All-City program helps local students connect with musical heritages

Through All-City Ensembles, Yale musicians provide instruction and guidance to New Haven students — including the district’s growing Hispanic population.

Darwin Armenta, a senior at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, spends most Tuesday evenings rehearsing with a mariachi band. He grew up listening to the music, a distinct Mexican folk genre that combines brass and strings, at home. And, at 17, he has played violin and sung vocals in several community mariachi groups for the past decade.

That’s where I got my shyness out,” he said.

But the band he plays with now rehearses at historic Hendrie Hall, on the Yale campus. The group is a new addition to the All-City Ensembles, an after-school program that is part of the Yale School of Music’s Music in Schools Initiative (MISI), a partnership with New Haven Public Schools made possible by a gift from the Yale College Class of 1957.

Through the program, local students get the benefit of free instruction from accomplished graduate students, while the public school teachers who help lead the ensembles receive tutelage in conducting skills.

Since it was launched in 2010, All-City has offered a choir, a band for brass, woodwinds, and percussion, and a strings ensemble, most of which rehearse in spaces on the Yale campus. Last fall, a mariachi and salsa band were added to the mix, an acknowledgement that more than 50% of the New Haven public schools’ population is now Hispanic, program leaders say.

It is open to students, in grades 3 through 12, who are in good academic standing, participate in their school’s music program, and get a recommendation from their music teacher. Armenta joined the mariachi ensemble last fall after Kate Warren ’23 M.M.A., the Yaffe postgraduate teaching fellow for MISI, visited his school to do outreach.

A young student with a trumpet
(Photo by Allie Barton)

At a mariachi rehearsal last December, Warren was one of several Yale-affiliated musicians playing instruments alongside about a dozen public school students as they sought to smooth out the strains of traditional favorites, like “El Son de la Negra,” in preparation for a winter concert.

Yale School of Music students act as teaching artists for our students, sitting in with the ensembles to provide real-time feedback and help,” said Warren, a French hornist who works with the brass players. “They also run sectionals and give private lessons.”

At one point in the rehearsal, mid-song, Armenta lowered his violin and rose to sing a heartfelt solo while the band played behind him.

Mariachi music is a point of pride for Armenta. “It’s really important to show your background,” he said, and “to express it to the other people in the world.”

A cultural necessity’

That sort of sentiment is music to the ears of Rubén Rodríguez, the director of MISI and the All-City program.

The ensembles are a cultural necessity connecting our students with their musical heritage,” he said.

Both the mariachi and salsa bands were piloted last year during MISI’s Morse Summer Music Academy, a free, month-long intensive music program for students in grades 4 through 11. They were immediately popular — both with students and their audiences — and so were melded into the All-City program.

It’s nice to have this platform for students to keep their heritage alive, while providing students the opportunity to explore music from various cultures,” said Jose Lara, the salsa ensemble conductor and an instrumental music and digital arts teacher at John S. Martinez Sea and Sky Magnet School, in New Haven. “It’s been huge. It’s about wanting people to get moving to the music. And the kids love it.”

Stefano Boccacci ’25 M.M.A., All-City’s conducting teacher (as well as the current assistant conductor of the Yale Philharmonia), coaches the ensemble leaders in action and applies his own conducting experience to help elevate their skills.

Leading an ensemble has a lot of levels,” he said. “You have to know stylistically what the composer wanted in a piece. You have to know how to manage people, about rehearsal skills, the timing of rehearsals.”

Sheet music for a mariachi song on a music stand
(Photo by Allie Barton)

Because most of the public-school teachers also lead ensembles at their schools, the skills they learn with All-City directly benefit their students in the classroom.

It creates a great cycle that feeds on itself,” Boccacci said. “Their own professional development helps the kids they teach to learn at higher levels.”

The two new ensembles provide students with the opportunity to explore new repertoires, musical phrasing, and rhythmic complexities. The mariachi conductor, Jesús Cortés, believes strongly that providing New Haven students with access to such high levels of musicianship is an equity issue.

He knows the challenges that many of these students face — he grew up in New Haven after his family immigrated from Mexico when he was five years old. He was in seventh grade when his family received a knock on their door that would ultimately shape his career path.

It was Rodríguez, then a graduate student in the Yale School of Music. He’d been sent by the school’s manager of community programs, the late John Miller, to recruit Cortés to a new summer music camp he was starting.

Rubén talked to my parents in Spanish about how important it was for me to come,” said Cortés. “His argument was that I had nothing else to do all summer, and why not invest all that time in something fruitful.”

So Cortés, who played the clarinet, spent that summer making music with other New Haven kids, a majority of whom also came from immigrant families. And something Miller said stuck with him.

He told me, ‘You can be a band director one day,’” Cortés remembered. “He planted the seed that it was possible, that it could be something that put bread on the table in the future.”

Cortés, who went on to participate in Yale’s music programs through high school, was able to go to college to study music with tuition help from New Haven Promise, a college scholarship and career development program, and interned with MISI in the summer to gain teaching experience.

Now 28, Cortés is the band director at Bristow Middle School in West Hartford. But he remains dedicated to MISI, showing up on Tuesday evenings to lead the mariachi players and pass along the message of possibility. “All they have to do is be here and put in the work,” he said.

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