BRAMS String Ensemble Blooms Into Summertime

Lucy Gellman | June 29th, 2022

BRAMS String Ensemble Blooms Into Summertime

Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School  |  Economic Development  |  Education & Youth  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  Westville  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Members of the string ensemble. Pictured in foreground are Erica Washington and Jolianys Reyes. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The guitar played students in, wafting out onto Edgewood Avenue as they sat up straighter, pulled their bows into position and studied the pages in front of them. At one side of the string ensemble, Erica Washington planted her feet flat on the ground and let her cello do the talking. At the other, Joel Diaz joined in on upright bass. In the center, Giovanni Garcia adjusted his violin, and made it sing as his bow sliced in neat, short strokes through the air. 

Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Go No, I Got Life” had arrived on Edgewood Avenue, quite unlike anyone had ever heard it before. Somewhere above the clouds, the late singer took note, and danced along.   

Students from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS) brought that sound to Westville on a recent Saturday, as they turned the patio at BLOOM into an outdoor concert venue for the first time in the school’s history. After three years of pandemic-era adaptation, in-person and remote learning, and a full return to in-classroom teaching, the collaboration ended the year on a literal high note. Many, in fact.

“It felt great,” said BRAMS strings teacher Henry Lugo, who spent months organizing the event with BLOOM founder and owner Alisha Crutchfield-McLean. “It’s making the ensemble responsive in as many ways as we can.”

For Lugo and his students, the concert has been almost a year in the making. Last summer, he came into BLOOM to buy a gift, and fell in love with the space. At the time, the business was just getting off the ground: it has since become an event space, pop-up shop, cafe, and de facto community center at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Fountain Street. Or as Crutchfield-McLean often jokes, “it is all the things.” 

For Lugo, who lives in Westville and has spent years building a culturally responsive, anti-racist curriculum for his students, something clicked. He thought back to the guidelines he had written and published for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute in early 2021, outlining anti-racist pedagogy for middle school music students. In addition to writing new arrangements from Tito Puente to Nina Simone to Bill Withers—which simply don’t exist for middle schoolers—“I thought a lot about connecting your school community to neighborhoods,” he said.

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Joel Diaz, who is headed to Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in the fall.

Initially, the timing wasn’t right: BRAMS was just getting back to in-person teaching, and it was too early for students to do something so big outside of the classroom. For months, he and Crutchfield-McLean stayed in touch, and ultimately worked together to nail down a date close to the end of the 2022 school year. Then Lugo waited to see if the students in his ​​Strings Ensemble would show up on a weekend.   

It turned out he had nothing to worry about. As they rolled in with their instrument cases—and parents, grandparents, and siblings in tow—students buzzed with enthusiasm, beaming over their sheet music as they set up. A total of 11 students, ranging from sixth to eighth grade, arrived for the concert. Every few minutes, a parent ducked inside BLOOM where Crutchfield-McLean had set out refreshments, and emerged with a mocktail and cookie in hand.

As she set out her sheet music and cello, rising seventh grader Erica Washington said she was excited to perform, “because I feel happy when I play.” Before coming to BRAMS in the fifth grade, she was always intrigued by the cello, whose size and low-bellied, full sound pulled her in when she heard it.

Now, “I play an instrument that I love,” she said. “It helps me get my feelings out.” As a student of Lugo’s, she has also felt empowered by learning about professional, living Black musicians, particularly the contemporary composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery. In Montgomery, she sees a model for the cellist she could be if she sticks with the instrument.

In front of her, Jolianys Reyes looked over her sheet music, studying the first bars of “Oye Como Va” for what may have been the hundredth time. A fellow rising seventh grader at the school, she said she was relieved to be back in person after starting her BRAMS education online in fall 2020. When schools offered a hybrid option last spring, she remained remote.

In fifth grade, her only company during class was a screen and an Iguana named Millie, and she struggled with the instrument, she said. This year, “it’s easier to learn” back in person. When she’s playing with her classmates, “you can hear your mistakes” and just as quickly correct them. 

With the first notes of “Oye Como Va” and “I’ve Got Life,” students’ hours of rehearsal came bursting over the patio, winding their way around chairs, umbrellas, and a dormant fire pit. To the rhythmic Ba bah - bah dah - dah of Lugo’s guitar and tapping of his foot, violin and cello split into Puente’s lyrics, strings in an animated, back-and-forth conversation with each other. Violin pulled away, shrill and certain on the melody, and let the cello and bass hold it down. 

That flowed through Sam Cooke and Nina Simone, students pulling out hymns that froze time and space in between. Somewhere along the way, the works became a testament not just to the past year, but the past three, and the way Lugo has carried students through with an upright bass, a repertoire that looks and sounds like New Haven, and an ear for all-ages arrangements. In an interview last spring, he spoke openly about the challenges of teaching during the pandemic, including the need to do house visits to fix broken strings, swap out bows, and provide extra rosin. 

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Crutchfield-McLean: “That’s why I do this. I am a big advocate for uplifting everyone in our community, and specifically our children."

This year, the ensemble not only bounced back, he said—it has also been extremely collaborative. Lugo talks to students about what they want to play, and tries to let that input guide some of what his classes rehearse. In March and April, he knew that students were talking about Ukraine in their classes, and asked if they wanted to play a song in honor of the country. After they said yes, he worked with the ensemble to find and arrange a Ukrainian fight song.

“It’s making a statement,” he acknowledged—students didn’t choose a Ukrainian anthem or well-loved melody, as other musicians have done locally. They chose a fight song. As he counted them in, violins rose, a note of sorrow in their voices. Lugo stepped to the side, stomped his foot, and began to play his guitar. To the steely sound, violins picked up the pace, as if they suddenly had a destination in mind. Cello and bass came in underneath.

Together, strings began a kind of insistent forward march, more urgent than pugnacious. When they rounded the final corner, they finished with a succinct rallying cry. Audience members, who had fallen to a hush with the announcement of the song, burst into applause. 

As they packed up, students vibrated with excitement. Giovanni, who will attend Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School for strings in the fall, said the concert was a perfect way to end his middle school experience at BRAMS. When he steps into a violin lesson or strings rehearsal, “it’s like my happy place,” he said. During the pandemic, he turned to music as a way to cope. Now, he’s excited for high school—where Diaz will be joining him.   

Watching the ensemble pack up from a doorway, Crutchfield-McLean declared the day a life-giving success, and the first in a series of youth events that she would like to host at the space going forward. As a small business owner, she said, she often finds herself trying to complete dozens of tasks in a single day. Moments like the concert are a reset. When students played, she gave herself time to pause, listen closely, and ease into the music.

“This was so energizing and heartwarming,” she said. “That’s why I do this. I am a big advocate for uplifting everyone in our community, and specifically our children. I want the community to understand that BLOOM is our community center reimagined.”

To learn more about BRAMS, visit the school's website. To learn more about BLOOM, click here or visit the shop at 794 Edgewood Ave. in the city's Westville neighborhood