Couple teaches Latin American music in low resource areas

Ariana Arredondo

As young students, Luz Elena Sarmiento and Ivan Valbuena benefited from programs that brought music education to their homes in Colombia for free. As a result, they were able to pursue careers in music. Now, they’re paying it forward with their own program. 

Sarmiento and Valbuena, who both earned a doctorate in clarinet performance from UT in 2018, started A Dos Music Project after Sarmiento received the Presser Graduate Music Award in 2017. The project provides workshops, lessons, lectures and concerts to students in underprivileged areas where music education is not easily accessible. 

Sarmiento and Valbuena started by covering 4000 miles in their home country of Colombia in July 2017. They have since brought music education to Sweden, Boston, Austin and more and plan to continue traveling after finding more funding.

“One of the biggest impacts is seeing someone come to (the students) and tell them ‘Hey it's possible. If you work hard and you study, you can make a living with this (music), and you can … be successful’,” Sarmiento said. 

Normally, the couple focuses on wind instruments traditionally used in Latin American music.

But, in one workshop, students stomp and clap their hands, as they participate in body percussion choreography and create music with their bodies. 

“In the beginning, we didn't have any instruments, but we had to start teaching, so we had to create a strategy,” Sarmiento said. “At first we used unconventional materials like vegetables and recycled materials to make instruments, but then we learned body percussion.”

The couple said they see their efforts in music education as an opportunity to expose their students to knowledge they may have never received otherwise. 

“Most of the places where we were (located) were places where they never had any kind of (music) lesson,” Valbuena said. “When they had this opportunity to play this music, they were super happy and encouraged to continue playing.” 

Because there is not an option to receive a doctorate in musical performance in Colombia, the couple said they want to serve as role models for their students. They hope seeing someone who has similar origins as them encourages their students to realize a career in music is an option. 

“Basically, we (funded our study) with scholarships from everywhere, so they can see you don't have to have money to be able to accomplish your goals and dreams,” Sarmiento said. 

During their time at UT, Valbuena and Sarmiento worked as teaching assistants with the assistant professor of clarinet, Jonathan Gunn.

“One of the things that was particularly enjoyable was to see (them be) so passionate about something and actually be able to implement a project and make a difference,” Gunn said. 

The couple now hopes to take A Dos Music Project back to Colombia to continue their work. They say they want to continue to impact students and use music as a way to create social change. 

“Our whole career was developed thanks to one of those programs, so we want to give back,” Sarmiento said. “It’s getting really important in the world right now to use music to change society, and that way we give purpose to what we do.”