Therese Cisse, an 11-year-old refugee from Guinea, couldn’t play her school’s new brass instruments the customary way because of a birth defect in her right hand. So she picked up a trombone, flipped it backwards, and gave it a mighty toot.
Therese was one of 60 New Haven students who sent out a chorus of brass and percussive thank yous in a concert at Fair Haven School. The thank yous went out to VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which sent the school 36 new instruments this year as part of a broader effort to make sure every city kid gets the chance to learn an instrument. After eight years, the foundation this year completed that effort, bringing $430,000-worth of instruments to 15 city schools.
Thanks in part to the foundation, all city schools with grades 6 to 8 now offer instrumental music lessons, according to Ellen Maust, the school system’s music supervisor. Fair Haven, the 15th school to receive the instruments, hosted a culminating concert Friday to show off students’ new skills and honor the philanthropists who made those skills possible.
The concert featured 60 kids from the 15 schools that have received instruments through the program since 2005. The largest crew of students came from Fair Haven School, the city’s 800-student beacon for newcomers and immigrants.
Friday morning, she showed up wearing the school’s uniform of white and navy blue. She filed onto the school stage and sat down with a line of Fair Haven trombone-players, including Johnnay Mabry (pictured), who is building up her stamina for the instrument after initial swift exhaustion.
The group included students from all over the city. Keyboardist Brittany Bailey (pictured), an 8th-grader from Nathan Hale School, took a spot at the front of the stage before rows of younger spectators in the vast, dark auditorium.
Students waited on the stage for 40 minutes while adults spoke about the program. They heard from their superintendent, Garth Harries, about how music education helps make “education of the whole child possible.” They heard from bigwigs at VH1 Save the Music Foundation, the LEGO Children’s Fund, and Jupiter Band Instruments, who provided the drums, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombones the students were holding in rest position. They heard from a celebrity guest, Andrew Dost, of a Grammy Award-winning band called “fun.”
Students shot questions to Dost about how he still gets butterflies in his stomach before he plays. Then it came time to play.
The rows of trombonists picked up their instruments and propped them on their left shoulders.
Therese grabbed hers and put it on her right.
Therese didn’t start out wanting to play trombone, she later explained. She had sought to play the flute. Despite her limited mobility and strength in her right hand, she had managed to figure out a way to play the recorder in music class. But her right hand was not mobile enough to move through the notes on a flute.
Her music teacher, Dan Kinsman (pictured), suggested she try the trombone. He rigged it up so that she could play it backwards, switching the left and right hands. She clutches the brace between her middle and ring finger on her right hand and uses her good hand to move the slide.
“It’s good, just it’s difficult,” she said.
It didn’t look difficult Friday as she jumped into the first piece, Mountainbrook March by Douglas Akey. That piece was already a huge jump in difficulty for the kids, who in March were still playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Kinsman said.
Kinsman gave them a goal to strive for: To learn a pop song called Some Nights, by Dost’s band, in time for Dost to hear it in person Friday. Because the students are from 15 different schools, they didn’t have much time to practice together. Kinsman held four rehearsals this week before Friday’s grand performance.
A couple of kids in the back of the room could be spotted faking the moves without blowing through the mouthpiece.
Therese blew hers proudly.
After the concert, she posed for a photo with her fellow musicians ...
... and lined up for Dost’s autograph.
Therese’s principal, Margaret-Mary Gethings, watched Friday’s performance and joined the applause. She said Therese is a role model for other kids.
“She went into this fearless and confident that this would be her instrument,” Gethings said, “and this has become that.”
“Where you have a weakness, you compensate with a strength,” Gethings said. In Therese’s case, “her strength is her will.”
Mnikesa Whitaker, who teaches Therese in the Ballet Haven dance program, said Therese is a model of someone who doesn’t give up. She is the only student who faithfully attended all of the master dance classes Whitaker offered.
“She works really hard,” Whitaker said.
“If I say do something, she doesn’t say, ‘I can’t,’” Whitaker said. “She just figures it out.”
Past stories on Fair Haven School:
• Idled Dental Van To Rev Up Again
• Toni Harp & “Toni Harp” Take History’s Stage
• Harries Floats Class-Size Switcheroo
• A “Snowball” Aims At Latino College Gap
• New Recess Rules Kick In
• Boys Find A Place On The Stage
• Bilingual Ed Overhaul Under Way
• New Havener Of The Year
• Common Core Hits Fair Haven
• Firefighters Respond To The Turkey Call
• VH1 Helps 15th City School Start Tooting
• Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
• Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
• Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
• Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
• From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
• As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance