Universal Language

A group of Penn State School of Music students and faculty traveled to Cuba for a week of musical exchange, giving Penn Staters a fresh perspective on what it means to play music.

In Cuba, music is everywhere.

So says Mark Lusk, professor of music in the College of Arts and Architecture, who for the last two years has taken School of Music students to the Caribbean island country.

But the music infused across Cuban culture isn't the kind that Americans would think of—not background music you would hear in stores, or pop CDs, or the radio.

"They're just playing it—in the streets, in their homes, in the music clubs. That's what they own," Lusk explains.

A Musical Exchange

Starting in 2014, Lusk and his students began traveling to Cuba to experience the country's unique musical culture. 

"The history of Cuban music is as rich and sophisticated as any music you'll find anywhere on the planet."—Mark Lusk

The Penn Staters were joined by a contingent from the University of Richmond led by Professor Michael Davison who, along with Lusk, dreamed up the idea of a musical exchange with Cuba.

Students and faculty from both universities had the opportunity to practice and perform with Cuban student musicians of the Conservatorio Esteban Salas in Santiago de Cuba. 

The culminating concert of the 2014 trip, including both American and Cuban student musicians, was the first of its kind since the United States imposed its embargo on the country, according to Lusk.

Both the 2014 and 2015 trips included travel to Cuba's major cities, Havana and Santiago de Cuba, giving students and faculty alike a unique look at Cuban culture and the music that is such an integral part of life there.

Bringing the Brass Quintet

While the 2014 trip focused on the kind of jazz and Latin music most common in Cuba, the 2015 trip was musically a little bit different. 

"This year was more about brass chamber music," explains Lusk, who took with him the Penn State graduate brass quintet. 

"There had never really been a brass quintet in Cuba before, to anyone's knowledge."—Austin Oprean

A brass quintet is a musical ensemble typically comprised of two trumpets, a French horn, a tuba, and a trombone. Though it first appeared in the late 1940s, it didn't become popular until after the revolution in Cuba. 

"That's part of the reason it was so exciting to go to Cuba," says Austin Oprean, a graduate student in the School of Music who plays trombone in the University's brass quintet.

"There had never really been a brass quintet in Cuba before, to anyone's knowledge." 

The Cuban Culture of Music

But the trip wasn't just about taking a new kind of performance to Cuba. The musical impact was mutual. 

"Cuban musicians play like there's no tomorrow; it's absolutely in the moment."—Mark Lusk

The music of Cuba, participants explain, has a distinctive quality. The late 1950s revolution in Cuba and the subsequent United States embargo on trade have affected all aspects of Cuban life—including its music.

"The history of Cuban music is as rich and sophisticated as any music you'll find anywhere on the planet," says Lusk. 

"And it hasn't been influenced by many of the cultural things that have happened over the last decades. So you go there and hear this music, and it just seems so pure." 

The authentic, passionate way Cubans approach the music they play has had an incredible impact on the American students and faculty, they say. 

"Cuban musicians play like there's no tomorrow; it's absolutely in the moment," Lusk says. "So they're playing music that to them is like this living, breathing thing. It's just something in their DNA." 

Oprean adds, "The Cuban people play music for music's sake, as an actual language. It was so exciting. It changed the way that I play." 

"That one week [in Cuba] was, by far, one of the most educational experiences of my life."—Austin Oprean

About the School of Music

The Penn State School of Music, in the College of Arts and Architecture, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a wide range of programs that help students develop as performers, teachers, and scholars.

With fifty full-time faculty, guest artists, and scholars, the school enrolls more than 300 students and serves an additional 1,000 students each year who take Music courses to fulfill educational requirements.