New Heights in Ecuador

Driven by a desire to share musical knowledge, Esteban Molina-Cordovez has inspired a musical boom in Quito that he hopes will echo throughout South America.
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Despite the fact that Esteban Molina-Cordovez ’92 grew up Quito, Ecuador, South America’s third highest city, he’s continually reaching for even higher altitudes. In his youth, he was a motocross racer and gained national acclaim for his racing prowess during the 1970s and 80s. After his father passed unexpectedly and the expense of his chosen sport became too burdensome, he turned his ambitions to music. “I had been a top motocross racer, and afterward I decided I wanted to become the best flute player in the world,” Molina-Cordovez tells me with an ear-to-ear grin over lunch. “And I practiced very hard.” His wide-ranging interests and diligent striving have opened doors to three major endeavors in his life: sports, musical performance, and ultimately, education.

Seeking to offer a bit of the Berklee experience for young musicians in Ecuador in 1995, Molina-Cordovez founded a music school at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and taught Berklee’s methods. Through much hard work, Molina-Cordovez grew the fledgling school and it was renamed Instituto de Música Contemporánea (IMC) in 1999. It became a college of music within the university a few years ago. Through his continued efforts as the program’s director, IMC signed an articulation agreement with Berklee in 2000, and became a Berklee International Network partner in 2006. This enabled the IMC to offer students more of the Berklee curriculum and the option to transfer credits for degree completion at Berklee. Fast-forward to 2018, and Molina-Cordovez is now rolling out the very first Berklee City Music international program in Quito, an endeavor completely separate from his work at the university.

A Banana Boat and Flute Studies

Molina-Cordovez grew up in a musical home in Quito. His grandmother played Chopin on the piano, his father was a jazz aficionado, and his brother played flute and piano. “My father had albums by Return to Forever, Weather Report, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and others,” he recalls. “So I heard a lot of jazz around my house growing up. I took my brother’s flute and began playing along to records by Joe Farrell, Hubert Laws, and Dave Valentin.”

He completed his high school years in Potomac, MD, and then returned to Ecuador. “I decided to study music formally and my dream was to go to Berklee, but it was too expensive for me,” Molina-Cordovez recalls. “So I took a banana boat from Ecuador to Civitaveccia, Italy.” He was accepted to the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole, a renowned school in Florence that prepares students for the exams of the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini. During his Italian sojourn, he periodically saw posters for the Umbria Jazz Festival announcing that Berklee scholarship auditions would take place there. “I didn’t think I’d get a scholarship,” he says, “so I never went. But after seeing these posters for three years, I finally decided to give it shot. I ended up getting a scholarship and went to Boston in 1990 to study at Berklee.”

He majored in performance and found that his classical studies in Italy and the hours he’d spent playing to jazz records provided a solid musical foundation. He cites faculty members Larry Monroe, Jim Odgren, Andy McGhee, Matt Marvuglio, Greg Badolato, and Mark White among his most influential teachers. Like countless other students, he formed a band and began working in Boston. He speaks with pride of playing at Wally’s Café on Massachusetts Avenue with a range of fellow students—including Matt Garrison ’92 and Kurt Rosenwinkel ’90—during his student days.

Returning to Higher Ground

“After I finished at Berklee, I got a couple of tours in Ecuador during the mid-1990s, and through those, I was asked by people at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito to start a music program.” USFQ is a non-profit, top-rated private institution in Ecuador. USFQ’s schools of architecture, arts and humanities, engineering, health sciences, law, and social sciences serve about 6,000 students at the campus in Cumbayá, a suburb of Quito.

“In 1995, they were establishing a K–12 school program and gave me some instruments and asked me to start teaching,” Molina-Cordovez recalls. “I had gotten a letter from Tom Riley [Berklee’s current vice president for external affairs] stating that I had permission to teach Berklee’s methods. At the same time, we advertised at the university that I would be teaching Berklee methods for contemporary music there.” The announcement attracted 25 university students, and Molina-Cordovez and a fellow Berklee alumnus started teaching. Mornings, Molina-Cordovez taught K-12 students and during the afternoons, university undergraduates.

“For my first class on improvisation at the university, I was playing along with a computer and Band-in-a- Box because we didn’t have enough players for an ensemble,” he states. “We didn’t have anyone that knew how to walk the bass. Now, there are many good players.” The continuing relationship with Berklee brought many faculty members to Quito for clinics and concerts as well as auditions. Through the years, many of the institute’s students have pursued studies at Berklee’s Boston and Valencia campuses. One of Molina-Cordovez’s former students is currently attending Berklee on a full, presidential scholarship.


Creativity Unleashed

The program Molina-Cordovez launched has had a transformative effect on music education in Ecuador. Witnessing his success, other universities have started their own contemporary music programs. Consequently, the level of musicianship in the region has risen to new heights.

“This has unleashed a creative power,” Molina-Cordovez says. “All that was needed was to give talented people the tools. We have musicians here creating hybrid styles that blend jazz with indigenous music. They’re putting together everything they’ve learned. We now have many outstanding musicians and amazing bands in Quito.” Some of the artists who visit Quito for international jazz festivals have expressed pleasant surprise to Molina-Cordovez about the high level of musicianship in the area.

