Play it loud, fortissimo!
In 2007, Majors Richard and Linda López, then corps officers at the Salvation Army’s San Juan Corps in Puerto Rico, saw a need for music education in the community. So, they started a program and called it fortissimo, which means to play a note at its loudest.
Around 200 students in 10 of the 13 corps in Puerto Rico study the courses. Fortissimo began with instruction in brass and percussion and has evolved to include electric guitar, bass, vocal classes, and electronic instruments. Some corps also offer lessons in dance, drama, and art. It’s common to see a Fortissimo student play in the worship band on Sunday, run backstage to change into a drama outfit for the next performance, and then change back into his or her band uniform for the final number.
Mabel and Richard
“We connect the meaning of fortissimo to everything we do—give your best effort to the Lord,” says Soldier Richard D. López, the oldest son of the Majors López, and divisional music director of the Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands Division. He’s also the teacher and bandmaster of the Fortissimo Music Program in San Juan. Together with his wife, Soldier Mabel López, divisional arts director for the San Juan Corps, they introduce music and arts education to families.
“Mabel and I are in charge of spreading Fortissimo across the island. We’re the teachers everywhere with the exception of the Guayama and Fajardo corps. One day we’re in Bayamon, the next day, we’re in Ponce.”
The long days would take a toll on any couple, but Richard and Mabel accepted the responsibility and see it as time to share in what they love.
“God wants us to be here. Fortissimo is so much bigger than just us,” said Mabel.
A community outreach
Fortissimo employs a staff of coordinators who handle the day–to–day business of running the island–wide music program. This leaves the teachers free to focus solely on the children. The corps officers are free to spend time with parents. At first, they responded apprehensively to their introduction to The Salvation Army. But when crowds at Fortissimo performances grew larger, their trust in the Army grew too.
“Even though the program is relatively young, we’ve seen Fortissimo become the biggest tool for bringing the community to our corps,” said Richard D. López. “Many of our students begin knowing nothing about the Army, and eventually ask how they can become junior soldiers. After that happens, their parents also want to become soldiers. They see their peers participate in the church and they want to be part of it. Both kids and parents see the bigger picture in what we do.”
“Discipleship happens in those classrooms,” said Mabel López. “The students see their teachers connect with them and with God through their art and through their lives.”
“We have 8–year–olds who finish their music lesson and then go work on a community project with members of the corps,” says Richard. He recalls a time when Fortissimo students in San Juan planned a canteen/concert event for the homeless. Many of the students were so busy with the planning, they neglected to bring sheet music.
“Fortunately, they played from memory,” says Richard, laughing.
Some parents have developed their own interest in Fortissimo. They’ve progressed from encouraging their sons and daughters at Sunday performances to also wanting to perform.
“Though most Fortissimo students are under 18, many parents now want to play piano, cornet, and alto,” said Richard. “They see their kids enjoying it and they want that opportunity too.”
The Guayama Kroc Center
Fifty–six miles south of San Juan, Soldier Ricardo Colón, the Fortissimo Music Program coordinator at the Guayama Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Guayama, teaches lessons to children of varying ages and levels of experience. The center is home to the second largest Fortissimo program on the island (San Juan has the largest).
Colón had been a high school music teacher. Richard D. López and his siblings were former students. Colón also got to know their parents, Majors Richard and Linda. In 2009, he accompanied them to the Star Search Finals (music awards) on the mainland. It was there Colón saw the Army at work with kids. “It was like a movement,” he remembers.
Colón’s attendance at the San Juan Corps Sunday service became a regular occurrence. Although his church had a robust music program, he became a Salvation Army soldier and a Fortissimo teacher. When a Fortissimo program began at the Guayama Kroc Center, the Lópezes gave Colón their blessing to apply for the job of teacher in a new corps.
“Fortissimo is the only arts program we have in the Kroc Center,” said Colón. “Everything else is sports–related. But thanks to our Fortissimo performances, we can expose the Kroc Center to the community. [This music] is not just part of our worship; it reaches out to souls who may not know God or the Army.”
Teaching Fortissimo has strengthened Colón’s personal connection with God. “On my way to class, I pray to God for help,” says Colón. “Not just for help teaching notes and rhythm, but so I can also be an example to my students. [I want them] to be good people and members of society. [I want them] to also take into adulthood the lessons and values they learned in Fortissimo and in the Army.”
A Program for Change“Fortissimo in every corps in Puerto Rico was my dream,” said Richard D. López. “And now, we’re close. When we reach every corps, perhaps this program will expand to other Latin American countries. Through their corps, Fortissimo might become an international brand.”
“A program like Fortissimo can change a place like Puerto Rico,” said Mabel.
“It can bring hope to communities and opportunity to young people and their families. Pick up an instrument or learn a new art form, even for just a few hours. Doing so can help one forget the problems at home or in one’s country.”
Fortissimo has enriched lives, spiritually and artistically. Its students grow through Salvation Army Star Search, Star Lake Music Camp, and the Territorial Arts Ministries (TAM) conservatory.
A few students have been accepted into the Escuela Libre de Música de San Juan, a school focusing on music education. Richard D. López says those accomplished pupils still make time in their busy schedules for The Salvation Army and for Fortissimo.
“We know Fortissimo has become more to them than just music,” said Richard, smiling. “After school, they could just go home. Yet, they come back, wanting to practice, help, and teach. When the music class is over, they still want to be part of our Salvation Army family.”
by Hugo Bravo
photography by Ryan Love