Music teacher Maria Hoyos, who grew up in Colombia, teaches fifth grade music and high school chamber music at Country Day in the mornings. Hoyos moved to the U.S. in 1998 and started working with cellists at SCDS in 2013. (Photo by Shimin Zhang)
‘Brilliant’ Colombian cellist chases passion across continents
Enter the orchestra room at 8:20 a.m. any given day and you’re likely to find a gaggle of fifth graders getting out their instruments.
Despite the typical faulty temperature control, the small room provides a warm welcome from cold winter days.
“It’s freezing out there!” a boy exclaims as he heads for the instrument rack.
With six cellos, two violas and eight violins, it’s almost too crowded for the compact space, but music teacher Maria Hoyos keeps the students focused.
“Get ready,” she instructs from the front of the room. “Unpack your instruments — cello can unpack there. I have two tuners there. If you’re first, use those; if not, we can tune from here.”
Within the next five minutes, Hoyos moves throughout the room, helping violinists identify where to stand, what strings to tune, what direction to turn the pegs and where to place their hands.
“Something’s wrong with this — it’s not coming out!” a girl exclaims, pointing at her cello. Hoyos bends down to help adjust the endpin, then turns around to answer a question about a misplaced shoulder rest, all the while telling stragglers to “come in gently.”
By 8:26 a.m., the students are in their seats, practicing myriad songs and scales until Hoyos taps her stand with the conductor’s baton.
“We are now going to start,” she says. “Please, everybody, get your books. Today we are going to learn a new string: the lowest string on the violin!”
But before Hoyos became a teacher, she was the one learning.
Growing up in Colombia, Hoyos began the cello at age 12.
“A long, long time ago,” she started with a laugh, “one symphony orchestra went to my school, and I really fell in love with the cello, so I started playing.”
Hoyos said after hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time, she knew it was what she wanted to do for a living.
“I felt that since I started not too young, I have to really, really work really hard,” she said.
According to Hoyos, her high school’s music program was “very basic,” but as it was a Catholic school, students sang for mass.
“Always they asked me, ‘Oh, Maria, you sing very beautiful, come sing,’ so I used to sing all the time because nice voice and I was on tune — that’s it,” Hoyos said.
After she graduated, her high school hired her as a general music teacher for grades 6-12.
“It was my first job after high school,” Hoyos explained. “I obviously needed the money, you see, but it was really nice. It is one time in my life I decided I really want to concentrate in music and in cello, cello, cello.”
This teaching job occupied her mornings, but in the afternoons, she practiced her instrument..
“I played cello literally all day for two years until I get into the college,” she said.
When she attended the Fine Arts Institute in Medellín, her practice schedule was just as rigorous. English classes started at 8 a.m., followed by “basic college classes,” according to Hoyos.
“I didn’t have to do so much of theory classes, performance history, something like that,” Hoyos said. “But I have a good three or four hours of practice all day plus the orchestra rehearsals in the evening. It was very intense, playing the cello, because I have my exams, auditions, recitals and orchestra.”
Hoyos also decided to further her singing in college.
“Since I was teaching groups of 45 students, I feel that it was really feeling hard on my voice, so I had to take the technique of singing,” she explained.
At the Fine Arts Institute, Hoyos studied voice techniques, took conducting classes and sang in different choirs.
Even then, it was clear why Hoyos describes music as being “all her life.”
“To pay for my tuition in undergrad, I even used to play bass in a Latin group,” Hoyos said. “I used to sing and play salsa on the weekends because it’s not easy to make a living of musicians, so I have to do so many different jobs.”
While completing her undergraduate degree in music for cello performance, Hoyos played in two professional orchestras: the Philharmonic Orchestra of Medellín and the Symphony of Antioquia.
Studying in college, Hoyos received one of her most treasured belongings.
“This lady who had this cello for four years say, ‘I’m not gonna play anymore; I’m gonna sell it,’’’ she said.
For Hoyos, it was a blessing — that cello is the same one she plays now.
“It was a little expensive for me, but it was really a big deal,” she said.
Hoyos played this cello for her college graduation performance in 1992, a solo cello concerto accompanied by the Medellín Philharmonic.
Even as a member of the orchestra, Hoyos said she was “very lucky” to play with it.
Hoyos continued to play with the Medellín Philharmonic and Antioquia Symphony after her college graduation.
“I did soloist many times — five times — and did first cello until I came here (to the United States),” she said.
Her journey to the U.S. started with the Medellín Philharmonic Orchestra.
