Elmhurst in Depth

The Lessons of Jamaica

Every January for the past 20 years, Professor Judy Grimes has taken groups of Elmhurst students on two-week trips to Jamaica. But this is no midwinter vacation. Grimes and her students work in financially challenged schools around Montego Bay, teaching music to Jamaican children and donating instruments and school supplies that have helped launch and sustain band programs there. The trip is part of Grimes’ popular January Term class, Educational Experiences in Jamaica. She told FYI how the annual trips change lives in Montego Bay and in Elmhurst.

Your students tutor Jamaican children and work in classrooms alongside Jamaican teachers. But you say your students do more learning than teaching. What do you mean?
Any time we work side by side with other teachers, our experience is based on collaboration. We work with wonderful Jamaican teachers, and we share approaches to teaching and the way we play a musical instrument. Musicians practicing together might exchange ideas on the fingering of passages or the broader interpretation of a work. Some of our students are studying to be teachers, but they’re not officially teachers yet. So I don’t want our students to think they know everything about teaching. They also learn that music really is an international language, and that teaching music enhances the international exchange culturally and academically.

What’s it like to see your students working with the Jamaican students?

It’s a powerful experience. Some of the Jamaican students never have had a private music lesson. The Jamaican students work hard and are excited to have specific help on an instrument. When Elmhurst students tutor the younger Jamaican students, there’s a lot of laughing and hugging. In any band, your success depends on your ability to work as a team. That’s what this is all about. Our students get the sense that they’ve made a contribution and touched the future.

In addition to helping launch bands in several Jamaican schools, you have supplied the schools with instruments. Why is that such a critical piece of the program?
Jamaica is an island, and just about everything has to be imported except the rum and the sunshine. The high taxes on imports make it difficult to get the needed materials. That’s why we donate a lot of musical instruments and instructional materials. We work all year, getting used instruments and repairing them. With a grant from Elmhurst’s Service-Learning program, we are able to purchase used instruments. This year, we donated 30 more instruments, one for each of the students we took to Jamaica.

Why are the band programs you helped start so important to the Jamaican schools?
Tourism is the number one industry in Jamaica, and there isn’t a resort or a hotel that doesn’t have a band. So being a musician means opportunity for employment. That’s one reason why the schools were so interested in starting band programs. And being part of a band gives some students a reason to stay in school. Many band students go on to become teachers, lawyers, doctors and leaders in the community. Some of the music teachers we work with today got their start with us when they were 12 years old and students in the Jamaican band programs.

What do you hope your students take away from the experience?
My number one goal is that they develop a respect for the dignity of another culture and not just think that Americans have all the answers. And it is fun to share music and make bonds for a lifetime with both your Elmhurst teaching team and the Jamaican teachers and students.  

Fun, but not a vacation, right?

Sometimes people say, “Enjoy your vacation,” and that annoys me. I’m not sure being responsible for 30 college students is much of a vacation. But it is a joy.

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