It’s a Friday afternoon in February, and New Haven public schools have just let out. Tucked away on Whalley Avenue, in a repurposed garage between St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and Papa John’s, Music Haven, an after-school program, waits expectantly.

Within minutes, elementary, middle and high school students from across New Haven file into the studio, backpacks and music cases in hand. The kids drop their belongings in a corner and sit around a table as other students arrive for Harmony in Action, Music Haven’s youth chamber orchestra. At 3:45 p.m., Philip Boulanger, the orchestra’s conductor, gives the cue. The students arrange 27 chairs in a semicircle orchestra formation in the center of the room and unpack their cases. Philip plays an automated note, to which the children tune their violins, violas and cellos. The orchestra then plays a B-minor scale together and jumps right into a Vivaldi piece. To an uninformed observer, this rehearsal might appear unremarkable. Given the scale of what this after-school program has accomplished in New Haven within the past 10 years, however, Music Haven seems nothing short of astonishing.

Music Haven was founded in 2006 by Tina Lee Hadari MUS ’04, a graduate of the Yale School of Music, who served as executive director of the organization until stepping down in 2015. Hadari began the organization with the principal mission of providing tuition-free classical music education to students in underserved neighborhoods of New Haven. Since then, Music Haven has been featured on National Public Radio and in The New York Times. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities chose Music Haven as one of the top 50 after-school arts programs in the country for five years in a row between 2011 and 2015. In New Haven, a city with a staggering wealth gap across neighborhoods, many programs have attempted to provide free educational opportunities for unprivileged youth. Multiple organizations, for example, pair children from low-income neighborhoods with a “buddy” mentor figure, but these programs face funding challenges and often only involve one hour of contact time per week. While these problems of revenue plague Music Haven as well, the organization has distinguished itself in the sheer commitment that both its students and teachers make to one another. As a result, Music Haven has become iconic, not just in the Elm City but in the nation as well.

Scanning the room at any Music Haven rehearsal, an observer will find one thing in common among all students: they reside in New Haven’s “promise zones,” areas designated by the federal government as neighborhoods of higher poverty. More specifically, most of Music Haven’s students come from the Dwight and Dixwell area and the Hill, two regions to the south and west of Yale’s campus.

By enforcing these criteria of eligibility, Music Haven is able to provide music education to children for whom such lessons would otherwise be financially unfeasible. 94 percent of Music Haven’s current students hail from families with an annual income of less than $60,000, and nearly 28 percent of its students come from families with an annual income of less than $20,000. The vast majority of Music Haven’s students are people of color — 49 percent of the children are Black and 34 percent are Latinx. The services that Music Haven provides to each student are worth roughly $7,000 per year; Music Haven provides all of them — private lessons, group lessons, orchestra rehearsals, field trips and even the musical instruments themselves — entirely free of charge.

Music Haven classes — on violin, viola and cello — are taught predominantly by the members of the Haven String Quartet, the program’s resident musicians. These four conservatory-trained instrumentalists — Yaira Matyakubova (violin), Philip Boulanger (cello), Gregory Tompkins (violin), and Annalisa Boerner (viola) — rehearse and play with one another in addition to providing Music Haven’s educational services. Annalisa Boerner, to whom Music Haven students refer affectionately as “Ms. Annalisa,” explains that Music Haven’s resident string quartet-based structure is actually inspired by Community MusicWorks, another music education nonprofit in Providence, Rhode Island. Founded nearly 10 years before Music Haven in 1997, Community MusicWorks paved the way for similar community-focused music education programs to crop up around the country, following their unique musicians-in-residence template.

Since Music Haven’s official opening in 2007, the program has educated a multitude of New Haven youth. (This year, the organization actively serves 76.) At any point in time though, Music Haven maintains a lengthy wait list, and students often have to wait several months. “We more have trouble accommodating everyone who wants to participate than needing more publicity, which is a blessing,” Annalisa notes.

When children are lucky enough to see a spot open up, the commitment they must make to Music Haven is not insignificant — students spend an average of 3.5 hours per week in class; the most devoted spend up to 11 hours per week with Music Haven, not including their daily practicing at home. According to Annalisa, some students devote themselves out of passion, others out of diligence. In all cases, however, the ultimate goal of Music Haven’s training is the same. “It’s the sense of resilience and grit that we try to develop through the methodology of practicing in music,” Annalisa says. “I like to tell my students that they become ‘hard-thing doers.’”

