The story of the Band

 

An Interview with Javier Peña, Music Director / Creative Director

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Music Director & Creative Director Javier Peña has been the music program director of the Spirit of Goodwill Band since 1996. The band is thought to be one of the first performance bands in the United States, whose members have diverse mental and physical abilities.

Originally from Venezuela, Javier studied music theory and piano at the Yamaha School of Music in Caracas, Venezuela, before moving his family to the United States in 1995. As he says in the interview, he had no experience working with people with disabilities when he applied for Goodwill's choir director job in 1996. They hired him, he turned their vision for a choir into a full-fledged performance band, and has been working with the bandmembers ever since—teaching them music, friendship, and that (with hard work) dreams really do come true!

How did you start working with the band? Did the Goodwill go to you or did you go to them?

A friend told me about a part-time job as a choir director in Miami. Without any real knowledge about Goodwill, and no experience working with people with disabilities, I applied for the job. I began my work there in 1996. After several months of working with 8-to-10 members on voice, I started to notice a great sense of pitch and rhythm. I proposed creating a band and starting music training that involved instruments. Mr. Pastrana, Goodwill’s C.E.O., is a music lover and he loved the idea. He recognized that this type of training involving music and teaching new skills can be empowering for these individuals. By working on inner talent and ability and train- ing through repetition, each individual became proficient. When we put it all together as a band, it was magnificent —all very unexpected.

What challenges have you faced while working with the band?

For the most part, the biggest challenge was obtaining a certain level of expertise. Since all of the musicians have very different abilities and challenges, they had to be taught differently. The musicians themselves actually taught me how to teach them. For instance, Godwin took my hands and placed them on his because that is how he's able to learn. Other situations involve extreme insecurities and so building trust and giving reassurances was most important with those members. Others don't speak verbally and it really taught me how music is a universal language and we learned to communicate and express through this vehicle. The instruments became like medicine for many individuals—it's truly an amazing thing to witness. One member doesn't speak but insists on calling me each week on my cell the night before practice to make sure I'll be there. I hear a muffled sound and know that it's Rita, and I assure her I'll see her in the band room tomorrow. . . .

How are band members chosen for the band? Can anyone join? Do you hold auditions?

Each band member goes through an audition where we checked two things: their musical ear and their sense of rhythm. These are God-given talents we have no control over—we simply try to discover them and work with what we have. Just going through an audition is an extreme accomplishment for most. It teaches them to try things, to make goals. We give each person who wants to try the respect they deserve. The entire process takes about five minutes. Once the person passes the audition, he or she is asked what instrument they would like to learn. Sometimes we try more than one instrument until we find the perfect fit. Sometimes a person is playing well within a few months. You never know what to expect but you can imagine the confidence that's gained in a short period.

What have been the greatest rewards of working with the band?

The greatest reward has been seeing them grow individually and as a group—not only as musicians, but as human beings. Each individual is a work of art from God’s hand, and that means they have great value. It is rewarding to see them enjoy themselves every time we play a song together, to get the recognition and respect from the audience, the respect every person deserves in this world. The band has helped socialize some of the members who had difficul- ties working with others in the past. They've had an opportunity to create friendships, and par- ticipate in something that has literally given them a voice. Plus—I love making music. There are always challenges. In this case, the rewards are always greater than any of the challenges.

This isn't the only work you do. How do you balance?

It is not always easy, but when you love what you do, you find ways to make it work. Going into the music room with the band is also therapy for me. I have a family and a full-time job that is very demanding. However, you need to get organized, set up your priorities, and sometimes make some sacrifices. I have a lot of support from my wife and my children, and that makes the entire difference. Being willing to do everything with all your heart not to please people, but to serve God through your work, is what helps me keep everything in balance, even when things are very challenging.

It is very important to say also that this is a remarkable team work effort from all the people who work with me at Goodwill. This includes Omar Rodriguez, our brass instructor who has been with the band for ten years, and more recently, Lisa Velazquez, our voice instructor. We all work in conjunction with a group of counselors led by Silvia Riorda who is in charge of man- aging the work and recreational program.

Why did you want to see this film made?

I wanted to see this film made to tell the world what people with disabilities—or any person period—can do when given an opportunity to succeed. It's very apparent to me that the band deserves that.

How did you choose the songs the band performs?

I’m a big fan of American pop music and Latin rhythms. I like to choose songs that integrate all the band members, giving the opportunity to write arrangements where they all can participate. I discovered that the band likes to perform upbeat songs filled with energy and feeling, songs that are familiar to the people, classical hits everybody enjoys, putting in the band’s own style and signature. What was your role as creative director for the film?

I've been directly involved in conceptualizing the process, drafting initial ideas for the film, and recruiting outside filmmakers to participate in the project. Once the project was approved, I was involved in the process of deciding the overall structure and style of the film, choosing personal stories, and pre-selecting music for the movie. As pro- duction was underway, there was a lot of creative brainstorming involved in the selection of scenes for final editing. I selected and arranged the music performed by the band, and com- posed an original tune used in two scenes of the movie. I was involved arranging the sound- track and supervising the final mix of the music.

You are more than a bandleader and conductor. How would you describe what you do with the band?

I think I’m an encourager and a mentor for the band members, a life coach if you will, and in some cases the father figure they missed.

This has been an amazing journey. What's next for the band?

The White House, Carnegie Hall, and a trip to Europe! These are some of our dreams. Our band started with dreams that have become a reality. I'm a dreamer, because I believe that faith is the key that opens doors to make things possible.

 
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