Learning Their Language: Building Trust Through Music

Most people study abroad in the hope that they will be changed by the places that they temporarily inhabit, rather than the other way around. But for Nicholas Rocchio-Giordano, MCAS ’18, the experience of studying in Ecuador led to a relationship of mutual change: He tasted the fruits of sharing his passion for music and left behind an ongoing musical partnership, joining abroad students and children’s organizations in Quito.

Growing up in Providence, R.I., Rocchio-Giordano experimented with music, learning piano and guitar, but had yet to “take it seriously” until his senior year of high school. A close friend, Ben, who had played the drums for a while, helped spark Rocchio-Giordano’s interest in the technical side of music.

“We were just hanging out one day and he pointed out the bass part to a song we were listening to: ‘Around the World’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Rocchio-Giordano said. “I’d never listened to just the bass part of any song … And so it was cool that there was this whole other instrument that I had never even been aware of.”

Rocchio-Giordano then found himself listening more intently to music. He picked up the bass six months later and has not put it down since.

Though he had found a passion in music, Rocchio-Giordano did not come to college expressly seeking to pursue it. Once he arrived at Boston College, however, Rocchio-Giordano’s classes in music deepened his passion and connection with the subject. He points to a three-part class called Harmony with professor Ralf Gawlick, one of the first classes he took at BC, as getting him hooked on the study.

“To learn that there is a language to music, a grammar to how you could understand how it works that goes beyond intuition–I had heard of, you know, ‘so-and-so who’s a musical prodigy.’ But it was so cool to me to see that you can learn how to do that. It showed me that you can be taught how to make stuff that I am interested in listening to and pursuing,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

Rocchio-Giordano knew he wanted to study English, but the passion he found for music led him to keep taking classes in the music department.

“I allowed the hard work to take over because it was something that wasn’t horrible.” Rocchio-Giordano said. “It was easier to me than forcing myself to do anything else.”

By the end of his Harmony classes, Nick already had the credits for a minor in music but thought it would be shameful to end his education in music there. So he continued on to major in music and minor in English.

When it came time to study abroad, Rocchio-Giordano had an idea of what he wanted out of an abroad experience but did not have one destination set in his mind—he chose Ecuador on a whim.

“I knew I wanted to go somewhere really far outside my comfort zone, as far out as I was capable of going,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

The school that best fit those parameters was in Ecuador. Rocchio-Giordano chose to study at La Universidad de San Francisco Quito (USFQ).

It was an internal program with a service component, which was a key part of it,” Rocchio-Giordano said. All the classes were in another language, which made me very uncomfortable but very much drew me in.”

Though music was not a decisive factor in where Rocchio-Giordano wanted to study, in what could only be called fate, he ended up at a school with a great music program. The prospect of taking music classes entirely in Spanish excited him and drew him in. The program was also smaller than he expected, with only about five students. His few peers were accomplished in their own passions, and this made Rocchio-Giordano feel a bit of pressure.

“Being around people like that constantly kind of forces you to ask yourself the question, ‘What am I gonna do, what do I have to offer?’” Rocchio-Giordano said.

At first, Rocchio-Giordano’s involvement with service was helping teach English at an elementary school, but he started pondering other options and opportunities, especially given the musical resources of his abroad program.

“I wanted a way that I could share something that would enable me to enable others to grow–something that would allow me to share what I was passionate about but also to experience the lives of others in a way that I hadn’t before,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

Rocchio-Giordano is a vice-president of the Music Guild on campus, which is the go-to music organization for students both in and out of the music department. The club runs a weekly service program in partnership with Unit 1 of the Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Brighton. BC musicians visit the unit, play music, and sing along with the children there. Knowing the benefits that both the children at the hospital and the BC students take from that program, Rocchio-Giordano was inspired to adapt it to his own opportunities in Ecuador.

Rocchio-Giordano pioneered a music program called “El Estilo Salesiano,” or “The Salesian Style,” after a song written by the program’s participants. It functions as a partnership between abroad students studying at La Pontificia Universidad Católica de Ecuador and two after school, YMCA-style shelters for children in Quito named Mi Caleta and GolASO. The name GolASO is a pun of the popular soccer celebratory chant “Golazo,” and it ties together the joy found in popular sports with personal development–GolASO’s two major focuses. The “Gol” is attached to the acronym ASO, which stands for Autoestima (self-esteem), Solidaridad (solidarity), and Organización (organization).

The Mi Caleta shelter, along with others within its the network of the NGO El Proyecto Salesiano Ecuador (PSE), functions as anything from an afterschool study and tutor spaces to a homeless shelters for those in need. PSE shelters have anywhere 50-300 young Quitoans, servicing a range of ages. The purpose of Mi Caleta is to give a safe, social, healthy environment for young students in difficult situations and to help prevent them from falling into more dangerous lifestyles. In Rocchio-Giordano’s program, the abroad students go between Mi Caleta, where they help the kids practice learning and performing, and GolASO, where they assist a children’s choir directed by Carlo Emanuel Cuenta Llena.

The way the program looks now , however, was not what Rocchio-Giordano had originally envisioned. He had hoped to install a music school at Mi Caleta, a more traditional musical education setup, but the resulting program is a product of what fits best for the children of Quito.

Rocchio-Giordano began his engagement at Mi Caleta establishing the trust of the children. Because of the economic situations of many of these students’ families, their lives are assured of little constancy. Rocchio-Giordano’s first two weeks at Mi Caleta were spent showing the young Quitoans that his presence was a long-term one that they could trust. Rocchio-Giordano then began trying to implement the musical education program he had envisioned, teaching formal lesson plans and giving private lessons. It did not go quite as expected.

