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Making the World Better Through Music

How meeting the Juniata College Choir lifted my spirits

sunny 69 °F


I made a phone call last week to an old friend, Jorge Chojolán, director of the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Xela. We’ve only met in Washington, DC a few times, but he is an old soul and you can’t but help to say “old friend” when talking about him. I wanted to visit the school, so I asked “could I come this week?” He quickly replied that he had a wonderful idea! “Stone Church arrives today in Antigua, perhaps you can get a ride with them because they come tomorrow.” I met up with “Stone Church” at the hotel, but it really wasn’t Stone Church group it was one member of the Church, Henry, and the Choir of Juniata College. He helped to organize their visit to Guatemala. That Saturday night I attended a performance in Central Park and I was blown away. OK, I’m not any kind of an expert on choir music, but what I heard was great. I had been feeling a little blue, but these young people perked me back up. I just didn't realize how much more than a choir they were.

I recorded them singing Laudate Dominum and I heard a little girl in my row ask her dad “¿Papi, asi as que cantan los ángeles?” (Daddy, is that the way angels sing?) Kind of sums it up.

Sunday morning I went to the 9:00 children’s mass at La Merced and listened to the Choir sing two songs. It’s not normal for clapping at this church, but people did clap and clap loudly. What the choir didn’t know was that the cameras facing them with the technicians was actually broadcasting the mass live in Antigua’s local television station! So they are now celebrities without knowing it.

Around noon, I hitched a ride with the choir and we arrived in Xela about 4:30 pm. The choir went on to practice for a couple of hours and I met up with Jorge, Veronica (his wife), Laura (one of his four daughters) and Sara (a staff member from Juniata). We got caught up with what’s been happening at the Academy and I was thrilled to learn that they are now offering a full high school program and a diploma that allows the students to continue to study at University.


We left COFA (a Catholic Hospitality Center) in time to make it to the Academy by 7:00 pm. We were welcomed by Jorge and a large group of faculty, parents and students. They invited us to a feast prepared by the parents. What had been originally planned as a simple gathering for the college students after a long ride from Antigua, Guatemala turned into a full-fledged celebration replete with every kind of possible Guatemalan delicacy including Chicken in Green Pipian Sauce (which is long considered Guatemala's national dish. If pepian wasn’t enough the cooks had prepared a second chicken in red sauce dish, tamales made from black corn masa, rice with veggies, black beans, fresh fruits, and sweet tamales for desert! No one complained of hunger.


The evening was one of few speeches, but much fun. A particularly festive activity was realized when one of the students, Neil Donovan, pulled out a bag of balloons and began to make balloon figures. He was the most popular person in the building among the young and old.


The forty seven college students disbursed after dinner to play soccer, talk to children, family and staff. Lack of language skills did not detour the Juniata students from trying to get to know the people around them and everyone associated with the academy felt them to be genuine. Here are Aley and Lauren taking a photo with two of the mothers.


At the end of the evening, Jorge met with a group of the Juniata students who had prepared lessons for the next day. The classes included teaching: basic music theory (to help the academy’s choir), children’s songs, the physics of sound, sports, health and nutrition, psychology, and mime. The next morning the groups rotated through the classrooms teaching the lessons they prepared. The Juniata students were impressed with how polite and well behaved the children were but we were more impressed with how these college students had thought carefully about what to present and moreover making it age appropriate for each classroom. The children’s songs class had a particularly interesting time since they taught every class except one. Kindergarten students were taught a song about “Head, shoulders, toes” and some rhythm using clapping while fifth and sixth graders were taught “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds and vocal exercises that morphed into a beat box with harmony. All the teachers commented that it was the most interesting classes they’d ever had with volunteers.

After a full day of working with children the choir made their way to sing a concert at Casa No’j Cultural Center in downtown Xela. The Miguel Angel Asturias Children’s Choir played two songs before the Juniata Choir took the stage which was actually the second floor balcony of the center. The video shows the two working together at the school earlier in the day. Here are choir members "helping" the children's choir with one of their songs.

The Juniata Choir played a one hour concert with five sections. The songs were a thoughtful considered mix of baroque, religious, spiritual, and a bit of fancy. We were all impressed and thrilled to listen to the beauty and quality of the music. The final song of the evening was a beautifully arranged piece by Dr. Russ Shelley, Juniata’s Choir Director, titled “Set Me as a Seal” based on the Song of Solomon. It was particularly meaningful in this time of lent. The audience seated in the courtyard below rose to a standing ovation in appreciation for the wonderful music. Best of all the concert was broadcast live over Radio Quetzaltenango!


Tuesday morning the Choir boarded buses and headed out to meet one of the academy student's family: Alfonso and his wife, Enedina. The drive was about 35 minutes away in the village of Pachaxk Cantel in Canton. Their son, Melvin, attends InterCap and the Academy every day. The family, like many of our families, live a simple existence. Alfonso said he and his wife never attended school but they wanted to ensure their children were educated. Their first son attended the Academy and graduated with an electrical degree and now works for fixing electrical equipment. Alfonso showed the choir his vegetable garden and Enedina joyfully gave a tour of her kitchen. Below is a musical thank you from the seniors in the choir to Alfonso and Enedina.

The choir then made a trek further up the mountain to get a view of the city. Below is a group photo from the overlook.



Over the next few days the choir sang at the Metropolitan Theater in Xela, an outdoor Amphitheater in San Marcos de la Laguna, a gymnasium in Panajachel, back to Antigua, another concert in Guatemala City and then head home.

The Juniata Choir gives me great hope for the future. These young men and women are not trying to become the next American Idol, they sing because it brings joy to them and to the audience. They are studying to be doctors, scientists, liberal arts majors, with dozens of other wonderful fields in between...and in the mean time they will travel the world, do good and spread joy through their music. And if their selflessness of spreading joy was not enough, they announced in Xela that they had decided to sponsor a scholarship at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy for next year. Hallelujah!

Posted by Aeren 12:09 Archived in Guatemala Tagged children education students xela singing choir quetzaltenango

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