“One conductor came to do auditions, and he said I was ready to do the master,” Hoyos said.
However, there were no master’s degrees in cello performance available to Hoyos in Colombia, so she “really wanted to come here.”
Hoyos and her husband first arrived in 1998 after a fellow cellist in Chicago invited her to play with him. Her husband travelled with her.
Hoyos first met her husband — a musician like herself — before entering high school. They lost touch for a while but met again at the Fine Arts Institute and have now been married for 28 years.
After going to Chicago, Hoyos found herself in Fort Worth, Texas, playing with Texas Christian University’s orchestra.
“That conductor invited me to play says, ‘Oh, you are ready to have a scholarship,’” Hoyos said. “But it was really hard for my English, so I worked really hard for three years to do the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), to do everything.”
Eventually, Hoyos was invited by a conductor at the University of Nevada to participate in summer workshops there.
It was “wonderful,” according to Hoyos. There, she met a professor at California State University, Sacramento (Sac State).
“Since I have everything ready, he accepted me in January because I really wanted to come,” she said.
So, in January 2003, after five years in the U.S., Hoyos began her master’s at Sac State. There, she participated in the Strings Project, a “flagship program that provides affordable, carefully structured group lessons in violin and cello for children in the fourth to eighth grade, taught by the dedicated and talented School of Music undergraduate and graduate teachers,” according to the university’s School of Music website.
To teach violin for the Strings Project, Hoyos took private violin lessons herself and studied the pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) of violin as part of her master’s, which she described as a “really excellent experience to use after my graduation for what I am doing here.”
For Hoyos, settling into Sacramento involved — unsurprisingly — music.
“Once in a while, I play with Sacramento Symphony and Merced Symphony,” Hoyos said. “I play with Napa Symphony for a long time and the Folsom Symphony for six years — many, many orchestras.”
Currently, Hoyos plays with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. Rehearsals occupy her Monday evenings, and as principal cellist, she has extra responsibilities.
“I have to make sure that everybody follows me and gets the bow durations to play together,” she explained. “I have to make sure that everybody play our best.”
Being a music teacher in Sacramento, Hoyos soon found herself introduced to members of Country Day’s music department.
“I used to work with a small group of violins in a Catholic school with (lower school music teacher Elena) Bennett,” Hoyos said.
When orchestra teacher Felecia Keys was looking for a cello teacher in 2013, Bennett pointed her to Hoyos.
“I talked to Maria, and we clicked right away,” Keys said. “I knew she’d be perfect. She was eager to work, passionate about the cello and had the skills and patience to work with younger kids. And she’s an excellent cellist herself.”
The position was convenient for Hoyos.
“I live five minutes from here,” she said. “I was really happy to start working with the cello group here.”
Hoyos initially taught sectionals (when instruments split into groups and work on pieces separately, rather than with the whole orchestra) for fifth grade.
“Right away, there was tremendous change,” Keys said. “She just brought the level of our cellos up.”
Within two years, Hoyos began working twice a month with middle schoolers.
This is how junior Erin Wilson, a cellist, met Hoyos.
“Remember in fifth grade, when we were picking our instruments?” she reminisced. “Ms. Hoyos came in and played some songs on the cello and talked about it.”
For Wilson, this moment six years ago mirrored Hoyos’ reaction to hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time.
“Playing cello kind of runs in my family,” Wilson said, “but Ms. Hoyos played it really beautifully, so I was drawn into that.”
Wilson continued to work with Hoyos in middle school sectionals.
“She helped us with techniques a lot, like how to hold the bow,” she said. “And she really helped us figure out our songs, like the best and easiest way to play them.”
According to Keys, Hoyos’ work with the middle school has been a big factor in the awards the cello section brings home.
“For the last two or three Forum Festivals, the cello section always gets the outstanding musician award,” she said.
“Maria knows how to bring out the interpretation of the music and how to translate that to students. They respond to that. She’s just so brilliant, and she works so hard and is so patient.”
This year, Hoyos took on more duties at Country Day after Keys went part-time in preparation for her retirement next year.
One of those duties is to run chamber music, though Hoyoshad already begun helping a chamber group last year.
“Last year was on her own time,” Keys said. “She just did it.”
This year, Hoyos comes in three days a week at 7:30 a.m. to coach the high school chamber group. She can be seen in the orchestra room sitting by the piano with a pencil in hand and a pensive look on her face.
“Can we do only these two?” she asks while preparing to conduct. “Second violin and viola. One and two and do, do, do do, yes, normal normal, yes.”
