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January 3, 2014

Educator Conversations: Pedrito Martinez Group

By Omari Rush

Editor’s note: This post is a part of a series of conversations between educators in the K-12 community. Educators will offer suggestions and answer questions about integrating UMS School Day Performances or the arts into classroom curriculum, as well as share advice on organizing a field trip to UMS. To volunteer to be a Teacher Lobby Moderator e-mail Or, check out other Educator Conversations.

This week’s questions:

  • How does a teacher prepare students for a concert of Cuban music?
  • How does an educator integrate this UMS performance into his or her classroom curriculum?
  • What are 3 things I can do in a short time frame to make this a meaningful performance for my students?

This week’s moderator: Dan Tolly. Dan is a music educator in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.


Q: How does a teacher prepare students to attend a concert of Cuban music?

My approach to any topic I bring into my classroom is the same; as author Richard Peck says, “it’s all about the story.” In this case, it is important to make connections not just to the music, but also the culture and the artist(s). The “story” is what the students will connect with intellectually, emotionally; it has to have purpose and meaning. If there’s not something in any story that deepens their understanding of the world and is worth remembering for the rest of their lives, then it’s not worth the students’ time. Of course, this is rarely the case, unless a teacher doesn’t take time to research. UMS bringing the Pedrito Martinez Group to Ann Arbor offers area educators a great chance to meaningfully enrich their students’ lives.

A good place to start is with the artist’s biography, to learn his/her personal story and musical and intellectual influences. Pedrito Martinez was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1973. According to his website, he began his musical career at age 11. This is an age when our students begin taking instrumental music in school, so it’s something the students can relate to – envisioning the musician at that stage in life. Finding some documentary film clips on Cuba and Cuban music will help to introduce the students to the sights and sounds that influenced Pedrito. There are also numerous music videos available of the group.

Since Pedrito is fairly young, it is hard to find visual materials on his life (he is included in Calle 54, a documentary of Latin Jazz). To help tell the story of life in Cuba for musicians, the movie For Love of Country (the Arturo Sandoval story) is a great resource, and helps connect the music of Cuba to American Jazz through the connection of Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo. It’s fun to make connections to the artist and those who influenced him, or whose music he enjoys.

While Pedrito is not a household name here, he has recorded with and toured with some names your students will recognize: Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon, and Paquito D’Rivera. He now lives in New York City (Manhattan) and the Pedrito Martinez Group generally plays three nights a week there. Tie-ins to these artists and their music can offer a nice segue to how musicians collaborate across cultures. In his weekly sets, he often plays his own arrangements of “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five, and Led Zeppelin’s “Traveling Riverside Blues,” as well as Latin Jazz pieces, ballads, and original compositions by Pedrito.

Q: How does an educator integrate this UMS performance into his or her classroom curriculum?

As mentioned above, if you weave a story around the performer, you can create meaningful connections to the broader curriculum of your classroom. Tying social studies/geography lessons to the performance can be done in two obvious ways: learning about Cuba, and more broadly about the geography of the African diaspora. Where are the countries located, who lives there, where did they come from? What are the economies based on, how do people live, what types of music do they enjoy (both traditional and contemporary), what is the political climate like? How are they governed? How does this compare to the core democratic values we learn about in our curriculum? I have found that telling the story of Cuban musicians’ lives and their defection to the United States helps to reinforce for our students just how important the rights we take for granted truly are.

Q: What are 3 things I can do in a short time frame to make this a meaningful performance for my students?

1. Purchase the debut album from the Pedrito Martinez Group (or begin by listening to the album on a streaming service like Spotify – embedded below). Play it for the students, and introduce them to the polyrhythms, so they’re familiar with the music and have something to listen for during the performance. Play the video clips from the group’s website.

2. Give your students some biographical information about Pedrito Martinez and the other musicians in the group – Alvaro Benavides (bassist, Venezuelan, Berklee-trained); Jhair Sala (percussionist, Peruvian, came to US to study with Pedrito); Ariacne Trujillo (pianist, vocalist, attended top Cuban conservatory).

3. Make connections to other composers/musicians that you may be covering with your students – Wynton Marsalis, Jackson Five, Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones. Have fun making connections through the music. Make at least one connection through geography, social studies, or literature.

Enjoy learning along with your students!

Do you have questions or comments for Dan about his approach to this performance or about teaching through performance more broadly? Share your responses or questions in the comments section below.

Daniel D. Tolly is a music educator whose passion and unique approach to teaching have been recognized with several awards, among them the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Family Teaching Prize, for excellence and innovation in K-12 history teaching; the University of Michigan University Musical Society’s Teacher of the Year; and earlier in his career, the National Association of Jazz Educators’ Director of the Year Award at the Wichita Jazz Festival. Dan has received several district-level teaching awards, and received multiple nominations for the new Grammy award for teachers in 2013. Dan currently teaches music in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and is involved as master teacher with the NEH-funded Banner MomentsTeacher Institute. Dan is also a lead teacher and collaborator with a University of Michigan/El Sistema pilot program. His education includes graduate studies at the University of North Texas and the University of Michigan.


Omari is the Education Manager at UMS. He is a recovering clarinetist, and an avid NASCAR fan.