Harmony Brings Music to Washington Heights

Gabriela Terreros practises her bowing technique in class. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

Gabriela Terreros practises her bowing technique in class. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

When a freak snowstorm hit New York City in early November, icy sleet drove everyone off the street. But 9-year-old Gabriela Terreros was determined to go to cello class.

“Today we left school, and I said go home because of the weather,” her mother, Dominica Arias, said. “She was mad.”

Gabriela insisted that she couldn’t miss class. So Arias bundled her up, and they made their way to Washington Heights’ United Palace of Cultural Arts, which houses the Harmony Program, a free after-school music program that started in this northern Manhattan neighborhood in September. Along with 24 other students, Gabriela attends two hours of music class every day, Monday to Friday.

Soon, Gabriela was happily scratching through the first few notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” undeterred by the freezing classroom. She kept her puffy purple jacket and knitted hat on while she played, but discarded her left glove so she could better feel the strings.

The Harmony Program offers free classical music lessons, including instruments and books, to underprivileged students in New York City. The program, which was started five years ago, aims to teach its students social skills, self-confidence and artistic expression through music. This new chapter in Washington Heights, which joins seven branches throughout the city, gives group lessons in violin, viola and cello.

In Washington Heights, the need for such a program was great. In recent years, many of neighborhood’s public schools have been forced to cut back on music and arts programs due to budget cuts in recent years. This has left many students without opportunities to explore the arts.

The Harmony Program aims to fill this gap.

“What I found in the interviews I did, particularly up in Washington Heights, is that a lot of the children didn’t have any structured activities after school,” said Ann Fitzgibbon, director of the Harmony Program. “They would say, ‘Oh, I hang out with my friends’… a lot of ‘I watch TV’, a lot of ‘I play video games.’”

But at least two dozen children are willing to spend after-school hours away from the TV.

“[The program] offers free opportunities to children of little means who are hungry for learning but have few resources,” wrote Andrea Morocho in Spanish on her child’s application for the Harmony Program.

Gabriela would not be able to take music lessons without the Harmony Program. The after-school program at her school, P.S. 115, was drastically reduced last year, and the family cannot afford to pay for music classes, says Arias.

Arias came to New York from the Dominican Republic some 20 years ago, but she struggled to find work despite having a college degree in statistics. During the 2008 recession, she lost her job as a secretary, so the family now lives on her husband’s income.

For Arias, watching her daughter learn an instrument fulfills her own childhood dream.

“I had music classes in the Dominican Republic,” she recalled. “It was all theory – the instruments are too expensive. Only millionaires had instruments.”

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Cello teacher David Wiley helps a potential student try out the instrument during Orientation.

Teacher David Wiley helps a potential student try out the cello during orientation. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

It’s not easy to get into the Harmony Program. For all that the program intends to bring to Washington Heights, it also demands much from its participants.

In the application, parents are asked to explain how they will support and encourage their child’s progress. The children are not left off the hook, either. They have to write an essay explaining why they want to join the program.

The essays, sprinkled with fourth-grade misspellings, harbor glimpses into the children’s lives. Some are whimsical and sweet, others almost poetic.

“Music makes me dance it takes me away,” wrote 9-year-old Samuel Barrios, a violin student. “I think I have music in my blood. Because me uncle part mother plays the acordein. Also because my uncle part father he plays the paino.”

“I’ve only been in this country for a year, and I want to learn a lot,” wrote another violin student, 9-year-old Isi Ruiz, in Spanish.

Gabriela’s essay reveals a frank and practical nature.

“I would love to play a musical instrument,” she wrote. “I always tried and I played horrible so I want to practice.”

After filling out the applications, the students and parents are interviewed by Fitzgibbon, who tries to ascertain how likely they are to commit to the demanding schedule.

Fitzgibbon also attempts to accommodate each student’s desires when it comes to picking instruments, mediating when parents and children disagree on which instrument to learn.

“At the end of the day, it’s the child who has to take the instrument home, and it’s the child who has to practice that instrument in order to master it,” said Fitzgibbon.