While he was building his program, Molina-Cordovez also continued on his own education path, earning his master’s degree in music technology from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

“After working so much in performance, I moved into recording,” he says. He brought his newly acquired knowledge back to the university and built a recording studio and other technology-oriented facilities. Today, the university offers majors in music production and engineering, performance, and composition. The composition major includes courses on creating music for film and video games.

During a drive by the USFQ campus, nestled in between retail shops, restaurants, and other local businesses, Molina-Cordovez pointed out some of the music facilities. They include the recording studio, media labs, and practice rooms that currently serve some 425 music students. “I created something that didn’t exist before that people really wanted,” he tells me. “This quickly became the fastest growing program at the university. Every semester, more and more students came to us. Now the university has 30 ensembles, including a big band and choir.” The institution is regarded as the best college of music in the region. All its faculty members hold a master’s degree or a Ph.D. and have received thorough training in teaching Berklee’s methods.

While working, Molina-Cordovez also burnished his education résumé further by entering a doctoral program. “I got my terminal degree, a certification in music education, from Boston University,” he shares. “That changed my thinking about music. In that program, I learned about aesthetics as well as very difficult harmony and did a lot of academic writing. I never thought I would pursue the education curriculum I took at Boston University, but as someone who had mainly been a performer, it helped me to understand music in a different way.”


Music Education Entrepreneur

Until about two years ago, Molina-Cordovez served as the dean of the music program at USFQ, then he sought to change directions. “I wanted to be more entrepreneurial about finding opportunities for musicians,” he says. “That’s how the Berklee City Music idea came up. I think it will allow me to create jobs for young kids and even some older people who want to pursue a music career.”

Molina-Cordovez worked closely with Lee Whitmore, who led Berklee’s Berklee City Music Program until June 2017. He continued with Krystal Banfield, Berklee’s associate vice president of education outreach and social entrepreneurship. In October 2017, Molina-Cordovez and Berklee signed an agreement to launch the first international Berklee City Music Program in Quito. It will be a completely separate endeavor from his work at USFQ, although he will continue as the director of USFQ’s Berklee Global Partner program. In Boston and other U.S cities, the Berklee City Music Program is tailored for disadvantaged youth. The program Molina-Cordovez is developing will serve students of all ages.

PULSE in South America

The Berklee PULSE Music Method undergirds the curriculum Molina-Cordovez has developed. As stated at https://pulse.berklee.edu, “The Berklee PULSE Music Method is a unique and innovative online music education portal that enables students to study, jam, and practice using interactive modules and an ever-expanding collection of popular music. PULSE offers exclusive resources available through Berklee City Music, Amp Up NYC, and select public school partners.”

“The Berklee PULSE Method is applicable to any style of music, Molina-Cordovez says. “It will fill the gaps in the music curriculum offered in school programs.” The PULSE music library uses recordings of copyrighted songs for study, and Molina-Cordovez has been working to license these songs for use in Ecuador. The musical styles students can study are wide open and will foster blending local and indigenous music with contemporary popular styles.

As we drove around Cumbayá, Molina-Cordovez spoke of plans to build his first City Music facility at the Paseo San Francisco shopping mall near the university. The location will offer parents an ideal place to spend time while their son or daughter receives music instruction. “I will invest in it to make the facility something attractive for kids and others who like music,” he says. “It will be a for-profit endeavor in order to make it self-sustaining. In South America, we don’t have donors to support a program like this, so it will be tuition driven. We will need people who are able to pay tuition so that we can sustain the program.”

“Esteban’s brilliant initiative will provide access to popular music education for young people,” Banfield says. “It’s a first in South America for City Music, and an ideal example of social entrepreneurship. It is in model for all to learn from.”

Molina-Cordovez will build on the buzz he has created in the region surrounding the Berklee educational brand. “I can’t tell you how many calls I get from parents asking where they should send their kids for music instruction,” he says. Through a PR campaign, he anticipates attracting 100 students to start. “Our plan includes offering scholarships for students to the Five-Week-Summer Program in Boston. Our program will have social value for the students. It’s needed here and around the world.”

Another aspect of the initiative is Molina-Cordovez’s desire to create jobs for musicians. He hopes some of his former USFQ students will teach in his new music school. “Once this new endeavor gets going, I feel that a lot more musicians in this region—Ecuador and Peru—will come to higher education,” he says. “This will work because of the power of music and the need to spread musical knowledge to those seeking it.”

Molina-Cordovez envisions Berklee City Music flourishing throughout South America. After launching the pilot program in Quito, Molina-Cordovez will his set his sights on Guayaquil on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, and then beyond to Lima, Peru, among other locations. “It has always been my mission to think of applying this around the area,” he says. “I have Berklee’s support. We have a trusting relationship and that has enabled me to keep things growing with Berklee in South America. I am confident this is going to fly. Having been a motocross racer gave me the tenacity to always look forward.”