Wilson, who played in chamber in high school until her concussion this fall, said Hoyos’ help in chamber is valuable.
“She taught us to play in a group,” Wilson said. “Before, we were just figuring out ourselves how to play together and what to change, but then we had a new set of eyes to critique us.”
For Keys, the choice of who to take over chamber was obvious.
“We’re so different,” she explained, “but I’ve always told her I trust her instincts, I trust her judgement, and I have high respect for her talent.”
This is also Hoyos’ first year conducting the fifth-grade orchestra, which meets four days a week.
“The two groups are different, so you have different levels of how you approach the pieces,” Hoyos said. “They have been really a good experience for me learning a lot — and I hope for (my students).”
Keys commented on Hoyos’ attention to various facets of musicality.
“Not only is she trying to get the musical part of the music, but even with fifth grade, she’s very heavy on theory,” Keys said. “She really emphasizes note reading and rhythms with games and exercises to make it fun.”
Back in the orchestra room on a cold winter morning, conducting the fifth graders in “Frère Jacques,” Hoyos says, “We do it very slow now, then at home you learn faster and we can do round. Who can tell me what a round, or canon, is?”
Multiple students raise their hands and bows alike until Hoyos calls on one, and the girl answers, “It’s when I play a tune, and he plays it after — the same tune but later.”
Smiling, Hoyos replies, “Yes, that is exactly what it means.”
Moments like this are what Hoyos enjoys about teaching.
“The kids are having really fun time learning something new,” she said. “Sometimes they struggle, but when they understand it and when they know it, I see their faces say, ‘Oh, I got it!”’
“With the concerts, they show the family that they are really getting better and can express themselves with the music, and their faces — they shine and smiley. That’s the best.”
Hoyos said she loves spreading music.
“I can give that knowledge to newer and newer generations that can do the same for more people,” she said.
These days, Hoyos’ schedule is still packed. She teaches at Country Day in the mornings as well as at Napa Valley Language Academy, a dual-immersion Spanish-English school, once a week.
There, all students play violin from kindergarten to third grade, pick cello or violin for fifth grade and continue with it through sixth grade. Hoyos has been working in the “great, big music program” there for 15 years.
“It’s only once a week, so very basic,” she explained. “But at least they have this really great opportunity to play one instrument through all the education, even though (it) is not as intense as we have in Country Day. Here, three days a week? This is really great.”
Hoyos has taught both cello and violin at the Napa Valley Language Academy but currently concentrates on cello because the school has more violin teachers.
Soon, Hoyos will also begin her second year in charge of teaching at the Sacramento Language Academy through the Camellia Symphony.
“I work in a program this semester to help with low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking kids to do a beginner group of violin players,” she said.
In addition to all of this, Hoyos works in two churches conducting choirs during the weekend.
It started when Hoyos, who is Catholic, came to Sacramento.
“I really was hoping to find a church where I can join the community and work in what I am doing,” she said. “I was very, very blessed and lucky to find a priest that was really good mentor of me, and he gave me the opportunity right away to work with the church choir, mainly on the Spanish side. Is hard to find somebody in the Spanish community to work with a church and to help without getting that much money. After that, another church asked me to help with their Spanish choir and then the English choir.”
Regarding singing, Hoyos said she “really loves it” but doesn’t have time to do everything. At the church, she helps the choir sound full, have a round voice and stay together with vocalization exercises.
“You have to do new songs every Sunday, so you have to just go over the songs real quick because is mass and then mass again,” she said.
Through the Sacramento Diocese, Hoyos teaches basic music workshops for the Spanish community when she has time.
Most of her time, however, is spent giving private lessons through Oasis Music Inc. Hoyos has worked with the small corporation since its creation in 2018 and is the manager.
“It is promoting music and teaching music,” she explained. “I have private students, and I organize concerts with this corporation for them.”
Despite all her commitments and involvement in her community, Hoyos said being busy “is not hard.”
“My husband helped me a lot,” she said. “I just organized my schedule pretty well, and I do not have that much time to relax, but I love it. I have all my days filled.”
However, Hoyos has cut back on playing gigs with her husband, who plays flute and saxophone, and daughter, a pianist.
“We have a trio of mostly Latin music (and) work a lot on weekends and weddings,” Hoyos said. “We do Quinceañeras, weddings, parties. My husband do DJ, and if they need live music for the dinner, we just join with a piano, guitar, singing, saxophone and flute.
“Right now, I try not to do too much because I don’t have time, but once in a while, for instance, the priest is having his birthday in two weeks, say, ‘Oh, please, can you play for us?’ Say O.K.’ Oh, well. We go and play!”
