White shirts, six strings and faith-filled music


music-webPhoto by Peter G. Sánchez










Diego Correa (far right) stands with his students in front of his Cherry Hill home. Teaching them the guitar and cuatro, Correa hopes not only to provide a positive learning experience for the youth, but to engage them in Hispanic liturgical music, and inspire them to play in their church.

CHERRY HILL — On Saturday morning, a visitor arrived at Diego Correa’s home for a short interview while he was giving a guitar lesson to one of his students.

The visitor got an interview, he got photos and, as a bonus, he got to hear more than a dozen young people play just for him.

Correa, music director at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden, teaches the guitar and cuatro, an instrument native to Puerto Rico, to youth from Philadelphia, Camden and other parts of South Jersey. Many are from poor areas.

When the visitor showed up, to his surprise he was greeted in Correa’s living room by 14 young pupils, all in white shirts and black pants or skirts, clutching their instruments and ready to play.

Called Rondalla Tradicional (Traditional Musicians), the group played “Alegre Vengo.” Some had travelled almost an hour to be there.

The mini-concert was both a gesture of hospitality and a way to promote Correa’s work with the youngsters.

And Correa has more than one goal with his music lessons: to teach music certainly, and to teach youngsters discipline and keep them out of trouble. (Correa requires his students to show him their report cards.) But the teacher also educates the young musicians about their ethnic heritage and the importance of faith and worship.

Most of Correa’s students either learn guitar and/or cuatro, but some also learn the tambourine, and the Spanish percussion instrument, the guirro.

As a 10-year-old growing up in Salinas, Puerto Rico, Correa wanted to learn to play the guitar, but his family could not afford lessons. Undeterred, he taught himself.

Coming to the United States in 1980, he has given musical lessons for the past eight years, first in Philadelphia and now in Cherry Hill. Some students still come from Philadelphia weekly for practice. (Correa has over 20 pupils, but only 17 make up Rondalla Tradicional).

“They’re learning music, and staying out of trouble,” said Beatriz Negron of Philadelphia, whose two children, Cristian Flores, 17 (three years taking lessons), and Bianca Flores, 14 (two years), are learning guitar and cuatro from Correa.

Correa and his wife, Damaris Thillet, director of Diocesan Ministries for the Camden Diocese, compose and publish Hispanic liturgical music, including “Canten a Dios: Con Ritmos de Nuestra Cultura” (World Library Publications”), and “Eso Me Basta, Señor” (Oregon Catholic Press).

Damaris, also teaches piano and voice to students in their home.

In his lessons, held in a small studio in the couple’s home, Correa teaches his students, who are mainly of Hispanic (Puerto Rican, Mexican, Nicaraguan, and Dominican) descent, not only how to play Hispanic liturgical music, but also the history of Puerto Rican culture and background on composers’ lives.

As the cuatro, with only four strings, is more difficult to master than the guitar, the Puerto Rican instrument is introduced to students only after they are skillful at the guitar. As they learn these instruments, the students are able to perform for their church on a daily or weekly basis, which is one of Correa’s goals for his protégés.

Beatriz Negron’s children began lessons with Correa after she saw how his teaching affected her niece and nephew, students Adriana and William Colon.

“I noticed a great change in their attitude, personality and self-esteem,” she said. Signing her own kids up, she has no regrets. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. They’re learning music, and staying out of trouble.”

Her daughter, Bianca, due in part to Correa’s lessons, is currently enrolled as a freshman at Little Flower High School in Philadelphia on a partial four-year music scholarship.

“It’s been an awesome, great experience,” Bianca said.

On Sundays, her brother, Cristian, and her cousins Adriana and William, play at the Masses at St. William Church in Philadelphia.

“My playing on Sundays shows how committed I am to my faith,” said Cristian. “I hope to inspire others.”

For a little over a year, 11-year-old Marcos Rodriguez has taken lessons with Diego. A sixth grader at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden, he also plays at St. Joseph’s Spanish Mass every Sunday.

His mother, Maria takes him to his weekly lessons at Diego’s home, and sees them as more than musical training.

“The more you know, the more opportunities you have in life,” she said. “My husband and I want Marcos to be a good, honest and responsible young man.”

Rondalla Tradicional has twice performed at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden, for a fall and Christmas Concert last year, and Correa hopes to someday bring his students to play in hospitals for patients.

“It’s amazing, what they are able to do under Diego’s leadership,” said Father Matthew Hillyard, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Camden. “He’s great at bringing the talent out of them.”

Regarding his students, Correa said, “Working with youth in this, it’s the nicest experience one could have.”

The lessons are “a great way for the (young) church to wake up,” said Thillet. “The kids express who they are, and discover beautiful gifts.”