Student Ambar Santiago Rojas plays with teacher Phillip Boulanger. "When I’m stressed I will play music and it stops me from stressing,” she said after a pitch-perfect performance. Lucy Gellman Photo.
Ambar Santiago Rojas held her cello lightly on her lap, adjusting its base as if she had done it hundreds of times before. She stood it up and squared her posture, the instrument almost her size. A few familiar faces winked back in the crowd. She drew her bow and unleashed the first warbling strains of “Song of the Wind,” right out of Suzuki book one.
Tuesday evening, 12-year-old Ambar was one of over 20 students to perform at Music Haven’s Erector Square digs for a joint recital in cello, violin, and pint-sized string chin instruments from teachers Phillip Boulanger and Patrick Doane. The performance marks spring recital week for the organization, a now-annual rite of passage for students to get their feet wet—or show off what they’ve learned over several years—in a room filled with friends and family. A full schedule of recitals and upcoming events is available at the organization's website.
Students in the "Discovery Orchestra," which starts with box violins before ever playing actual ones.
Praising the students for their hard work, Boulanger and Doane asked the audience for just one consistent piece of feedback: copious amounts of applause at the beginning and the end of each performance. As families, friends and young siblings packed Music Haven’s main room, Doane’s “Discovery Orchestra” filed into the room. Lifting their bows straight in the air and then looking toward Doane, they began with an orchestral “Twinkle Twinkle” that filled the space.
For many of the students, the recitals are a chance to test out their performance skills in a room packed with friendly faces, then unwind with a potluck dinner afterwards. That was true for Ambar, a lifelong Fair Havener who has been with the organization since September of last year. With her sister Jade Santiago Rojas, who began violin lessons in 2017, she attends each week, taking her cello home for long, careful practices.
Jade Santiago Rojas, who is also at Music Haven. After the concert, Fatima Rojas praised the organization for its attention to teaching music to kids who wouldn't otherwise have access.
“When I play, it makes me feel full of joy,” she said after the performance. “It’s been hard trying to actually play correctly and not mess up. It’s been challenging but it’s been really fun too.”
“I live in a house where everyone talks about music, and it just helps me calm down,” she continued. “So like, when I’m stressed I will play music and it stops me from stressing.”
“This program really reaches neighborhoods of need,” added her mom, education advocate and activist Fatima Rojas. “To see the opportunities here—it’s amazing.”
But the recitals—with the spring concerts—are also a chance to start the send off process for students who have been with Music Haven for over a decade, and are now graduating from high school. In the last performance of the night, violinist Audrey Rivetta took her spot on Music Haven’s sprawling red-and-white carpet, taking a breath before sending Beethoven’s Romance in F Major, Op. 50 right out from the heart of her instrument.
The piece starts with climbing violin, like a red rose looking for the best way up on a trellis. Rivetta stood completely straight, her back turned into a ruler. Piano from an accompanist rose in the background, trilling lightly before turning into something urgent, and backing down again for the violin.
The two started a call and response, violin chasing its tail by four minutes into the song. It tempered, soared, then dug in. Rivetta let the sorrow and grace of the piece overtake the instrument, then delighted the audience as both she and the violin seemed to rebound, and come out clear-headed.
But for her, it’s a bittersweet performance—heavy on the sweet. Rivetta started at Music Haven 12 years ago, when she was just five. Now she’s 17, a senior at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School waiting to hear from colleges about where she’ll end up in the fall. She said she does not know if she’ll continue music, but is hoping to attend a school with an orchestra program where she can participate. For now, Music Haven will still do just fine.
“It’s a more comfortable place to perform,,” she said afterwards, eying a long potluck table with rice and peas right alongside pizza and a piping hot dish of lasagne. “Cause it’s just your parents and other students, so it’s less nerve wracking.”
“It’s sort of a distraction from everything else,” she added. “It’s nice to forget about school or homework for a while.”