José Flores calls music “the most powerful connective force on Earth.”
Flores, a senior music education major, has spent much of the past three years finding out just how powerful that force can be. A student conductor, saxophonist and member of nearly a dozen Elmhurst ensembles, he has worked with younger musicians in Jamaica and Japan as a visiting educator. Last spring he was named winner of the Cureton Award for Service to the Global Community, one of three year-end prizes granted to Elmhurst students, in part for his international music education efforts.
“Every time I travel, I learn from the perspectives of the people I meet,” Flores said. “I want to pass that on to the students I work with.”
Flores was born in Mexico and grew up in Tampa and west suburban Oswego. His overseas experiences began when he was just a first-year student at Elmhurst. When Flores learned that Professor Judy Grimes was looking for a student assistant for a trip to Japan, where she would be conducting and teaching an all-star student orchestra, he quickly volunteered. Never mind that the job was one that typically goes to more experienced students.
“When I see an opportunity, I crash through windows to go for it,” he explained.
His determination paid off. Grimes eventually invited Flores to accompany her on the trip. Flores worked so diligently in Japan that he earned the chance to tutor younger musicians there.
“He really excels at working with music students,” Grimes said of Flores. “Even with students he may never see again, he works tirelessly to give them his very best. He embraces the international experience to a level far beyond his young years.”
Flores was able to put teaching skills to work in two subsequent trips to Jamaica during his sophomore and junior years. Flores and other Elmhurst students joined Grimes on two-week trips to Jamaica to work in financially challenged schools around Montego Bay, teaching music and donating instruments and school supplies. Grimes has led the trips annually for more than 20 years. Her efforts have helped launch and sustain numerous school band programs there.
Even though he was by this time an experienced international traveler, Flores admits that he nervous about working in Jamaican schools. He was unsure of the welcome he would receive in the classroom, and even had difficulty understanding the students’ patois. His misgivings disappeared, though, when the Jamaican students invited Flores and his Elmhurst classmates to join them in a rendition of the South African hymn, “Siyahamba.”
“It was amazing the change that happened just because we started singing together,” he recalled. “We weren’t Jamaicans and Americans anymore. We were all just kids. It taught me how important it is not to approach things with fear.”
After graduation, Flores hopes to pursue graduate study in conducting at Northwestern University. Last year he conducted College ensembles at Veteran’s Day concerts and at midyear commencement ceremonies. But his long-term plans involve teaching music in high schools.
“I know I have some positive perspectives to offer, and music is such a great way to reach students,” he said. “I want to do good things for the world.”