Music at the University of Montemorelos

An Historical Overview

Dan Shultz


 Although the music department at the University of Montemorelos in Mexico has been in existence for only three decades, it has enjoyed remarkable success. Starting literally with nothing but two old pianos, it is today a large degree-granting university and conservatory program with many ensembles, numerous instruments, and modern facilities. Its students come from all over Central and South America and elsewhere and its graduates leave to serve throughout that region and beyond.

Thirty years ago this past Fall, the University of Montemorelos department of music started its first year of operation. For the 35-year-old school, a recently renamed university with an enrollment of only 499 college age students, it was a bold but important move. In the three decades since, the growth at the university and the music department is one of the great success stories in Adventist higher education. Today, there are over 1,600 college students at the university and more than thirty music majors as well as a conservatory (preparatory) program with over 350 students.

A key person in starting the program was Olga Schmidt, an accomplished pianist and organist, who arrived on the campus of Montemorelos Vocational and Professional College in the fall of 1971 to teach music. She quickly reviewed what resources were available and discovered a desperate situation. There were no facilities or instruments for teaching music; a small baby grand piano in the seminary was off-limits and the two remaining pianos were woefully inadequate, one being infested with spiders and other insects.

Not to be deterred, Schmidt started giving piano lessons on her upright piano in her home. Within a short while, she was teaching 40 to 50 students. During that time, someone sent her a grand piano, which she then used for her lessons. She also taught art at the college.

The interest in piano study increased, becoming greater than she could handle. At one point, she had four student teachers who, tutored by her each Sunday on how and what they should teach, then gave lessons to as many as 25 students each in the following week.

In the choral area, Richard V. Romero, who led the school's choir from 1973-1974, enjoyed unusual success with that group. Under his direction, the choir performed two concerts featuring the Faure Requiem and the Messiah (in Spanish) in Mexico City at the Palacio de Bella Artes, a prestigious musical venue in Mexico. The students, realizing the importance of this concert, spent hours of personal time preparing for it, foregoing half of their Christmas break and all of their spring break for extra rehearsals.

When they finished singing "And the Glory of the Lord " in their first rehearsal with the Mexico City Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble was so moved it stood and applauded. A music critic from El Sol favorably reviewed the nationally televised concert, which was directed by Romero.

Among the outstanding students in those early years was Hector Flores. He and his brother Carlos would become influential music teachers at Montemorelos and later at other schools. Although Carlos had grown up near the campus, he had left to study at Andrews University the year Schmidt came to the campus. He returned four years later, in 1975, to assist her in the rapidly growing program, having just completed a B.Mus. at AU.

They talked about the need for a more complete program in music, especially since the school had just become a university two years earlier, and discussed and developed some ideas together. Finally, when Schmidt and her husband were on leave during the 1976-1977 school year, he prepared a proposal for a bachelor's degree program and submitted it to administration and the board. It was approved, and when Schmidt returned in 1977, she led the new department beginning that autumn.

In 1979, Hector Flores, who had completed a B.Mus. degree at Andrews University that year, also returned to teach, direct the choral program, and start the first orchestra. Three years later, when Schmidt returned to the U.S., he became director of music, a position he held for seven years, until he left to teach at Antillian College, now University, in Puerto Rico in 1989, where Carlos had become chair a year earlier.

In that same decade, the year before Schmidt had left, Evelyn Mariani had been hired to teach piano. An outstanding performer and teacher, she inspired both her students and colleagues in her eight years at the school. Mariani was honored by the university as Outstanding Professor of the year in 1989, when she left to accept a position in the U.S.

Ruth Ann Wade, a talented pianist and organist who had been at UM since 1984, became director of music in 1989, when both Hector and Mariani left. A music graduate of Union College, she had completed an M.Mus. at AU in 1979. During her time as chair, she made important contacts in the U.S. that led to the addition of needed keyboard instrument resources. She also started a review of the curriculum and explored ways in which to improve the department's operation.

Many teachers have assisted in the music program at the university. In addition to numerous persons from Central and South America who have made outstanding contributions, several have also come from North America. These include Wade, David Holder, wind instruments; Minden Angel and Julian Lobsein, violinists; Lucille Taylor, violist; and Kent Stearman, organ and piano - all from the U.S. - and Edward Simanton, brass, from Canada.

More recently, others from Russia and the Ukraine have included Elena Bulgakova (now Abel), Elena Kolokolova (now Quiyono), and Oksana Lesyshyn (now Jacobo), pianists; and husband and wife Pavel Semanivsky and Natalia Semanivska, flutist and violinist. These, along with others, have assisted full-time, while some have served for shorter periods as visiting teachers. In every instance, when those persons coming from outside the country have left, they were inspired by what they had observed during their time on campus.

