Ayala: San Antonio classical music camp with West Side roots is surviving pandemic by acting globally – San Antonio Express-News

Donald Mason can’t say that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nonprofit music institute he runs was a blessing, not even one in disguise.

That doesn’t sound right.

But the pandemic did force the Classical Music Institute to act quickly and grow faster than it imagined it would in a short time.

CMI did it by moving swiftly, staying agile and ultimately working like a global organization that’s based in San Antonio.

First, the resident company at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts worked on salvaging its summer camp after its performances were canceled.

It had 38 students, a lot fewer than other summers, and a budget scaled back by more than half to $35,000. All its students were on scholarship.

Then CMI had to adjust to online learning, a challenge even under ordinary circumstances given the intimacy music training usually requires.


Half its students tuned in from their homes in the Edgewood Independent School District on the city’s West Side. Edgewood is a longtime partner.

The other half were based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, where some of its faculty have connections.

CMI’s 12 instructors connected online from seven countries: Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Venezuela, Bulgaria, Japan and the United States.

They’re all maestros, Spanish for teacher and masters of their instruments.

The Monday-Wednesday-Friday class schedule called for 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. sessions, all via Zoom.

It held separate sessions for violin, viola, cello, bass and piano and offered electives on a range of topics from music appreciation and ear training to one titled, “What Your Instrument Teaches You about the World.”

“We want to create content in between that all students can use,” Mason said about future classes CMI is planning, such as sight reading, companionship on stage, performance etiquette and even audience development, so that students get a fuller arts education.

This year’s camp lineup served as a catalyst for CMI’s instructional library, another long-term goal the pandemic propelled into reality. It recorded summer sessions to build its digital content.

Mason now says the pandemic “pushed us into the future.”

If there were language barriers, Mason says they were easily overcome.

Many in the faculty learned English as a second language but are fluent.

On occasion, Mason, a non-Spanish-speaker who served as a class moderator and handled technical issues, used Google translate. He’s a relative newcomer to San Antonio.

Born in Midland, the 39-year-old arts administrator spent most of his life in Lexington, Kentucky. He was a music photojournalist for a time, he said, and interviewed famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

Mason last served as executive director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, a treasured institution in Lexington with deep African American roots.

In the 1940s until the ‘60s, it hosted artists such as Ray Charles, Count Basie, Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King.

Once a lead vocalist for a funk band, Mason describes his own musical tastes by listing three genres, “jazz, classical and ‘Hamilton,’” he said, referring to the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway hit.

Mason comes from a place of big dreams. He hopes to position CMI as a provider of music education for local school districts that may not have the time or resources.

Eventually, the institute wants to establish a year-round curriculum and seek accreditation.

CMI sees its camp as a pilot program for a new standard of instruction, one that combines live and digital instruction.

“We’re preparing ourselves to be available to students to pursue their classical music education,” he said.

The Guadalajara connection has gotten him thinking about San Antonio’s 10 other sister cities, he said.

“It’s been very exciting,” he said. “It’s also been a weird six months.”

On Friday afternoon, CMI’s camp will meet for the last time.

It usually ends with a concert that combines student and faculty players. Instead it will close out with a session titled, “Fall in Love with Orchestral Music.”

For Delilah Mejía that was already a given. The 13-year-old violin and viola student plays percussion in the Brentwood Middle School marching band.

She loved that CMI was so inclusive by taking students at all music levels. Like her 11-year-old brother Benjamin, who plays violin, this was her third year at CMI.

And they both liked camp because they met people from all over the world.

eayala@express-news.net