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How Utah Symphony is improving the lives of young Haitian musicians

Music education is not something that young musicians in Haiti take for granted.

Yuki MacQueen, a Utah Symphony violinist, made this observation last summer when she traveled to Haiti with two other symphony members to provide a workshop for local musicians. Their success inspired a repeat trip this year, but on a larger scale.

“(We met) these people who are so driven to learn, and we just happened to have the information that they craved,” MacQueen said. “It just felt wrong not to continue sharing. Once we went there and saw that it was helping them a lot, it just seemed silly not to go back and help again.”

And that’s why 16 members of the Utah Symphony and conductor Thierry Fischer took their musical expertise to Haiti to host the first Haitian National Orchestral Institute — a weeklong workshop where they shared their passion and skills with 100 young, talented Haitian musicians. The group got back earlier this month, and MacQueen reflected on the experience in a recent interview.

For MacQueen, the purpose of the trip was embodied in the story of a 14-year-old boy named Ishel.

She met Ishel on her visit to Haiti last year and was immediately taken aback by his talent.

“He’s a really promising violin student,” she said. “If he was in the States under normal circumstances, he would certainly be conservatory material and probably could look forward to a chance at being a musician professionally. … My heart goes out to him, because he is so full of potential and talent, (but) talent needs a safe place to be fostered, and Haiti isn’t always that.”

When MacQueen returned to Haiti last month, she discovered that Ishel had been accepted to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan this summer, but would be unable to attend because of the high tuition cost.

Not wanting Ishel to miss out on this opportunity, MacQueen researched to see if there were other similar, but less expensive, camps that she could recommend. To her delight, she found that another violinist in the symphony had connections with the admissions office at Interlochen. He advocated on Ishel’s behalf and was able to secure a full scholarship for the young musician to attend the camp. Utah Symphony musicians also collaborated to cover Ishel’s travel expenses.

“We were jumping for joy!” MacQueen said. “(The camp) is going to get Ishel in touch with kids his age group at a really high level and inspire him. And when he goes back to Haiti he’s going to be able to share that new knowledge and fresh inspiration with all of his friends and colleagues,” she said.

MacQueen added that Ishel’s upcoming opportunity will also lift his fellow Haitian musicians, since music resources are so scarce in the country.

“(In Haiti), the teacher-student relationship is not always the older master and the young apprentice,” she said. “Oftentimes, it’s a sideways relationship — a student learns a new skill and they share it with the others and that’s how information gets disseminated. … By Ishel being able to come here and gain all this new knowledge that he will get this summer, it’s going to give another boost to music in Haiti.”

As she worked with Ishel and other young musicians throughout the week, MacQueen was especially encouraged and touched by their willingness to learn, practice and keep music a regular part of their lives.

“To a lot of American music students, music is a luxury or sometimes it’s imposed by their parents and it’s a chore,” she said. “But for those kids that we met, none of them were doing it out of obligation to anybody — it was their sanctuary from their tough lives, and their challenging country.”

When asked the possibility of returning to Haiti, MacQueen said the odds were good.

“I am certain I’m going back there,” she said. “I can’t stay away, knowing that there’s this growing need over there. And it’s nice to be able to go there and tell a story about a different angle of Haiti. It’s not about the disasters and the political problems — it’s about the openness and beauty of the people and the country. (Haiti is) a wonderful place with these talented people, and we’ve all been energized by this.”