CARMEN: I’m at a nursing home in the West Haven VA Hospital, and as residents of the home are arriving in the rec room for a concert, the students of Music Haven are warming up.
CARMEN: The musicians range from elementary schoolers through teenagers in high school, and they tune up and practice on violins, violas, and cellos. They’re preparing to give a concert for the nursing home’s residents.
NURSE: Ladies, Gentlemen, Children of all ages. Welcome. We’re going to have a wonderful concert performed by Music Haven…
CARMEN: Music Haven is a strings program for school-aged kids in New Haven. The program is based around the Haven String Quartet, Music Haven’s resident ensemble. The Haven String Quartet performs chamber music professionally, but they also play a critical role as the instructors for Music Haven’s youth strings program.
[Haven String Quartet plays Mozart’s Quartet in G Major]
CARMEN: Music Haven caters to students in a set of New Haven neighborhoods that experience higher rates of poverty, where music education is not as easily accessible as in wealthier neighborhoods such as East Rock. This includes communities such as Dixwell, Newhallville, Fairhaven, and the Hill, among others, a group of neighborhoods that the city has sought to designate as a federal “Promise Zone.”
YAIRA: And this is just to make it accessible to kids whose parents might not have been able to afford music lessons otherwise.
CARMEN: That’s Yaira Matyakubova, first violin in the Haven String Quartet and one of the instructors at Music Haven.
There are only three requirements to apply to Music Haven: you have to be a New Haven resident from one of the designated neighborhoods, you have to be between first and sixth grade, and you have to be willing to commit to a rigorous schedule of lessons, music theory classes, and practice time.
[Young student plays Suzuki “Perpetual Motion”]
CARMEN: In turn, accepted students are eligible for tuition-free music lessons through their senior year of high school, instruments included. There’s no catch, you just have to be willing to practice hard and stick with it.
[Young student playing J.S. Bach’s Minuet No. 3]
CARMEN: Music Haven’s been around for ten years, and their first cohort of students are now in late high school. I talked to four veteran students of the program nearing the end of their time with Music Haven.
After the concert, I caught up with Robert Davis and Denasha Upchurch.
ROBERT: I’m Robert, 16 years old, going on seventeen, and I’m a violist—best instrument in orchestra.
DENASHA: My name is Denasha—I’m seventeen; I play the violin. This is my eight year—eighth or ninth; one of those.
Robert: This is my fourth year. I originally I wanted to start out on violin, but they started me out on viola. But I eventually came to love viola, and it’s the only instrument for me. Because violin is way to hard. Mm-mm.
DENASHA: Way to hard?
ROBERT: Not I. I am not doing all those high notes. You got me messed up.
DENASHA: They started me out on violin; I didn’t really choose an instrument, but I’m kind of glad I play violin. It’s interesting; it has its ups and its downs.
ROBERT: A lot of downs
DENASHA: I like that it goes higher than a viola or cello could ever go!
[Denasha plays Schubert’s “Flying Bumblebee”]
STUDENT: Um, Audrey Rivetta and Cristofer—Zunun?
STUDENT: Will be playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins. And these two people have been with the program since the beginning, for ten years.
AUDREY: I’m Audrey Rivetta.
CRIS: Yeah, and I’m Cristofer Zunun.
CARMEN: Cris and Audrey are both high school juniors, and have been with the program since first grade.
CARMEN: So how did you guys get started with Music Haven? Do you remember why you chose violin? Did you think of other instruments?
CRIS: Oh, I just didn’t want to do gym!
So in my school, there was this teacher, the music teacher that recommended Music Haven. She would come in the gym, because she didn’t have any violin players, and I was like–I’ll go! Oh, because I hated so gym so much. So I was the first one to go! Oh because I hated gym so much. So I just–like, I was the first one to go. I was like, I want to play! That’s how it started off. It skyrocketed.
CARMEN: So you started out just because you hated gym, but you ended up being…
CRIS: Being very connected to it.
AUDREY: I guess at the beginning, there’s always sort of that feeling where you just don’t want to practice.
CRIS: Like, why am I practicing? I’m good. I don’t need to do it!
AUDREY: But yeah, it really pays off, though.
CRIS: All the hard work pays off soon enough.
CARMEN: Is there ever a moment you remember being like, wow, I’m really glad I put in all that time.
