Just a few months after moving to New Haven from Mexico, Francisco Luna began learning a third language. It started with the letter G.
Or rather, the note G.
Francisco worked hard to hit that note in a recent music lesson as he tried out one of 36 new instruments at Fair Haven School on Grand Avenue.
The school received $30,000-worth of new instruments this year from the not-for-profit VH1 Save The Music Foundation, which sends instruments to schools that can’t afford bands. The foundation set out in 2005 to ensure every K-8 school in New Haven has a band.
Eight years and $430,000-worth of instruments later, the mission is ending at Nathan Hale and Fair Haven Schools, the 14th and 15th schools to receive instruments from the foundation. Click here for a story on last year’s donations to Columbus Family Academy, and the benefits of teaching kids music in addition to reading and math.
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.
All elementary schools have bands except for MicroSociety Magnet School. VH1’s Foundation had aimed to donate instruments to MicroSociety this year, but then the district eliminated grades 6 to 8 there amid low enrollment and financial stress. The donations were redirected to Nathan Hale, which received a keyboard lab, the first of its kind in the city, according to Maust.
At Fair Haven, some kids were already playing instruments donated by other groups. The new instruments are enabling the school to add more small-group lessons.
On a recent afternoon, two groups of kids stayed after school to take turns playing music and studying in the library. At 4 p.m. the second shift of kids filed into Dan Kinsman’s music classroom to practice their new instruments, which they had just picked up a few weeks ago. There were five kids in the group. A couple others were absent, and another was being disciplined for throwing things in the library.
The students, all in the 5th grade, took seats at the front of the room and unpacked two trumpets and three trombones.
Kinsman (pictured) led them through a warmup. First they detached their mouthpieces to work on basic sounds.
“Toot, toot, toot, toot,” Kinsman modeled on a mouthpiece.
“Toooot, tooot, toooot, toooot,” came back a cacophonous reply.
Unlike the recorder, which kids are familiar with from their general music class, brass instruments require a lot of work to produce immediate results. Hitting just one note proved a challenge.
Kinsman broke down the process. First he had kids buzz their lips without any instrument. Then he asked them to get out a tool he had passed out—a small red coffee stirrer.
“Mister!” called out Francisco. “Perdí mi...” Francisco trailed off, searching for the words for “coffee stirrer.”
Kinsman found him another coffee stirrer. He told the kids to blow hard through it, simulating just how tightly pursed their lips need to be.
“Más rápido,” Kinsman said, urging Francisco to blow harder.
Kinsman had him alternate between the coffee stirrer and the trumpet, searching for the right way to blow.
Francisco followed along, knitting his brow in deep concentration, until he hit the G.
“Yes!” Kinsman called out. (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch.)
After the warmup, kids worked on hitting short sequences of notes.
“B flat, B flat, B flat, C!” Kinsman directed. “C, C, C, C, D!”
The trumpets played one part, and the trombones played another, reading the notes from a page.
The exercise proved exhausting, said Johnnay Mabry (pictured). She flashed a face of exaggerated fatigue.
“C’mon, we’re building up some strength,” Kinsman coached. “Your hands are going to get stronger, your arms are going to get stronger. Your lips are going to get stronger. Your lungs are going to get stronger.”
Donations from Vh1 Save the Music, as well as another organization called Horns 4 Kids, have helped to triple the size of the music program at Fair Haven in three years, according to Kinsman. Three years ago, only nine kids took lessons on instruments outside of their general music class, which all kids take. Now 45 kids are learning instruments.
The school has 791 students, making it the largest K-8 school and the third-largest school in the city, according to Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings.
“We have plenty of kids that want to do it, but it’s a matter of instruments,” Kinsman said.
The instruments have helped the school add lessons during the school day in addition to after school. Every week, kids like Johnnay now get an hour of instruction after school and a 45-minute lesson during the day.
Johnnay, who lives in Fair Haven, plays drums at her church. This fall she was given a choice of which new instrument she’d like to pick up. The school received 36 instruments, including trumpets, trombones, flutes, saxophones, clarinets and percussive instruments.
She said she picked up the trombone because “really famous people play this instrument.”
At the end of the 50-minute period, kids had exerted themselves so much that their muscles became tired and their notes flat.
Johnnay packed up her trombone.
She pronounced her instrument “good. But it’s heavy.”
Francisco said the trumpet is the first instrument he has ever played.
“I like it,” he said in Spanish. “I like the sound.”
It’s hard to hit the notes, though, and to move your fingers to the right spot, he said.
Kinsman said Francisco made strong progress lifting a “saggy” note into an on-pitch G.
Now, he said, “he’s just got to go home and practice.”
Past Independent stories on Fair Haven School:
• 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