Mona Sangesland is now an active flutist and teaching artist in the Boston region. She is currently finishing her Master of Music degree at the New England Conservatory. This summer she participated in the Music Volunteering in Costa Rica program.
“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”
–Australian Aboriginal, Elder Lillia Watson
Before embarking on my adventure that was music volunteering in Costa Rica, I told my acquaintance, Sunni, (who works for Engineers Without Borders) about my grand life plans to use music for gender and social empowerment in foreign countries. Costa Rica was to be my first taste of what global outreach could be like, and I applied for the program with no idea of what to expect. Normally, this type of declaration is met with encouragement and positivity, because, honestly, who isn’t supportive of social change? Contrary to what I expected, Sunni warned me that undertaking such an endeavor without understanding the culture or language can do more harm than good. I’d never thought of volunteering in such a way, and I’m sure most other people haven’t either, but up through my departure, I thought about her words frequently (and still do, every day).
Most of the time we enter volunteer programs with preconceived notions of what we want to accomplish, what we think the other group needs, and maybe even what we need in order to feel like we are making a difference in the world. Often, we forget the beauty of simply listening to the group we wish to assist. Because we have the tools to help them, we think we know what’s best. For me, this is how I first approached the idea of volunteering in Costa Rica. Initially, I thought, “I will teach underserved children the flute and it will be exciting for everyone. Maybe I can inspire some to become flutists, and by focusing on music they will forget about the hardships of life”. Once I got there, I realized the students I worked with weren’t too interested in learning the flute. Some were interested in playing the recorder, but most wanted to play games. So we played games that involved music, the types that you would encounter in 1st or 2nd grade.
The lesson plans I had drafted in my head were all scrapped on day one because 1) there were no flutes, 2) I had little to no assistance from authority figures in the schools, and 3) the children just wanted to play. As a conservatory-trained musician, playing musical games with 10-year olds would probably be seen as a waste of my skills. However, this situation gave me the opportunity to be creative and step outside of my comfort zone.
Through extensive international travel prior to my volunteering in Costa Rica, I feel that (over time) I have developed the ability to “go with the flow”, which can be very hard for Americans to do. My pre-departure orientation also stressed the importance of being open to a change of plans on a whim (and now I know why, because Costa Rican society is less structured than what I am used to!) I also think it helped that I didn’t know very much Spanish, because that encouraged me to listen to the children in ways that transcended language, by approaching each day with an open mind and heart. I could not verbally communicate with them very well, but I wasn’t going to let that deter me from listening and sharing music!
And so, faced with a situation over which I had no control, and with Sunni’s words in mind, I decided that my reason to be here is to spread the joy of music, hopefully encouraging the students to see how fun music can be. To be honest, I am not the person who is going to elevate them from their social sphere, to make them have a life that is “successful”. But maybe by being there, I was able to encourage even just one student to see that music is fun, and perhaps they will turn to music when times are tough. And, for me, that alone is enough to make what I do valid. The students benefit, and I benefit. Because we are sharing something in common, this is a perfect volunteering scenario.
I left America thinking I knew what being open-minded was like, but Costa Rica showed me how valuable it is to have an open mind each and every day of your life. I never knew what each day would bring, but there is some beauty in living your life that way, because it allows you to be creative, to improvise, and to be attuned with your surroundings, and these are the skills that will take you far in life.