AUDREY: Yeah. Like now.
CARMEN: Along with private lessons, Music Haven’s advanced students also perform in groups, duets like Cris and Audrey’s, but also quartets and quintets that are organized by the instructors. I asked Denasha and Robert to tell me about their ensemble groups.
CARMEN: You’re in—
CARMEN: And you’re in—
DENASHA: Fat Oranges.
CARMEN: Here’s Robert.
ROBERT: Okay, so Bow-dacious. One of the best quartets they have here at Music Haven. We practice every Friday from six to seven, and it goes really well. We played some interesting pieces; a lot of key changes and modulations, and it sounds really goodl, as you witness here today.
CARMEN: Robert introduced his quartet at the concert.
ROBERT: Hello, we are Bow-dacious, and we will be playing Ravel’s first miniature string quartet…”
[Bow-dacious plays Ravel quartet]
ROBERT: So I enjoy playing with a small group of people, because there’s so much more interaction that goes on, and you can form and develop tighter bonds than what happens with an orchestra.
CARMEN: Denasha’s in a different string quartet.
DENASHA: The Fat Oranges—we were the first quartet—student quartet for Music Haven. And we are the best student quartet.
ROBERT: One of the best.
DENASHA: No, we are the best.
ROBERT: Mm, I debate that.
DENASHA: Nah, I don’t think so. We have been together—I think this is our third year, maybe.
[Fat Oranges play Schubert “Death of a Maiden”]
DENASHA: We were all private students; never really played with a group. So they just put as all together, and it kind of stuck.
CARMEN: Even as they keep up with the latest Solange album or top 40 hits, all four students I talked to said their love for classical music stays with them even after they leave rehearsal.
What’s your favorite type of music to play, and to listen to?
ROBERT: Classical and classical.
CARMEN: Who’s your favorite composer?
ROBERT: My favorite composer…let’s see, that’s a hard one. I have to say my favorite composer right now is Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. I have not gotten to play Shostakovich because Shostakovich is cray-zy! There’s a lot of techniques in there that I don’t know yet, and I’m like, you know, I can wait a few more years, decades, centuries.
CARMEN: How many hours a week do you practice, do you think? When I asked Denasha how often she practices, she grimaced.
DENASHA: Mm, I can’t answer that question, can’t answer that. How many hours a week do you practice, Robert?
ROBERT: I practice 35 hours a week. Five hours a day.
DENASHA: Really, truly? Like five hours a day?
ROBERT: Truly, five hours a day. I turn off my TV, I close my room door, say do not disturb, I say I’ll be back at 9 p.m. Five hours. I devote that to learning new music, practicing old music, and practicing duet stuff.
CARMEN: Not every student practices as much as Robert, but everyone I spoke to seemed to have gained a lot from the program. It was a melancholy moment for Denasha, Music Haven’s first high school graduate.
DENASHA: The only senior.
CARMEN: So you’re the first graduate. How do you feel about it?
DENASHA: I’m kind of sad to leave, because, like, I’ve been here so long and I’ve gained so many relationships, but I’m excited to see where life takes me. I want to be a child psychologist, but… we’ll see how that goes.
CARMEN: Robert, on the other hand, plans to continue his rigorous practice schedule even after graduation
ROBERT: I know what I want to do—I want to be a musician for the rest of my life. I’m gonna go into music therapy as my major, and music performance as my double major, and probably creative writing as my minor because I love writing—I’ve been composing a lot of stuff. So definitely that. I’m definitely going to Yale.
DENASHA: Y-A-L-E Yale?
ROBERT: Y-A-L-E Yale.
DENASHA: I would love to see the day. No, I’d love to see the day that you get into Yale.
ROBERT: I’m gonna invite you there.
DENASHA: I’d love to see the day. Yale’s a hard school to get into!
ROBERT: And then one day, probably not going to happen, I’m going to go to Juilliard.
DENASHA: Who told you couldn’t go to Juilliard?
[Harmony in Action student orchestra plays Faure]
CARMEN: At the end of the concert, a parent turned to me and said… Unfortunately I didn’t catch what she said on tape, but I’ll read it.
The parent said, “She’s been able to discover herself through music, develop herself, mature herself.”
For the students I talked to and the Music Haven community, that’s a message that resonates.
Carmen Baskauf for the Yale Herald, signing off.