In a quiet, unassuming corner of Erector Square, Patrick Doane was conjuring a spell. He lifted a violin’s taut bow over his head, then drew it across his body. Before him, 12 pupils mimed the same motion.
“Up and down like the rain” they whispered, bows whizzing past their faces. “Back and forth like a choo choo train. Round and round like a great big sun.”
Doane is a new teacher at Music Haven, a local nonprofit that teaches tuition-free music lessons to kids in violin, viola, bass, cello and piano. It serves kids in the city’s Promise Zone neighborhoods—Dwight, Dixwell, Newhallville, The Hill, Fair Haven, West Rock and slices of Amity and Quinnipiac Meadows. This fall, he’s one of several additions at the organization, as it finds a new home in Erector Square. This week, it will open its doors for a series of student recitals in that space.
Music Haven has moved into A Broken Umbrella Theater’s old rehearsal and performance digs, a 6700 square foot loft that includes offices, practice and storage rooms, a kitchen, and large lobby and rehearsal area for the group’s Harmony in Action orchestra. Parents can wait for their kids in a waiting area out front, where siblings of budding musicians can also play games and do their homework.
The move signals a roaring start to Music Haven’s second decade in existence. After 10 years working out of John C. Daniels and Wexler Grant elementary schools and then a cramped garage on Whalley Avenue, the organization packed up and moved to Fair Haven in October. By that time, it had grown to almost 100 students—that’s not including a waitlist of 30 more who want spots—and needed more space. Executive Director Mandi Jackson called the new location “a core part of our mission,” motioning to parents working and kids dipping into their practice rooms as she spoke.
Carlos Camacho: No broken chin, just some discipline. Lucy Gellman Photos.
“It feels amazing and inspiring when we watch the kids come in,” she said on a recent Wednesday, darting from room to room. She paused in the lobby to play a semi-epic game of Legos with students. “You can tell they’re really at home here—and it’s space that they deserve. We’ve been waiting a long time for it.”
Jackson added that the move signals a greater investment in the organization’s future. Music Haven has worked with First Student and city schools to add Erector Square to after-school bus routes, so they have a way of getting to Fair Haven from different corners of the city. For students like Jordan Brown, a junior at Co-Op High School who lives on Goffe Street and used to walk to her lessons at Music Haven, that has made the difference between staying on and not. On Wednesdays and Fridays, she comes straight to Music Haven from school.
Doane and with student Laura Drone. After practicing with their box violins, students got a chance to try a few notes on a real one.
“I think it’s very cool,” she said of the new space, slipping into a practice room at the end of one long hallway and closing the door. “I’ve never had my own practice room before. It helps me concentrate.”
Despite shrinking state funding, Music Haven has also continued its “Music Bridge” partnership with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), teaching young refugees to play. The size of the new space is already a boon for that, said Jackson— where IRIS provided the location, snacks, and transportation to Fair Haven School last year, Music Haven has had to fill a gap, tracking down previous “Music Bridge” participants and coordinating school bus drop-off for fall classes at Erector Square.
Students Ashley Chen and Mei-Lin Nunez compare heights during a short break in their "Discovery Orchestra" class. Both are learning the basics of violin. Lucy Gellman photo.
The group has had in-house changes too, and is bracing for more. This year will be the first to see students graduate and go to college, freeing up space for some of the kids on a growing waitlist. It has grown its high school fellows program, giving high schoolers the chance to teach younger kids as they were taught years ago, when the organization had fewer resources.
On a recent Wednesday, Doane’s small, giggle-prone cohort was practicing with “box violins,” composed of books and rulers wrapped in brown paper, and bound together with tape. After students had run through bow positioning, Doane had a new challenge for them: hold their violins between their left shoulder and chin, for half a minute, extending their bow arm out in front.
Student Jade Santiago-Rogas prepares for the final exercise.
The idea is to get students comfortable with the delicate feel and weight of an instrument before handing over the real thing. A hush fell over the group, students turned themselves slightly towards the wall, sandwiching their instruments with their chins.
“I think I broke my chin!” exclaimed student Carlos Camacho, his face turning into a frown. He struggled to hold the box violin between his chin and shoulder.
“No, you didn’t,” said Pablo Cruz from the front row, a soothing note somewhere in his voice. “You’ll be fine.”
Tonight through Thursday, Music Haven will be hosting student recitals at its new home. To find out more, visit the organization’s website or Facebook page.