Leah Carrillo’s face filled the frame, eyes soft as she rocked back and forth in her chair. The sound of violin wove through the background, barely audible. She smiled, and it was easy to smile back. Off camera, someone asked her what peace meant to her.
“Peace at mind, when you’re done with the day, and you feel better and you’re about to go to bed, and you’re like, ‘okay, I’m good,’” she said. “I’m good for now. There’s no time for worry at this point.”
That answer is one of the ways Music Haven has continued to teach—and learn from its students—during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Thursday, the organization ended the year with a winter performance party, bringing its annual tradition online. Over 80 households attended via Zoom, with relatives and grandparents tuning in from other states and other countries.
“It's so good to see everyone,” said Executive Director Mandi Jackson at the top of the evening, pausing as Milda McClain translated her sentences into Spanish. “I think it's so impressive what all of you have been able to do at school, and at home … to be able to see everybody come together and make music together is one of the most inspiring things for me.”
Screenshots from Zoom.
As smiling faces filled the Zoom feed, teachers gave families a peek of the work students have put in for the past nine months. The organization has not been able to hold in-person classes at its Erector Square home since March, when New Haven closed its public schools and moved learning online. Since then, teachers have connected with their students over a mix of Zoom, Google Duo, FaceTime and YouTube.
Many have still seen their students excel, said violin teacher Patrick Doane. As he queued up video montages from his two studio classes, he praised young students for "putting the perpetual in ‘Perpetual Motion.’" No sooner had the Suzuki joke garnered a few laughs than attendees leaned in close to study the little bodies on their screens.
In groups, students played in separate boxes that Doane had placed beside each other. A listener could close their eyes and, for a moment, imagine students in the same room together.
In the absence of a physical stage, both teachers and their students made the most of technology. Squeaky violins became a triumph. Cello duets somehow found a way to work across miles and miles of physical distance. Students danced with their instruments balanced on their shoulders. Parents and extended family clapped and cheered behind muted mics.
In one of the most joyful performances of the evening, violin students came together for a large, swinging rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock,” with student cameos and artwork sprinkled in. As she counted in the song, Artistic Director Yaira Matyakubova pretended to forget the lyrics. A student’s voice soared over the screen, clear as a bell. For a moment, even Matyakubova seemed like she was in a trance. Praise filled the chat.
Other classes leaned into the remote pivot. Haven String Quartet alumnus Colin Benn had students “time travel” virtually for his eponymously named class. In the class, students travel back to the year of their birth and choose a song they like. They’ve also been studying music of the African diaspora.
Since going virtual, students have used the cloud-based audio program Soundtrap to create ringtones based on soundscapes they want to recreate. One by one, students debuted tones with propulsive strings, percussion, synthy interludes and ambient sound.
14-year-old Prince Davenport, who also studies violin with Matyakubova, unraveled an entire story as he showed off the layered sounds of his ringtone. As he was building it, he said, he imagined a guy walking through New York City with big, noise-canceling headphones on his ears. When he removed the headphones, the city’s urban orchestra bloomed around him. Sirens pierced the air through the screen.
Other teachers took time to reflect on a year upended by COVID-19. Resident musician and violist Annalisa Boerner layered music and video to assemble a performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give Us Peace) quite unlike one that graced the stage at John C. Daniels School two years ago. Before Thursday’s concert, she asked her students what peace meant to them. One by one, they answered the question on video as music played softly behind them.
The answers flowed one by one. Happiness. Equality. No more war. No more chaos. No judgement. Safety. Three minutes in, the sound swelled into a single, layered call for peace.
Reign Bowman (top) with Jane Stewart (bottom) playing a prerecorded duet. Screenshot from Zoom.
For many students, the program has been a constant in a year turned on its head. Reign Bowman, a junior at New Haven Academy, said that her violin has become a trusty companion during COVID-19. Seven years ago, she began violin lessons with resident musician Gregory Tompkins. When both school and Music Haven moved online within two weeks of each other, it took her a moment to adjust.
She takes lessons each week from her home in Fair Haven, where she lives with her parents and two of four siblings.
“Learning online is a little weird, for Music Haven especially,” she said Friday afternoon. “Sometimes it's delayed. Or it's like you're talking to a computer.”
And yet, this year has been one of musical growth. Earlier this year, she graduated from Suzuki Violin Book Three into Book Four. She honed her vibrato, which she likened to seeing something in three dimensions after years of seeing it in two (“it’s making your violin sound like it has a voice,” she said). She was tapped to perform at the Haven String Quartet’s first concert of the fall season, streamed online in late October.
“It keeps me sane,” she said. “I have my family, yeah, but it's a different bond with my violin. My violin, even though it can't talk or nothing, it's like my friend. Easier to relate to my friends and stuff. It's easier to have something to do and to grow and stuff.”
That’s also been true for sisters Ambar and Jade Santiago Rojas, who are studying cello and violin respectively. As an eighth grader at Engineering and Science Magnet School (ESUMS), Ambar said she’s excelled in school but struggled with long days of school on a screen. She classified herself as “more of a visual learner,” meaning that the absence of a whiteboard and physical classroom is hard.
When she comes to remote practice at Music Haven, she said she feels like Boulanger is giving her his undivided attention. After a fall of lagging internet and fledgling attempts at tuning over Zoom, she was grateful to still have the performance section of the party. She added that there was one silver lining: her aunts and uncles were able to attend from Mexico.
“I’m still used to going to Music Haven, seeing my friends there, talking to other people … and I miss that,” she said. “Practice is going okay. With Mr. Philip, I like that he's very supportive and he understands that it's in different times right now.”
Jade, who is in fifth grade at the school formerly known as Christopher Columbus Family Academy, said that classes have been hard for her too. Sometimes, she has a question and isn’t able to get it in before her teachers have moved on to the next topic. Others, she feels like she’s talking into a void. Music Haven has become a refuge. She said her favorite part of the party was seeing the work that teachers had put into video compilations.
“We need to find where is the song, where is the light,” added their mom, Fatima Rojas.
“I think when people hear ‘Music Haven,’ they think of a music orchestra or group of musicians. But really, it's a family of musicians, and they come together to create beautiful pieces and beautiful friendships." Lygia Davenport Photo.
After debuting his ringtone, Prince said that music has also helped him get through the past nine months. This year, he began his freshman year of high school, made strange and unfamiliar by remote classes. While virtual lessons come with internet glitches and unexpected delays, they give him a chance to practice and connect with fellow students.
“Truthfully, I think I would be very bored if I didn't have music,” he said Sunday night in a phone interview. “Sometimes, I want to have a certain task that's consistently done. It really helps me express myself.
“I think when people hear ‘Music Haven,’ they think of a music orchestra or group of musicians. But really, it's a family of musicians, and they come together to create beautiful pieces and beautiful friendships. It's one loving family.”