WALLINGFORD — When Christine Liu, then an underclasswoman at Choate Rosemary Hall, approached Phil Ventre, the school’s Head of Music, about community service opportunities involving music, she had no notion of the cross-cultural bridge she would soon help build.
Ventre told Liu about a past program in which Choate music students gave instrumental lessons to kids at neighboring Moses Y. Beach Elementary School, which was eventually discontinued due to internal changes at the school.
Liu, and former schoolmate Michele Li, who graduated this year, began to explore opportunities to create a program modeled after the Moses Y. Beach arrangement. Through the parent of an alumnus, they met Evangeline Mendoza, music director at the Spanish Community of Wallingford, and in 2012, Choate’s “Teach Music” club was born.
Ventre called the pairing a “perfect marriage,” saying club volunteers and students of SCOW’s music school, called La Escuela Guadalupana de Musica, are both very dedicated to the study of music.
Mendoza said a wonderful cultural exchange occurs when the mostly Chinese club members, who play classical instruments, provide musical introduction to SCOW’s Mexican-American children, who gravitate toward Latin and popular American music.
Mendoza said the Choate students even help her kids reconnect with their own culture by teaching them early Mexican folk songs, a building block in learning the mariachi music she teaches her older students.
Many of her younger students — those who are served by Teach Music — have become more Americanized and lacked interest in the music of their cultural heritage before the Choate students came and made it exciting to learn, she explained.
The Chinese students are able to teach Mexican music to youth of Mexican descent because it exists in notation, Mendoza said. She said this fact demonstrates that “music is the universal language.”
Liu agrees. “Music bonds us together,” she said.
Liu, who is now a senior and serves as the club’s co-president, said the experience of the program is not only about teaching music but also learning to appreciate differences in people.
Cultural contrasts are not the only differences between the Choate volunteers and SCOW kids. A large age gap exists between the club members, who are high school age, and the SCOW students, who range from ages 6 to 12.
Due to the groups’ respective ages, Teach Music is structured as an individualized instruction program. Each club volunteer is assigned a SCOW student as a mentee, said Liu.
Students in the Escuela function better in an environment in which they receive concentrated, one-on-one attention, Mendoza said.
The SCOW students’ ages also forces Liu and her peers to formulate innovative and appealing instructional methods, such as using jelly beans to teach music, she said.
Mendoza said her students are thrilled to take music lessons from the Choate students, which she said involve a “lot of fun and a lot of laughter.”
Liu said club members, who number approximately 30, offer lessons in violin, guitar, cello, flute, recorder, ukulele, and voice.
Mendoza said most of her new students in the program learn violin. Violin is a standard mariachi instrument, explained Choate junior Brian Min, the club’s other co-president.
If students are interested in learning guitar or flute, they start with the ukulele or recorder, as opposed to the violin, Mendoza added.
Min said the process of giving lessons also enhances the Choate students’ musical knowledge. “Teaching forces you to understand the concepts of music much deeper,” he said.
Min said the sessions at SCOW also afford Choate students a respite from their highly pressurized academic environment. He admitted some weeks last year he wanted to skip the commitment, but every Wednesday when Mendoza arrived in a SCOW bus to collect him and his fellow members, he “lost that mentality” and would “forget everything that’s going on at Choate.”
Liu acknowledged that it was difficult at first to juggle the additional time commitment involved with the program with the hours required to keep up with her studies.
Teach Music members are expected to commit to teaching lessons at SCOW between six to eight Wednesdays per ten-week semester, Liu said. Officers have extra responsibilities, Min added.
The club is expanding its schedule this year to include plans for a recital at the end of each semester, as well as possible joint performances and other social activities with the SCOW students, Liu said.
Mendoza said her students were disappointed last year that the program did not feature a culminating activity. She said one of the goals of SCOW’s music program is to provide opportunities for frequent performances because “performance is what it’s all about if you’re learning an instrument,”
Mendoza said the program has also opened the door to a growing relationship between the Choate and SCOW music departments.
Choate now donates instruments it plans to replace to SCOW, she said. SCOW has already been the recipient of tubas, trombones, and sousaphones from Choate, Mendoza said, along with a series of percussion instruments, which will allow her to begin a drum program at the Escuela.
Liu has already established a legacy at both Choate and SCOW via the program she co-founded, but she is now determined to ensure that it endures after she graduates.
Min is poised to assume the main leadership role in the group next year as a senior, but the need remains to continue to recruit new members and leaders within the club.
However, the co-presidents are not worried that the program will disappear any time soon. The club is comprised of “all people who love music as much as we do,” Min said.
“As long as that love is there, there’s no danger of it dying away,” he added.