CSO’s Kamminga to discuss Trinidad music education in Brown Bag


Caitlyn Kamminga works with a group of string students in Trinidad and Tobago. Submitted photo.

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Hear the rainforest through the creative minds of five very young composers at the world premiere of the documentary short, “Rainforest: A Musical Postcard from Trinidad,” at 12:15 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall.

CSO double bassist Caitlyn Kamminga will talk about her work with the young composers and in other music education and outreach programs at today’s Symphony Partners “Meet the CSO Musicians” Brown Bag lunch.

Two years ago, Kamminga and her husband, trombonist Aidan Chamberlain, were working as freelance orchestra musicians in London, trading off international tour dates and putting their two young children to bed via Skype video calls.

“We had this amazing musical life, but we had no life,” she said.

Then one grim, drenched October day, Chamberlain received a call from a friend who invited the couple to teach at the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s Academy for the Performing Arts and play with the newly formed National Philharmonic Orchestra. Kamminga did not need much convincing to make the move.

Trinidad has a rich musical heritage, but very few people have received formal music training. As part of the plan to turn Trinidad and Tobago into a developed nation by 2020, the government established the academy for the performing arts and the national orchestra.

Kamminga was hired on a three-year contract. She made a list of three-year and long-term goals, and she determined that teacher training was the best way to start a classical musical legacy in Trinidad. In one of the programs Kamminga developed, student teachers give free string instrument lessons to disadvantaged children.

“The idea is that this program will become self-sustaining,” she said. “That at the end of my three-year contract, if I have to walk away, they now have a string program in place with trained teachers and some kind of a curriculum that will carry on.”

Out of this relationship with young musicians, Kamminga had the idea to bring another program, musical postcards, to Trinidad. In the U.S., double bassist and composer Jon Deak works with young composers to exchange original compositions in “musical postcards” that are exchanged around the world and performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s basically teaching kids, before they’re too old to be told that they’re not creative, that actually within them, they have all kinds of things to say,” she said.

Kamminga and members of the academy’s Ibis Ensemble — including Chamberlain, clarinetist Duncan Prescott and CSO percussionists Brian Kushmaul and Deborah Sunya Moore Kushmaul — worked with five children from Kamminga’s string program to teach them about a “composer’s toolbox.”

The original plan was to do a series of Trinidadian soundscapes, but the children were so enthusiastic about the rainforest that they dedicated all five workshops to one postcard.

Within “Rainforest,” the young composers orchestrated the sounds of monkeys, snakes, parrots and rainfall. They made up a story about three boys — Smally, Strongman and Swaggaboy — who get lost and separated by a rainstorm and a landslide before they reunite in the end.

Photographer Maria Nunes filmed the creative process. Her short film, “Rainforest: A Musical Postcard from Trinidad,” was selected for the 2011 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. Audiences at today’s Brown Bag lunch will see the world premiere of this eight-minute film, before its film festival debut.

Based on the interest the documentary has generated, Kamminga estimates that the string program received $40,000 in grants.

“If nothing else happens in my entire time during Trinidad … that was so massive,” she said.

Kamminga has found her work in Trinidad personally rewarding as well.

“The joy of teaching them is because they just soak it up; they’re just so desperate for these lessons,” she said. “I started out thinking, Aren’t I a good person for doing this? and wound up thinking, Maybe I’m getting more out of this than they are.”

She said the most amazing thing about teaching music in Trinidad is that because there is no music in the public schools, children have no sense of entitlement.

“Kids (in the U.S.) these days, they have the opportunity to do so many different things; your after-school options are so huge,” she said. “These kids (in Trinidad) don’t have anything. They show up before I get there, and they don’t leave until I kick them out.”

One of the reasons Kamminga took the job is because she’s always wanted to broaden her horizons, she said.

“I’ve always thought of my career as a bassist as the tree trunk of my career, and that there were other aspects of my life that were really creative, the thing that keeps me centered and feeling like I have an outlet for energies that I have,” she said.

Kamminga said education is not just for “the little guys” but is for everyone.

“If we want what we do to be sustainable in these horrible economic times, we have to be thinking about how we educate as we go,” she said.

Today’s “Meet the CSO Musicians” Brown Bag lunch is free to attend. Membership to the Symphony Partners, the CSO’s volunteer support organization, costs $20 for a family or $10 for an individual membership. Proceeds help fund future Symphony Partners events.