Student Spring Sing Captures Community Spirit

Lucy Gellman | April 9th, 2024

Student Spring Sing Captures Community Spirit

Education & Youth  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Public Schools

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Top: Gillian Lynch, who teaches music at Nathan Hale. Bottom: Students get into the spring sing. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Gillian Lynch’s hands soared through the air, bird-like as the conducted an entire auditorium of students from the stage. Behind her, thick pink buds bobbed against a shock of blue sky and lyrics outlined in black. Can't do it by myself! So I'm asking for your help! Together we can change the wooo-r-ld, students sang.

Suddenly, the backing track cut out. With her arms raised, Lynch started to clap, watching as at least 1,000 pairs of hands joined in.  Students pressed on, their voices snaking up to the balcony and winding into the corners and high ceilings.      

That enthusiasm captured the spirit of “Make A Difference,” this year’s annual NHPS Spring Sing at Fair Haven School. A collaboration between the district and over a dozen New Haven elementary and middle schools, the event recognized the power of singing together—particularly among the social and emotional aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 1,100 singers, both students and teachers, attended.

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Ellen Maust, who called her impending retirement "bittersweet" multiple times during the event.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ellen Maust, supervisor of performing and visual arts at the district. “The whole purpose of this is to encourage community singing. Now, so often, people listen independently. It’s beautiful to hear all these voices together.”

“We are counting on you to sing these songs and go out in the world and make a difference,” she added, speaking directly to students. In some ways, it's a fitting way to pass the artistic baton: she plans to retire in June, after 44 years with the district.

Last week, her enthusiasm was contagious from the moment students entered the auditorium, bounding off their yellow buses despite a light rain that fell outside. In front of the stage, a group from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS) hummed with conversation, students thumbing through the song packets in their hands. Around them, students continued to arrive, chatter rising so quickly that Maust reminded students to keep it down.


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Top: Roma Ziaz. Bottom: Gabriel Dones.

At the far end of one row, fifth grader Roma Ziaz said she was excited to sing with hundreds of her peers, with selections that ranged from Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” to tunes from The Prince of Egypt and The Greatest Showman. At home, she often sings with her three siblings in Pashto, the language she learned as a child growing up in Afghanistan. Since coming to New Haven, she has folded in some favorites in English, bringing them home for her siblings.

“I feel happy and excited,” she said, savoring the moment. She took in the sheer number of students still filing into the auditorium. “When we all sing together, we can have a louder voice.”   

“It’s good to sing as a community because you get to feel happy,” chimed in her classmate Gabriel Dones, whose latest obsession is Michael Jackson. After starting to sing five years ago—he had high praise for Frozen—he’s made it part of how he and his sister relate to each other at home. Now, it makes the world feel less overwhelming. “I feel so good! I love singing.”

Around them, attendees of all ages took the theme to heart. As BRAMS music teacher Meaghan Sheehan stepped on stage to begin the event, students stood, 1,000 pairs of eyes locked on her hands. A flurry of notes rang out from the piano, so jubilant it seemed that they were bouncing. The words to Teresa Jennings’ “Make A Difference” soared across the auditorium, some students raising their hands and puffing out their chests as they sang.

For many of them, it was a chance to step into the spotlight, and also remember the power of an ensemble. Performing “Count On Me,” Conte West Hills Magnet School student Sophia Cornejo emerged from behind the curtain, shaking off her nerves in real time. Behind her, students in the school’s eighth grade band prepared to play. As teacher Saleena Holder cued up the band, Sophia leaned into the mic.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea/I'll sail the world to find you, she began tentatively. She looked out into the auditorium, squinting in the bright light. As she sang, a smile spread across her face. Her shoulders relaxed, and the song’s instrumentals swirled around her.

If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can't see/I'll be the light to guide you. In the audience, students looked up at the stage as if they were watching a celebrity for the first time.  Within seconds, the whole auditorium was singing along to the chorus. Somewhere in the middle rows, a peer raised their arms and began to swing them from side to side.    

“It was nerve wracking, but it was pretty good,” she said afterwards, as she jogged down from the stage and filed into a row with her peers. “You kind of just have to do it.” 

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Top: Sophia Cornejo. Bottom: FAME teacher Matthew Denegre joins in.  

That mantra also rang true for Lynch, a music teacher at Nathan Hale School who had expected smooth sailing with Rilee O’Neal’s “Together We Can Change the World.” When, two verses in, the backing track stopped unexpectedly, she took a breath and kept going. She leaned into the mic, coaxing students to continue without saying a thing. They seemed to take the hint, and pressed on.

She lifted her hands into a clap, and watched as 1,000 pairs of hands followed. From across the auditorium, Family Academy of Multilingual Exploration (FAME) teacher Matthew Denegre joined in on acoustic guitar.

“Alright! We are rolling with it!” Lynch said. As she sat down with third graders Brooklyn Pulsifer and Cattleya Hernandez  after the piece, she burst into a smile, as if all was right with the world for a moment. Next to her, Cattleya said she was grateful for the event, which reminded her of how calming music can be when she feels stressed or angry.

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Top: Journey Johnson with teacher Lindsay Maturi. Bottom: Nathan Hale students Brooklyn Pulsifer (in yellow) and Cattleya Hernandez. 

Journey Simone Johnson, a second grader at Davis Street School, seconded music’s ability to soothe. After taking the lead on “A Million Dreams,” she beamed looking over the audience of her peers. She brought back that same verve later in the program, as she sang about social justice and young change-makers with a poise far beyond her years.  

“I love that I got to go onstage and I got to use my beautiful voice,” she said. “It makes me so happy.”

That flowed through the rest of the concert, from Katy Perry’s “Roar” to affirmations—I am smart! I work hard! I am beautiful! Just as I am!—sung in raised, tiny voices. By the time students reached an a cappella version of “We Are The World,” some embraced each other, swaying arm in arm. It was just minutes until the last notes rang across the room, and students let themselves get lost in the music.

Outside, a gray sky still hung low over Fair Haven. Inside, another future felt possible. Maust, whose retirement follows 44 years with the district, declared the event a success.

For the past 15 years, she’s worked to grow the program as a way to combat social isolation and remind students of the power and joy of singing together. That’s become increasingly important with the rise of social media and streaming, she said. 

In the midst of it, she’s preparing to say goodbye. As the end of the year gets closer, she’s been keeping track of her “lasts”—last young people's concert with the symphony, last district-wide art exhibition. Last graduation season. Last music in the schools month. Last spring sing.

“It’s very bittersweet,” she said.