Hoyos speaks of her daughter with pride.
“When I came here, I thought no babies,” she laughed. “But after, I really wanted, and I have my beautiful baby. She’s 12 and plays the piano. She plays with us every Sunday at church with the choir, and she’s really getting better at playing by ear and playing the music that she has to play for the level five. She’s doing good in music, and she goes to Winston Churchill. I wish that she can be here.”
When Hoyos does have time to relax, she said she likes to “just stay home and sometimes sleep.” She also enjoys listening to her daughter play.
“I really love when I am very tired, I say to my daughter, ‘Please practice or play music,’ and I sit down as I close my eyes and listen to her,” she said wistfully. “This is a relaxing time for me.”
While relaxing, Hoyos also enjoys listening to what she calls “her music.”
“The popular Spanish music, like boleros,” she elaborated. “I like salsa, merengue to dance and all these Latin music.”
However, Hoyos’ favorite type of music is still classical because it is “the beginning of anything you want to play.”
“I love jazz, but I think that is another language,” she said. “The discipline of the classical music on following their rules, following the rhythms, all the details about the expression of everything — I think that no other music can give.”
As for the cello, Hoyos says it is her life.
“Cello is one of the best special instruments because I feel that cello gets very close to the human voice,” she said. “You do very comfortable sitting, and you can really relax. And you can do all these expressions — like when you want to express sadness, really sadness, the sound of the cello is the best.”
Keys said she looks back on Hoyos’ taking over fifth grade and chamber with relief.
“Maria isn’t trying to be me,” Keys said. “She has her own methods and ways of teaching the kids. It felt good leaving those groups in her hands, and I never have to worry.”
Keys also looks to Hoyos as a substitute for middle and high school orchestra when needed, which Hoyos said she is comfortable with.
“Even though I don’t know the music right away, Ms. Keys can just ask me this, this and this, and then I just go over and check and figure it out easy,” she explained. “The experience of playing a lot is what the most help me. I can just identify the music and see where we can make changes to make it better.”
Keys also asked Hoyos to work with the choir.
“She was able to work on their diction, their sound, on projecting,” she said. “She came in and really cleaned up that piece, and the kids loved her.”
With Keys’ impending retirement, she said Hoyos is a good fit to take over and it would be an easy transition.
“She’s dedicated to the school,” Keys said, “even if it doesn’t directly involve what she’s doing. She came into chamber, she’s gone with us to Anaheim — which is a big deal — and she was at Honor Orchestra. She even filled in at our concert with Erin out. She already has a connection to this school.”
Wilson agreed, saying Hoyos is a great conductor.
“It’d be a great step to take on everything, but she could do it and be really good,” Wilson said. “Ms. Hoyos has been around and helping us for a long time, so she knows the works of conducting high school, middle school and little fifth graders. She knows the students more personally than if someone else were to come in and change everything.”
Hoyos said she would “love to get more involved” at Country Day. In Sacramento and Folsom, there is “nothing in general” about strings in schools according to Hoyos.
“Always about winds and band,” she lamented. “I really, really love this program because there is no (other) school that you can have string music three days a week — wow. Wow. I really, truly think that this is the best music program in the city.”
Keys, however, attributes the success of Country Day’s program to Hoyos.
“She’s a brilliant musician — determined and amazing,” Keys said. “Any orchestra would be lucky to have her. I am lucky to have her. She has a wide range of talents, more than I had when I started teaching here.”
Hoyos maintains she simply tries her best.
“Music is my life,” she said again. “There are many, many ways to get involved. In working with the music I do my best to learn myself and to give to my students and to the community that I am in.”
Hoyos said she believes music is “education for life” as it develops the brain.
“I believe with a Suzuki philosophy: Every child can learn, and if you play one instrument, you’re gonna learn about many different things,” she detailed. “Concentration, discipline, stick with something even though is hard — you can do anything after that. Music is not for playing an instrument or for showing up but to improve your life.”
Back in Country Day’s orchestra room at 9:12 a.m., Hoyos loses track of time while sharing this philosophy with her students.
The fifth graders practice their last song for the day, and Hoyos checks her watch.
“Oh, goodness, I was looking at this one,” she exclaims, pointing at the frequently malfunctioning wall clock. “We need to leave now!”
The children pack up, ready for the school day after an hour of music, and are out the door with the gentle voice of “Remember, practice logs due tomorrow!”
—By Sarina Rye
Originally published in the Feb. 4 edition of the Octagon.