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Jamaica plain

String theory

Guitar lessons for local Spanish-speaking seniors strike a chord for effort aimed at widening horizons

By Tara Murphy
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2008
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The Friday afternoon was unseasonably warm for fall , with a cloudless blue sky and temperatures in the upper 70s. Parks and sidewalks across the city were packed with people out enjoying the weather. But on Lamartine Street in Jamaica Plain, all the real action was happening inside.

The draw? Guitar practice. And the crowd? A lively group of budding musicians - most of whom brought an excellent command of the Spanish language and a lengthy catalogue of life experiences to their new craft.

"I worked all my life," explained Magdalena Rodriquez, mother of three, grandmother of seven, and a native of Puerto Rico. She grinned and energetically strummed a few chords for emphasis. "But now I'm just playing my guitar!"

Guitar lessons for Spanish-speaking seniors have been offered in Jamaica Plain since February. The classes were conceived when Giovanna Tapia, who directs the local Spanish Immersion language program, crossed paths with Eduardo Rojás, who had taken a job as her office assistant. Tapia soon discovered that Rojás, a native of Colombia, was a highly skilled music instructor. One thing led to another and, before too long, Rojás found himself teaching guitar to the seniors signed up for Tapia's other Spanish Immersion activities.

"He told me, 'I can teach music,' " remembered Tapia, who herself arrived in the United States from Peru less than a decade ago. "It was a good idea. In Latin America, everyone loves music!"

The classes at the Nate Smith House started out with just nine students and a handful of donated second-hand guitars. Word spread quickly, however. A second class was added. And still people kept coming.

Indeed, on this particular Friday, the group assembled for the weekly practice session overflowed the tiny room set aside for them in the elder housing facility, spilling seniors and their music stands out into the hallway. More than a half-dozen Latin American countries were represented among the regular participants. The class also included two neighborhood teenagers and an 80-something woman from South Boston who spoke not a word of Spanish but said she had always hoped to learn guitar.

The settling in took some time. Gradually, snatches of melody and high-pitched twangs filled the air while Rojás inched his way around the room, correcting fingerings and offering words of encouragement. Finally, he raised his baton. All at once, the class came together, their voices lifted in uneven song.

The tune was "Las Mañanitas," beloved throughout Latin America. The seniors frowned in concentration at the scores perched on their music stands, as they strummed the chords that went with the familiar lyrics. Then they broke into excited chatter when they made it through without a hitch.

The mood was festive as the class prepared for the next song, "De Colores," also a Latin American favorite. But it was clear that many of the students had serious agendas for their music lessons.

Rodriguez and Costa Rica native Hilda Ortega, for example, were aiming to get good enough to perform at their respective churches, they said. Juan Briceno, originally from Peru, flexed his fingers, explaining in halting English that he intended to overcome his arthritis.

For her part, Tapia said that she sees the guitar lessons as yet another mechanism for breaking out of the isolation that can plague seniors when English is not their first language.

Spanish Immersion's hallmark program, which Tapia launched in Jamaica Plain in 2006, tackles this problem by matching Spanish-speaking seniors with Spanish learners as conversation partners. Tapia noted that learning the guitar offers an added benefit: keeping the musicians' minds (as well as their fingers) nimble by engaging them in mastering new skills.

Jose Acajabón is one senior who proved more than up to the challenge.

Originally from Guatemala, Acajabón speaks very little English and had never played a musical instrument before showing up to learn guitar. Yet, Rojás confirmed that he took to the classes immediately, quickly developing rhythm, intonation, and memory, and then constantly looking to learn new songs.

Clad in an open-collared shirt tucked neatly into belted jeans and a baseball cap emblazoned with "#1 Abuelito" (grandfather) in bright blue, Acajabón listened intently as he was asked if he was finding it difficult to learn the guitar. As he responded, his stern expression gave way to a broad smile.

Tapia translated: "He says no - and in just a little more time, he will be ready to make CDs."

Tara Murphy can be reached at murphyt709@aol.com.

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