In 1995, Norka Harper de Castillo became director following an interim semester of leadership by Pedro Sánchez. Castillo, who had been running the school's large and highly successful conservatory program, was chosen when school leaders decided that the university and conservatory programs be merged.

A pianist, she had been one of those four student teachers who had taught under Schmidt in the early years of music at UM. During her tenure as director she has made a number of curriculum revisions, updated music resources, and refined the music degree.

One of those initiatives was the offering of a master's degree through an extension program with Andrews University, beginning in 1999. AU visiting professors Carlos Flores, Stephen Zork, and Lilianne Doukhan taught in the program, which was offered only in the summers. Fifteen students, including music director Castillo, completed AU master's degrees at MU before the program ended in 2005.

The department in its early years was housed in Sabbath school rooms at the university church, with recitals being given in what had been the first church on campus, a small building with limited seating. In 1981, the music program was relocated to a building constructed for that purpose on the other side of campus.

Funds for constructing that building were earned in part by Olga Schmidt and by four young girls, one of them being present chair Castillo, who traveled with a staff member and his wife on a 6,000 mile marimba tour in the U.S. Later, another building was built nearby for art, with both programs and buildings being identified as the fine arts department. During that time, Hector Flores, who was serving as director of music, served in an expanded role as director of fine arts.

In 1999, music vacated that building and moved back to what had been its first location, near a newly constructed university church, the third to be built on campus. The second church, now vacated, became the music auditorium. It was completely renovated this past summer.

That newly renovated building and its former Sabbath school rooms and new construction, which includes fifteen practice rooms, four teachers' studios, two classrooms, a music office, a music library, and a recording studio, have been the initial phases of what will be an extensive music complex. It is being completed as funds are available.

Located as it is in a mild climate, the facility embodies architecture that combines the best elements of both enclosed and open areas. When fully realized, it will include more teaching studios, and classrooms, rehearsal areas, and a recital hall. Its location near the new church is ideal since the church serves as a focal point for many music activities.

In the last fifteen years, keyboard resources have also been expanded and updated. The new university church was given a four-manual Johannus 485 organ with 85 stops and an Estonia nine-foot concert grand piano, both gifts from Orland and Joan Ogden. The Ogdens also donated several upright pianos for use in teaching studios and practice rooms, as well as two more grand pianos for use in Sabbath school and the theology department chapel plus a Rogers electric organ which is used in the music auditorium.

Other acquisitions during that time have included additional acoustic and electric pianos and computer and other music resources for the music library, which is a satellite of the university library. All MU music majors are expected to become computer literate and be able to work with music-related software before completing the music degree program.

The school offers numerous ensemble opportunities to students in both the university and conservatory programs. These include four orchestras, three bands, eight choirs, a brass choir, a handbell choir and string ensembles and marimba groups as needed. There are also a number of vocal ensembles on campus that function independently of the music program.

The orchestra is an example of how a number of teachers and good decisions have led to today's thriving string program and outstanding university orchestra. From those first orchestras, which were staffed with older students and other players with limited experience, to today's ensemble, in which many of its members have been taking lessons since they were in grade school, there have been obvious improvements in the musicianship, intonation, and accuracy of the group. Minden Angel and Julian Lobsein, two of the earliest string teachers, started many students during their stays on campus. Lucille Taylor also contributed to the growth of interest in strings, inspiring many with both her playing and teaching during her years at the school.

As important as these teachers were in starting the string program, however, the efforts of Timoteo Montealegre in working with students in the conservatory program have probably contributed most to the quality of players in today's orchestra. Montealegre came to UM to study music as an older student with a very limited musical background.

When he completed the program, he was assigned to teach violin in the conservatory, where his careful work with the children endeared him to the students and inspired them to achieve at a remarkable level. Many of the players in today's orchestra are students he started. Their playing, guided by present director Pavel Semanivskyy, has led to an orchestra that is the pride of the campus.

UM music students and groups figure prominently in the church services and are an important part of campus life, often playing and singing in the university worship services. The ensembles not only tour widely in Mexico but also regularly perform in regional churches. Graduates from the music program now play important roles in the church's work in Central and South America and elsewhere.

Today's music program is light years removed from where it was just thirty years ago. It is a remarkable achievement and a prelude for even greater accomplishment as a new decade in music begins.


This overview is based on interviews with Julian Lobsein, June 1990; and with Olga Schmidt, Carlos and Hector Flores, Evelyn Mariani, and Ruth Ann Wade, all in February 2008.

 Copyrighted by IAMA and Dan Shultz