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Music Professor Introduces Horn to Underprivileged Paraguayan Youth

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Sonidos de la Tierra youth orchestra

From the streets of the Paraguayan capital of Asuncíon came the tentative sound of the horn, played by underprivileged teens who likely had never seen or touched such an instrument before. Penn State School of Music faculty member Lisa Bontrager instructed the young brass players, whose foray into music education was made possible by Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth), an outreach project started in 2002 by Paraguayan composer and conductor Luis Szarán.

In early October, Bontrager, Distinguished Professor of Music, and Michelle Stebleton, associate professor of horn at Florida State University, spent two weeks in Paraguay, teaching through Sonidos de la Tierra and performing in Asuncíon. The trip resulted from a commissioning assistance grant Bontrager and Stebleton received in 2011 from the International Horn Society, which allowed Szarán to write a new piece for their horn duo, MirrorImage.

A prolific composer whose works have been performed around the world, Szarán is also committed to educating young people from poor and underdeveloped regions of Paraguay through the shared experience of creating music. Sonidos de la Tierra has reached more than 3,000 children from 72 of the nation’s poorest communities.

According to Bontrager, Szarán is a social entrepreneur who has dedicated himself to helping redeem the lives of underprivileged children through music. “It broke my heart to see how much the teenagers loved music making. And, they played well!” says Bontrager. “But the living conditions there were very poor, and we have so much by comparison. It was amazing to be a tiny part of this important movement for positive change. I know this sounds trite, but it was just humbling in every way.”

Bontrager and Stebleton spent their first week in Asuncíon teaching horn in Spanish and performing Haydn’s “Concerto for Two Horns” with two different youth orchestras that are part of Sonidos de la Tierra.

During their second week, they premiered Szarán’s “Rastros” (“Faces”) for two solo horns and orchestra with the professional Symphonic Orchestra of Asuncíon, and also performed the Hubler “Concerto for Four Horns” along with two horn soloists from the orchestra.

Bontrager says she left Paraguay inspired by the Sonidos de la Tierra students’ enthusiasm. “I loved the eager, musical, wide-eyed, intelligent students. They were grateful for every second of my time and expertise. We brought music, mutes and music stands to help them with their studies and they were so very grateful.” 

For a video on Sonidos de la Tierra, visit