Music Lessons and Camp at Son Tan

A 5-day trip to Hue and a brief bout with food poisoning have delayed my most recent post, and there’s a lot to catch up on!


In Cam Duc, we’ve been holding strings classes every other afternoon. Each volunteer is assigned to 2-3 students, whom we work with for about an hour and fifteen minutes before gathering as an ensemble. I have been teaching three girls about 10 years old: An, Anh, and Thu. They have been playing for 2 years, and are working their way through Suzuki book 1. All three have a lot of energy and personality – they love to chatter and laugh and tease. But they also have a great deal of focus, and will practice with me as a group for as long as an hour and a half. They love to play and to learn new things, which they pick up quickly. They’re a lot of fun to work with!

After our small group lessons, everyone gets together to play as an ensemble. The younger students will play the pieces they have been working on, then the older students, and then we all play a Vietnamese song called Trong Com to wrap up the day.

The older kids will usually stay for a while after class, teaching dances to the American volunteers and playing games. Sometimes we’ll also go out for sinh to (smoothies) or sugar cane juice. We must be quite the sight on our way to the café, there are so many of us, traveling all together on motorbikes and bicycles and on foot.

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Last week we held our second arts and music camp in the village of Son Tan. Son Tan is a smaller community than Soui Cat and RPS has a year-long presence there through its weekend art classes, so this second camp was much more manageable than the first. Instead of 300 kids, we had only 100 on the first day and about 150 by day 3.

We followed the same daily format as the Soui Cat camp: a concert, music activities, an art project, and parachute games. As part of the music section this time, we performed and taught a dance that our Cam Duc strings students had been practicing with us. We also had a new art project: we found out that An’s  mom makes gift boxes to sell at book stores and gift shops, and had her make 200 blank boxes for the kids at the camp to decorate with magazine cut-outs. Everyone really enjoyed it – even the moms got involved, decorating boxes for their babies.

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We spent the weekend and the beginning of this week in the city of Hue – a one hour flight from Nha Trang airport. Unfortunately, much of our plans there were waylaid by a rash of food poisoning. Nearly everyone was sick for at least one day, and unfortunately I was still in bed during a scheduled art show by the students in the Hue art program. However, I recovered in time to participate in a visit to a local orphanage, where we played a short concert and made pipe-cleaner sculptures with the children. Laurette and Rozanne were also able to meet with Phoung, RPS’s program director in Hue, who will also soon be the violin teacher for the new music program. Together they went over the basics of teaching beginners, and will be in touch with Phoung through skype whenever he needs help or advice.

Camp at Soui Cat

This week we held our first 3-day camp at Soui Cat. We found ourselves a bit overwhelmed on the first day – we were expecting 100 kids, but about 300 showed up. However, we powered through a hectic morning and on the following two days organized the children into three groups that rotated through arts projects, music activities, and parachute games.

We started each day with a short concert by our volunteer musicians:

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In the music class, our leaders Rozanne and Laurette taught everyone to clap a set of rhythms. Then we let the children try out the rhythms on drums, triangles, tamborines, and maracas. By the third day, we were able to assign a separate part of the rhythm to each instrument and play them as an ensemble.

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On day one of the art classes, we made layers of colors with crayons, then scraped away the top layer with a toothpick to create pictures.


On day two, the kids made chalk murals on brown poster-paper.


On day three, we used an old favorite: pipe cleaners. You can make them into anything, dolls, headbands, rings, or eyeglasses. The kids absolutely love them.


The children who attend our camps are all ages, from babies too young to walk to teenagers. They are all small for their age. One of our fifteen year old American volunteers will easily be a head taller than a fifteen year old from Soui Cat. The babies come propped on the hips of their older siblings, who might be 7 or 8, and are passed casually from one person to the next so it’s hard to tell which belongs to whom. Parents like to come too. They gather outside the pavilion, sometimes calling in to the children to follow directions or encouraging them to speak to us. When our eyes meet they smile at us, and we smile back, and in their eyes there is something like happiness or gratitude – but of course we can’t know for sure what they are thinking, and we can’t tell them what we are thinking. The only communication we have is a smile.

Most of the kids are shy, but some –a few little boys in particular- can get pretty wild. They gather together in close groups, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, and in such tight quarters they love to instigate fights, pushing and shoving, punching each other in the arm, and tickling. They’ll also run around and steal the girls’ crayons, chalk, or pipecleaners, and try to mess up their artwork. They’re like little devils; it can be frustrating trying to keep them in line, especially with two language barriers to cross (Vietnamese is their second language). Luckily, we are well staffed with students and teachers from our Cam Duc programs, who can give them a scolding and generally keep things organized.

At one point, I picked up one of the boys to move him away from his friends, and he felt so weightless in my hands it surprised me. They are all so small, but somehow it seems a person who is so disruptive should feel heavier. I expected some kind of resistance. But he nearly floated in my hands, and went absolutely willingly, as though he knew perfectly well how small and defenseless he was.

A few of the girls will do a little pushing and shoving themselves, but most are too shy. They hide from cameras and turn their faces away when you speak to them. Their smiles are slow and bashful. But they are quick to learn and make an effort to be helpful, collecting the instruments and art supplies when it’s time. The older ones will correct any young children acting out around them and are a little braver -they smile more quickly and openly.

At the end of each day, we lined the kids up and hand out snacks and sandwiches for them to take home.


My pictures today are the work of Wesley LaPointe and Rich Ferri. Thank you Wesley and Rich!

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Hannah’s in Vietnam!

This is my third summer traveling to Vietnam with Rocks Paper Scissors Children’s Fund (RPS). RPS is a South Kingstown based nonprofit that works with underserved Vietnamese children. It provides transportation to school and music and arts programming through three main projects: bike givings for girls, art classes, and a small strings program in the town of Cam Duc in Cam Ranh Province. As part of our trip this year, we are kicking off a satellite strings program in the city of Hue.

The role of the volunteers on these trips is to act as “summer” instructors in the music and arts programs in Cam Duc and to run arts camps in nearby ethnic minority villages (more on those later). I will also be working on the instruments in the strings program, making sure they are in good shape to be played for the following year. It’s an important job, since good quality instruments can be hard to find in Vietnam and most new ones will need some adjustments in order to be played properly and comfortably. The weather can also be hard on them – during the wet season, it rains hard every day; during the dry season it may not rain at all for weeks. The kids transport their instruments on their bikes – most families don’t have a car and adults use motorbikes (or bicycles) to get to work. So, for instruments where yearly maintenance is a necessity under any circumstances, here it is extra important to have them looked over for issues and any necessary repairs.

The airport near Cam Duc cannot be reached directly on an international flight. Since it takes about 20 hours of flying just to get to either Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, we’ve stayed one night in Saigon and this afternoon caught an hour-long flight to Nha Trang Airport, then drove about 20 minutes to our hotel in Cam Duc. After a much needed evening of rest, we’ll get started with a busy calendar of activities tomorrow morning.

Some pictures from Saigon:

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vietnam powerlines

More to come soon!