Amherst Magazine

Music as Medicine

By Jenny Morgan

[Social action] While visiting Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Bennett Rathbun ’07 couldn’t help but notice the music.

“There is a rhythm to Haitian life that is musical,” he says. “It’s in every facet of life. You can’t walk down the street without hearing radios. You can hear six different church services all at once.”

Young violinists at Hope on a String

More than just as a cultural tradition, Rathbun came to see music as a potential vehicle for social change. So two years ago, the self-described “failed musician” left a job on Wall Street to co-found a nonprofit in Haiti that focuses not on health care or jobs but on music. “The celebration of music creates a common experience, and usually a very positive and joyful one,” he says. “We wanted to leverage that.”

In Corail, Haiti, 32 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, Hope on a String now offers courses in modern dance and music theory, as well as musical instruction in violin, keyboard and guitar (to name just three examples). Other offerings include English language classes and workshops in such areas as electrical wiring. Rathbun works full-time for the organization, which has an almost entirely local staff of 25.

Rathbun says it was a strategic decision to locate the nonprofit in Corail. “What Haiti needs to do to build a sustainable future is decentralize its national assets away from Port-au-Prince,” he argues. “Virtually everything has been central to Port-au-Prince: the government, all of the public infrastructure, all of the public services of any kind. I intentionally wanted to build up the capacity of an external area.”

Last summer Matt Van Pelt ’14 worked in Corail as an intern with Hope on a String. A double major in music and economics, Van Pelt has been playing the viola since fourth grade and teaching it since high school. In Haiti, he taught three sections of violin—one for adults and two for children—and two English classes.

On his first day of violin class, Van Pelt was surprised to realize that no one had ever seen a violin. “They all thought we were learning to play tiny guitars the wrong way,” he says. “I discovered that there is a lack of vocabulary when it comes to teaching violin, and so I ended up making up a lot of words and then just teaching them to remember those words.”

Bennett Rathbun ’07
“The celebration of music creates a common experience.”

Hope on a String tries to respond to local needs, interests and skills. For example, says Rathbun, the electrical wiring program was taught by local electricians who wanted to give back to the community. Now those electricians are “thinking about launching a business on the back of this experience,” Rathbun says.

“Music,” he says, “is a spark that brings people in the door. From there, we leverage that into skill-building and capacity-building in a variety of different ways.”

Morgan is a staff writer at Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement.

Top photo by Matt Van Pelt ’14