“[The kids] hated it,” Rocchio-Giordano said. “They chewed me up and spit me back out. It was not fun for them and they were not getting anything out of it.”

With Rocchio-Giordano’s initial roadblocks, his program coordinator Benjamín Pinto suggested he try working at GolASO, a larger, sport-oriented PSE shelter that had a small choir and could use his help. This was disheartening for Rocchio-Giordano: He did not want to give up at Mi Caleta. But he found that he worked well with the choir at GolASO and was able to take that success back to Mi Caleta, adjusting his approach to what would get the students most passionate about music.

“What ended up being most effective was to take my guitar and learn how to play any song they knew—a lot of ‘Despacito,’ a lot of Daddy Yankee,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

He learned songs the kids requested, and they would sing along.

“It very quickly went from an attitude of ‘Wow, who is this guy trying to teach us this nonsense music stuff?’ to ‘Oh wow, he’s playing those songs that I hear on the radio and let’s go sing,’ and before long I got the participation of all the students,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

On Fridays the kids would pick an array of songs that they were interested in, and Rocchio-Giordano would learn them over the weekend. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they would focus on one or two of those songs and practice them for a performance the next Friday. Other students in the USFQ music program would bring their instruments and add them to the songs of the students, and at the Friday performances they would all play and sing together.

All the while, Rocchio-Giordano worked with the choir at GolASO twice a week. Rocchio-Giordano also received the Advanced Study Grant for Thesis Research, which, along with money that he independently raised, allowed the program to buy some new instruments and a proper PA system.

Though Rocchio-Giordano’s program was dropped by USFQ partway through the summer, it began and still has a partnership with La Pontificia Universidad Católica de Ecuador that follows this same system. Volunteers who work in the program today come from three sources: BC, La Católica, and the NGO PSE.

For Rocchio-Giordano, the redirection of the program also changed how he saw the benefits students gained from it. The initial trajectory of a structured school of music became a two-way street of learning, passion, and understanding between the kids of Quito and the students of El Estilo Salesiano.

“I came to see the importance of giving the kids a stage. It was less about teaching them about music. The thing that I love about music was to learn that language and that practice,” Rocchio-Giordano said. “But more importantly for these kids was to give them a way to be heard by the people around them, and to be heard by themselves, in a totally different way.”

By the time the kids at Mi Caleta had reached their big performance at the end of the summer, Nick saw how the program had benefited them, providing an emotional safe space in addition to the physical safe space furnished by the shelter itself.

“You have someone who isn’t talking, who has lived much of their life alone or with people that they cannot trust,” Rocchio-Giordano said. “You give someone like that simply a microphone, they’re not going to do much. You give them a microphone and provide them with a platform, a background to speak over, that’s different.”

He saw this change specifically in a young boy named Alex. Alex went from being the quietest kid in class to the big rapper of the group. He performed in front of hundreds of people, which was exciting for Rocchio-Giordano to see.

“He got to learn how his own voice sounded,” Rocchio-Giordano said.

Another student that stood out was a young teen named Kelly. Although Kelly had a naturally beautiful voice, she was extremely shy throughout the program. But she was also incredibly dedicated outside of practice, rehearsing on her own and rising as a leading figure in the group. Kelly’s commitment influenced her peers to take the program more seriously.

“While the other kids enjoyed the musical aspect of the program, I think what really drew them in was the degree of engagement that kids like Kelly and Alex brought to the table,” Rocchio-Giordano said. Kelly and Alex succeeded in sharing with their peers what it looks like to be passionate about something.”

Kelly and Alex’s natural talent and passion, he said, displayed that “the capacity for dedication and enjoyment of music is something that anyone is capable of feeling and often arises from one’s social commitment to their peers.” The impact of these few passionate students on the group impressed Rocchio-Giordano with “the power of pursued interest.”

In sharing his passion for music, if not his technical knowledge, with the children of Mi Caleta, Rocchio-Giordano came to see music as a powerful emotional medium.

“It doesn’t take much skill to sing along to whatever song is playing, but it does take a lot of confidence,” he said.

He thinks a lot of people want to have the confidence to stand up and sing, but just don’t know that they can. Rocchio-Giordano values that he has found a way to give kids the opportunity to do so.

Rocchio-Giordano’s program, El Estilo Salesiano, is open to anyone studying abroad in Ecuador through BC—there is a junior now who is following Rocchio-Giordano’s system.Rocchio-Giordano stresses the two-way street of personal growth and change that participating and developing this program has had on him as a person and as a musician. He encourages people excited about music to consider partaking in it, or others like it, such as the one through the Music Guild.

Professor Barbara Gawlick of the music department, who has helped initiate similar music programs through BC in the past and has offered support and inspiration to Rocchio-Giordano throughout his process, lauded his ability to carry his passion beyond music to service. She says that he not only “possesses exceptional skills and knowledge” of music but is “a dynamic and highly motivated student with excellent communication skills and a strong work ethic,” and she notes that both have been essential to the success of the program. She characterizes his endeavor as a noble and important pursuit to serve the underprivileged.

Rocchio-Giordano modestly says that the program “could have been done better,” but stresses that it is tailored to the situation, perfectly marrying the service needs of students abroad with the needs of the kids at Mi Caleta.

“It showed what could be done,” Rocchio-Giordano said, as he excitedly watches its progress from afar.

Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Heights Staff

April 18, 2018