SHU Band Director Returns to Haiti to Teach Music

News Story: July 1, 2010
Keith Johnston

While much of the Port Au Prince section of Haiti, and its residents, are still in a state of complete disarray and chaos after the devastating January 2010 earthquake, Sacred Heart University’s Director of Bands, Keith Johnston, is doing everything he can to ensure that the beat of the struggling nation goes on.

Johnston, who has a long and varied career conducting ensembles within the United States, is just days of away from returning to Haiti - for the second time in three years - to teach and conduct music to young Haitian musicians.

Johnston first ventured to Haiti in the summer of 2008 after learning about the Holy Trinity School of Music, which is the most well-established music school in the country. The music school is part of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which has a main campus located in Port Au Prince, and a summer music camp about 20 miles south in Leagone.

The school itself was founded in 1927 by the Sisters of St. Margaret, an Episcopal order of nuns based in Boston, Mass., which educates both boys and girls in all facets of education and since adding the music school in 1963, has gained international recognition with chamber ensembles, a philharmonic orchestra, and a boys choir that has toured the U.S. several times over.

Back in 2008, Johnston said he was originally exploring performance opportunities for the band in Haiti but quickly realized his talents might be better served teaching music to the children of the impoverished nation.

Johnston decided to take his success as a band director at SHU, which during his tenure included developing a nationally recognized program that tours, commissions and has been featured in several national television ad campaigns, and working with other college music professors from across the US, hopefully create an even stronger music foundation at the Haitian school.

“At first I had no idea what I was going to find when I went down there, I originally thought it was a good idea to do something very, very different,” Johnston said. Soon he found himself surrounded by approximately 150 students, who were not only were in various stages of musical talent but who were also in various stages of learning the English language.

Mirroring the words of the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind,” Johnston, knowing he was going to face some challenges, decided to go into his first trip to the third world nation with an open mind, an open heart and open ears.  “The country in general speaks the Haitian Creole dialect, but most spoke enough English that we could function but of course music was the common language that we all shared,” Johnston said.

While in Haiti he taught low brass students, chamber music, and conducted the Le Grand Harmonie, a select wind ensemble of professionals, teachers, and advanced students.

Besides the language barrier, Johnston knows that while embarking on his second trip he will face much harder challenges, especially since most of the school’s facility, instruments and music sheets were destroyed in the earthquake. Due to the damages the school faced, Johnston has also become involved in Instrumental Change Inc., which is currently focused on taking donations from around the U.S., including sheet music, instruments and financial donations, and donating the items to the music school.

“Right now the conditions at the school are very different from my first trip,” Johnston said, who will be at the camp from July 24 until August 2.

Originally there was electricity, which ran on a timed generator, but now there is no electricity,” he said. Instead of sleeping in dorm style rooms, the female volunteers will be sleeping in classrooms and the men will be sleeping on the floor of the sanctuary. As for the drinking water, Johnston said, “Right now, we don’t know if it’s safe to drink because it is no longer treated and I will be bringing down some meal replacement bars just in case.”

But given the hardships he will face on his journey, Johnston knows that it is just a drop in the bucket compared to what the people of Haiti are experiencing daily since the earthquake. “I want these kids to get something positive out of something that has been so horrible,” Johnston said.

Adding, “I know that there will be a lot of challenges but my goal is to get these kids to focus on doing some productive, especially during times like this.”