Musical Exchange: ‘¡BLAIR!’ expands the Blair School’s Latin American Efforts

Costa Rica native Jose Sibaja, associate professor of trumpet
Costa Rica native Jose Sibaja, associate professor of trumpet, photo by Susan Urmy

Building connections with Latin American musicians has been a major focus for the Blair School’s Thomas Verrier since first traveling to Central America in 2009. Now he and a group of like-minded Blair faculty members are formally focusing their Latin American efforts under the label “¡BLAIR!”

An acronym for “Blair’s Latin American Initiatives and Resources,” the “¡BLAIR!” branding will encompass a variety of Latin American-themed events at the school and build upon current efforts by Blair faculty to plan more collaborative opportunities.

“We have several faculty members now who have created opportunities for cultural exchanges in Latin America and are affiliated faculty with the Center for Latin American Studies,” says Verrier, associate professor of music, senior band conductor, and director of wind ensembles. In addition to Verrier, these include Robbie Fry, senior lecturer in music history and literature; Ryan Middagh, senior lecturer and director of jazz studies; and Jose Sibaja, associate professor of trumpet.

“This is an attempt to create an umbrella for ourselves to brand activities that our faculty are already doing and to explore new collaborations as well,” Verrier says.

Activities kicked off in February with Dominican composer Socrates Garcia working with the Blair Big Band, and continued with February’s Vanderbilt Wind Symphony concert, which featured Sibaja as trumpet soloist and for which Fry gave a preconcert lecture.

Blair’s outreach to Latin America began in 2009 when Verrier traveled to Costa Rica and returned with a proposal to create a partnership with the country’s Sistema Nacional de Educación Musical, a youth music education program known as SiNEM. Blair’s contribution originally was in the training of SiNEM instructors through conducting, pedagogy and musicianship workshops, both in Costa Rica and Nashville. Blair music education students also have traveled there for residencies.

In addition, there is now an association with the University of Costa Rica, which sent a graduate conductor to Blair last year for a residency. Blair also has developed a relationship with the Latin American Music Workshop in Panama, which is sending a graduate conductor this year for a similar residency.

Middagh’s work in Latin America has included taking a student jazz quartet to perform and teach in Colombia two summers ago. And Sibaja took a brass quintet to Costa Rica last summer to give lessons and concerts by invitation of the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano.

Sibaja also has plans to perform this year with the National Symphony of Costa Rica and with the National Orchestra of the Dominican Republic.

The Vanderbilt Wind Symphony, in collaboration with Sibaja, will finish recording a CD called Spanish Eyes in early March. Immediately after its completion, 28 members of the group will travel with Verrier during Vanderbilt’s spring break to Medellín, Colombia, where they will perform, teach and play concerts with Colombian student musicians throughout the country, leaving a week later from Bogotá. Support for the trip came from musical-instrument maker Yamaha and the U.S. State Department.

“This is only the beginning of several projects,” Verrier says. “We hope to bring a real connection from Latin America into the building for our students, and the Center for Latin American Studies has been very supportive of our work to bring Latin American directors here to study.

“With the help of Vanderbilt and the Blair School, having the resources to find these opportunities is the gift of my life,” he says. “I’m excited we’re moving forward in finding ways to connect these worlds. I can think of no more important time for our students to have opportunities to be more globally minded.”

–Bonnie Arant Ertelt