Mary Kate Mutze studies Music Education at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY Queens College. She dreams of becoming a high school music teacher in her home borough – the Bronx. She volunteered with PAA’s Music Volunteering in Costa Rica program. (And was very excited about bringing home as much coffee as she could.)
I spent an incredible four weeks this summer teaching music to children living in impoverished areas of Costa Rica. It was a transformative teaching experience for me, and reshaped the way I think about music education, social and economic inequality, and the world. I packed big dreams in my luggage: the idea of positive social change through music education, and the knowledge that music has the power to bring hope to children in hopeless situations. But my dreams were sometimes clouded by the challenge of language barriers, a lack of resources, and spotty student attendance records due to the rainy season.
Some days, I felt amazing. When my students shrieked out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on violin, in spite of the hairless bows, my limited Spanish and the noisy construction site we were using for a school, I felt like a pedagogical superhero.
On other days, I struggled to see any musical progress, and I questioned whether I would even be in Costa Rica long enough to make a small impact on these students.
When I returned to school this week for the last year of my music education program, a professor said something that hit home with me. “So much of what we do is invisible,” she said. Those words reminded me of a public school classroom in back in San Jose, Costa Rica and a group of girls with liras learning the song “Soy Tico” by rote. For two weeks, we sang and reviewed phrases over and over to perfect problems with syncopation and notes. Despite the mundane repetition, the girls remained cheerful and laughed with me as we sang parts of the song over and over.
We laughed at ourselves as we sang and danced and I taught them the accented syncopations of the traditional Costa Rican folk song. Although seeing them practice during their lunch breaks in little duos or trios in the courtyard gave me a sense of accomplishment, I still questioned my impact. Realizing that an influx of music volunteers must be the norm in their lives, I doubted any of the girls would remember me. I consoled myself in knowing the girls were mine for a few short weeks this summer, and that our shared enthusiasm and love of rhythm and percussion had bonded us together, even if for just a short time.
As a music teacher, so much of what we do is invisible to the naked eye. We teach for the love of it – and because we know that music has the capacity to bring people of all backgrounds together. This summer, I experienced the joy of teaching and the small victories that resulted from my day-to-day interactions with these children. It was not until the final day that I realized the full impact of my volunteer experience. Two of the girls shyly handed me notes they had made for me – envelopes and all – and written in English. “Para Merry” (For Mary) they read. “I love you. Have a lot of yoga and takes coffee.” I cried when I read those notes.
I realized that I was hoping for a tangible sign that I made an impact in some way while I was there. Those notes were my “aha” moment. They brought home the impact these kids had on me. I will never forget the kids, and this experience. And those notes were packed alongside those big dreams that went back home with me in my luggage. They now have a special place on my desk and in my heart.