In her interview, Jamie Moreno, a tiny 8-year-old girl, declared that she wanted to learn the cello even though, as she observed astutely in her essay, “It’s is a big instrument.”

Even though a half-size cello is taller than she is, Jamie was adamant that it was the right instrument for her. In the end, she got her wish.

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Wiley teaches eight students in the fourth and fifth grade. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

Wiley teaches eight students in the fourth and fifth grade. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

Gabriela’s cello class, which consists of seven fourth-graders, has an aura of happy, barely-contained chaos. The Harmony Program also seeks to train music teachers and recruits young musicians out of college and graduate schools.

For 23-year-old David Wiley, teaching the high-energy students is more of a challenge than he expected it to be.

“When they’re all holding their instruments, they all are so eager to play,” he said. “I want to continue their enthusiasm, but I also want them to keep quiet and listen.”

The students frequently banter with each other and with Wiley. At the end of the second week, they interrupted class to lobby Wiley to let them bring their cellos home.

“You said we’d take our cellos home last week!” pleaded Leslie.

“I’m going to take it home no matter what!” challenged Paul.

“Ooooohh,” chorused the class, as Wiley tried to explain why they were not ready to take their instruments home.

Gabriela finally quenched the rebellion. “Now, quiet down guys!” she yelled, intent not to waste the lesson.

Wiley comes across as easygoing and friendly, but he sneaks in serious lessons too – when he noticed that his students were playing familiar songs by ear instead of reading the notes, he challenged them to sight-read an unfamiliar piece. The resulting cacophony and peals of laughter drove home the message that learning to read the notes is essential.

Despite the challenges, the class has progressed quickly, says Wiley. By the end of the first week, he taught them how to prepare their bows and handle their cellos. By the end of the second week, they could play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Three weeks later, they started to read music, and Wiley has begun to teach concepts in dynamics and tempo, challenging his students to remember the Italian terminology allegro, andante, piano and forte.

Wiley credits the intensive daily schedule for his students’ fast progress and says they learn much faster than his privately taught students.

Certainly, the rigorousness is not for everyone. In September, when the Harmony Program held an informational session for interested parents, some raised concerns that the initiative would force their children to forgo other activities.

For the parents who did end up committing, however, the demanding schedule is welcomed or at least understood.

“It’s good for Gabriela to have consistency,” said Arias.

“It’s a big commitment and most families would find it hard to work around that commitment to music, but I think it’s kind of necessary,” said Diana Zavala, another parent.  “If you’re going to learn an instrument, you have to accept it.”

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In the Harmony Program, students are taught how to collaborate, learn from one another, and have fun in the process. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

In the Harmony Program, students are taught how to collaborate, learn from one another, and have fun in the process. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

The goal of the Harmony Program isn’t to produce young musical prodigies, says Fitzgibbon, but rather to help the students develop various personal and social skills through their love of music.

“What I really want them to take from the study of music is a belief in their ability to master something challenging, the ability to commit themselves to something that doesn’t come easily initially and a level of confidence in expressing themselves,” said Fitzgibbon.

Taking lessons in groups brings additional benefits, says Lori Custodero, associate professor of music education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“Making music together really contributes to the idea of agency: that what we do matters,” said Custodero. “If they play a wrong note, it’s going to affect the whole. If they play a right note, it’s going to contribute to a beautiful sound.”

Fourth graders “really strive to belong to a culture,” said Custodero, adding that playing an instrument in a group setting gives them a sense of belonging.

Arias has high hopes for what the program may bring to Gabriela’s life. She wants Gabriela to develop her passion for music, as well as her brain. Also, she wants her daughter to learn how to work hard to master her instrument.

After class one evening, Gabriela pulls out her cello to show off her newest song, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” Arias listens from the couch, offering feedback and cheering her daughter on.

Arias says she is dedicated to helping Gabriela get into college and hopes that she will have a good career.

“I try to push her in a good manner,” she said. “I want for her a brilliant future.”

But Gabriela, hewing away at her cello with gusto, doesn’t worry about what lies ahead.

“I always want to learn any type of music,” she said with a huge smile. “It’s kind of my thing.”

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