So when we watched the show, it was phenomenal for the students to witness the best of the best playing the music they had been studying for seven months. They were able to watch the Cuban musicians through an informed lens. It’s one thing to say, “Watch this guy play the tires,” and have it barely register as a sort of guitar playing. But these kids knew exactly what the montuno pattern for the tires is, as well as what the clave is, along with everything else that goes into it.

JAZZed: What types of efforts did you make outside of musical side of the curriculum?
AN: One of the things we had to do in our program was what was called a “civic engagement” component. Our trip had a community service aspect. So we got to visit a senior center and they somehow thought, through some miscommunication, that we were a choir. But our kids can’t really sing at all! These are jazz combo kids. They had no instruments for us, except for one piano at the center. So I asked our piano player student, Liam Brady, to play a short medley of three pieces that we had rehearsed in class. I could predict that we’d probably get a nice reaction of those pieces – one of the pieces was “Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” by Maria Grever, which is a classic, beautiful standard of Cuban music. As soon as Liam reached the chorus section, most of those elderly members of the center started singing and humming along to the melody. I just remember feeling a rush of emotions because I could see some of the seniors weeping. They were so moved that this 16-year-old American was playing one of these Cuban classics for them. It was a really powerful moment and another good example of a spontaneous magical moment we got to live. We captured that moment on video and hopefully in watching it on YouTube, people can see how that moment was truly special.

JAZZed: Your trip coincided with the death Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez – how did that affect things?
AN: The country was officially in mourning. Live music in public spaces was not allowed for three days. Our very first activity after we landed was to go watch an Afro-Cuban folkloric group. When we got there they said, “Sorry, there’s no music. But this is Cuba, what can I say?” So that was one of those kind of unpredictable curveballs that came up. But it was still incredible to visit that site, which is basically an alley. It’s called Callejon de Hamel – it means “Alley of Hamel.” It was developed by visual artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona. This place is an art gallery with a music space where every Sunday several folkloric ensembles perform what’s known as Cuban rumba , which is very different from the American rhumba that stems from ballroom dancing. The music itself is all highly syncopated percussion and vocals. It has very raw high-energy. It is very urban, and unlike most other folkloric Afro-cuban genres such as Bembe, Abakua, and Palo, in which religion is a big part of the music, the Cuban rumba has nothing to do with religion. It’s just people having fun socializing, drumming, singing, and dancing.

JAZZed: Looking into the future, how is this course going to develop?
AN: This class is going to be offered every other year. It was modeled as a twoterm class leading up to the trip, and it has really influenced how the school will be doing trips for students in the future. It will be interesting to see the effect it has on other classes and other destinations for the students. This year there is a trip going to Morocco under a similar model, for primarily French students with some crossover for the global studies classes.

JAZZed: How were your interactions with the student arts programs in Cuba?
AN: I think one of the things that the kids were really impressed with was how efficient the education system is down there and how phenomenal the musicians were at the high school level. They pretty much blew us away. We were really impressed.

On the first day, we got to the conservatory school (Escuela Nacional de Arte) and we got to bring all of our instruments. They played for us and then we played for them. There was also a brief discussion where the students had questions for each other. It was a fascinating first day. The second day, we started the same exchange where they would demonstrate for us and we’d play back, then towards the end, we ended up playing together. That was sort of when the real magic started happening. The Cuban kids were playing with the American kids and everyone was communicating through music. They were speaking the same language. The exchange was fascinating because most of the Cuban kids couldn’t really speak English. Some of our kids speak Spanish, but not truly fluently. Having them play together, as a teacher, was a dream come true.

Read the full article at http://digitaleditiononline.com/article/student+travel/1565610/184898/article.html.

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