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Former instructor resurrects musical instruments

Tamera Manzanares

Instruments are meant to be played, though sadly, that isn’t always the case.

Some end up rusted and dusty, waiting for parts in a music store basement. Others are hidden in closets, far from the memories of those who gave up dreaming about being musicians.

But if former Hayden High School band instructor Bill Grimes has his way, those instruments will have another life in the hands of students at the Bellas Artes music school in Guaymas, Mexico.

Since 2002, Grimes has rescued about 20 instruments from garage sales and music stores and taken them across the border to the school, which is funded largely by grants and donations and has no money for instruments.

“Anything they can get, they’ll have kids to play them,” said Grimes, who taught music at Hayden High School for 32 years before retiring in 2001.

Once retired, Grimes and his wife, Jill, who live in Craig, decided they would spend winters in Guaymas — an up-and-coming resort community that used to be a fishing village in the state of Sonora.

When in Guaymas, Grimes met members of Rotary International, who told him about a music school they funded and the man behind the project, Ivo Toneck, a Catholic friar and architect who built Bellas Artes in 1994 from the shell of an old union hall.

For Grimes, the building represented a symbol of opportunity for children in what is still largely a poor area.

“It’s just like a war zone, and then you have this out of nowhere,” he said.

Toneck recruited Grimes to volunteer his time teaching students to play wind instruments including flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, at the school, but it wasn’t long before he learned of the students’ need for working instruments.

The students, desperate to play, would put tape over the holes on clarinets where keys were missing.

“Things I couldn’t believe was possible they were doing to make these horns play,” he said.

Because students attend the school free of charge, Bellas Artes’ limited funds go toward operation of the school and the salaries of full-time instructors.

“There’s no money at all for instruments at this time,” Grimes said.

Although the school has two rooms full of rusty broken instruments, repair people are hard to find in Mexico. A dying trade, instrument repair is lucrative in the United States and few repair people are willing to travel to Mexico for such a cause, he said.

Seeing how discouraging it was for the students not to have good instruments, he decided to use his time in the United States to gather instruments for the school.

Ironically, finding instruments hasn’t been the challenge. Because border agents assume anyone traveling with more than one of anything intends to sell merchandise in Mexico, it’s very hard to get items into the country.

Grimes has had to be “tricky” in getting instruments across the border, but the reward has made his efforts worthwhile.

“The students are very talented musically. … They pick things up easily,” Grimes said.

The school, which has about 150 students, accepts children from all backgrounds. The only requirement is they attend regular school during the day while attending Bellas Artes at night.

Unlike the United States, where most students begin music training in the fifth grade, Mexican students usually don’t have that opportunity until seventh and eighth grade, so most start at Bellas Artes as beginners.

The majority of students are 12 and 13 years old, though some are as old as 17, which is an accomplishment in a culture where education seemingly becomes secondary when children turn 15, Grimes said.

“They have to have a lot of drive and initiative,” he said, noting that some of the students go on to study music in college, where — because music is not a popular major — there tend to be a lot of scholarships available.

“They may have had no direction in their life, but now they do,” he said.

Students at Bellas Artes choose from three focuses: Mariachi band, orchestra or Ballet Folklorico — a type of dance with Spanish and native Latin American influences.

Composed of brass and string instruments, the Mariachi band, along with the Ballet Folklorico, are professional-level groups that perform at community events to raise money for the school.

The orchestra, which plays at the level of a good middle school band in the United States, has some improvement ahead of it. The goal is to divide the orchestra into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. The problem is there are few instruments for the students to learn on.

“They don’t have any growth capacity because they don’t have any beginner instruments,” he said.

Grimes is helping Toneck, who has no music background, understand the importance of having quality instruments for the students and is hopeful the school may secure more grants that may be used to buy instruments.

But in the meantime, Grimes, who left for Mexico last week, plans to continue collecting instruments that will find new homes in Bellas Artes.

“Music does so many things for kids, especially at that age,” he said. “It gives them something to focus on and discipline.”

Anyone wanting to donate an instrument in good working condition should call Mike Lewis, the beginning band instructor at Steamboat Springs Elementary School at 879-9639.

— To reach Tamera Manzanares, call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com.


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