Jean Baptiste Dessaix Music School (Ecole de Musique Dessaix-Baptiste)
In an airy, whitewashed room in the Jean Baptiste Dessaix Music School in Jacmel, Haiti, a violin teacher instructs a line of youngsters in the proper technique for holding a bow, while in other parts of the building, students strum guitars, finger flutes, and blow into the mouthpieces of tubas. During breaks in practice, the sounds of a Bach suite can be heard issuing from the auditorium, where a string quartet prepares for a performance.
Only a dozen years ago, such a scene would have been unimaginable in this southeastern Haitian city, where music teachers were scarce and poverty was widespread. But a group of Jacmel citizens had the dream of creating a music school that would provide solid training for children from poor families. The school’s promoters believed that such instruction could help young people use their time in a constructive way, while developing skills that could lead some to careers in music.
With help from both domestic and international partners, this ambitious dream became a reality. The school, which opened in 1998, provides instruments; rehearsal space; and instruction in a variety of string, wind, brass, and percussion instruments. Students can also participate in various marching bands and orchestras, a “big band,” and a choir. During the academic year, the faculty comprises music teachers from Jacmel and Port-au-Prince. The school also offers an intensive summer music camp, which draws volunteer teaching staff from as far away as North America and Europe. The school provides scholarships to encourage the involvement of students from lower-income families and even subsidizes the participation of some of the city’s “street children,” young people who have been abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves in Jacmel.
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 dealt a blow to the school, damaging its building and some instruments. But the faculty has proved resilient. By February, some string lessons and band rehearsals had resumed. And, at the end of August, the school reported that its summer camp had been “very successful,” drawing volunteer teachers from the United States, France, and Canada and earning praise for the rousing closing concerts by the school’s ensembles.
The music school’s success has spawned even bigger dreams. With help from Fondation Dessaix-Baptiste, a national foundation, the school has purchased land and drawn up plans to construct a School for Arts and Culture, which will expand its offerings to include dance, theater, and sculpture, as well.