“It’s not like any other music school in the district,” Jazmine tells me, as we chat before Harmony in Action. Jazmine is 11 years old, a sixth grader at Wexler-Grant School in New Haven. She bounces with excitement on the couch in Music Haven’s lobby as she recalls the moment of her enrollment. Jazmine was in second grade at Wexler-Grant when her teacher passed out a flier for the after-school program in class. She recounts, “I ran home and I was like, ‘Mommy, mommy, I want to join Music Haven.’” Her mother, Dyniqua Mullins, asked Jazmine to promise that she would take the responsibility of learning an instrument seriously; when her daughter readily agreed, Dyniqua helped place Jazmine on the waitlist among other New Haven students eager to join. After several months, they received an exciting call. Jazmine remembers, “I started jumping around the house with excitement.” Music Haven had good news: a beginner’s viola spot had opened up.

Before bringing her viola home for the first time, Jazmine had to practice the basics of how to hold and care for her instrument. Since then, however, she has progressed through Music Haven’s programs, earning her spot as one of the youngest members of Harmony in Action. “Being on the same level as the big kids is kind of hard,” she explains. “The songs are getting faster, so I have to move my fingers faster.”

Jazmine now takes private lessons once a week at Wexler-Grant through Music Haven, and also plays with Harmony in Action on Fridays. She emphasizes, though, that weekly rehearsals barely cover the scope of activities that Music Haven facilitates; she and her fellow classmates have watched other orchestras, attended the ballet and even visited New York City with Music Haven. These listening experiences, in tandem with the lessons the program offers her each week, have profoundly affected her relationship with music. “I listen to the meaning of the song,” Jazmine says, regardless of which type of music she listens to.

Music Haven principally trains its students in classical music, but they are also encouraged to examine and explore the intersection of chamber music and modern genres like hip-hop and pop. One way that Ms. Annalisa, Jazmine’s viola teacher, accomplishes this task is through the annual February concert, a recital in which students can request to play any song of their choosing. “We don’t just play regular songs,” Jazmine clarifies. “We play pop songs. We can pick our own classical song. Jazz … any genre.” Last year,  Jazmine tackled Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” on viola.

In recalling other favorite aspects of Music Haven, Jazmine fondly describes her weekly group rehearsals. “We do a lot of dancing in class,” she adds. In your orchestra chairs? Jazmine nods. As I begin to ask how this is possible with a viola in one hand, Jazmine interjects, “We dab a lot.”

As one of the younger members in Harmony in Action, Jazmine has many years left at Music Haven, which will continue to train her on viola through her senior year of high school. But Jazmine is still formulating long-term plans as she looks to the future. “I really want to go to Juilliard and get my master’s degree,” Jazmine says, a goal which she attributes to Music Haven’s impact on her work ethic. “I used to be really bad at, like, school and Music Haven helped me make good decisions.” Jazmine pauses and laughs. “Even though I’m only 11,” she adds.

Jazmine’s mother, Dyniqua, had not heard of Music Haven before her daughter brought home the informational flier from school. When Jazmine finally enrolled at Music Haven, Dyniqua was surprised to learn that she too was expected to attend her daughter’s first lesson. Reflecting on that experience, Dyniqua still remembers how nervous she was when Jazmine’s viola teacher said Dyniqua would also be learning how to hold the viola in class. “I don’t have a musical bone in my body,” Dyniqua confesses, chuckling as she recalls this first trip to Music Haven. “Here I am with this little tiny instrument on my big huge arm and shoulder and I’m like ‘Uh!’”

Watching Jazmine learn to play the viola over the past three years, Dyniqua has been astounded by the program’s impact. “She has changed so much,” Dyniqua says, referring to her daughter’s personal development. Jazmine was never a music fanatic before beginning lessons with Music Haven, but Dyniqua says that classical music and rehearsing now consume Jazmine’s world — Dyniqua often catches Jazmine watching YouTube videos of violin and viola performances. When they visited the ballet recently, Jazmine wanted to sneak forward so she could view the orchestra. Even Jazmine’s nighttime routine has been transformed by Music Haven. “She practices the minute she gets home to the minute she goes to bed. I literally have to pry her away from her instrument half the time,” Dyniqua says.

Though bedtime can be a battle now, Dyniqua expresses gratitude for Music Haven’s teachers, whom she characterizes as “aunts and uncles” to her daughter. Hearing from several Music Haven students, I sense a communal appreciation for the individualized care the teachers put into each child. “They don’t treat them like just some other kid on the street,” Dyniqua claims. “They treat them like family.”

From the teacher perspective, Annalisa agrees with Dyniqua. “The relationship between a musician and a teacher can be incredibly special, in large part because of the one-on-one contact hours,” Annalisa says. Music Haven is a longitudinal program, which means that students can expect to spend at least a decade with their teachers before graduating. Unlike certain athletic programs in which kids do not retain the same coach for more than a year, classical music, in Annalisa’s opinion, is particularly well suited for facilitating close educational relationships. “I think 10 years is longer than a lot of after-school programs are positioned to offer,” she says. “And that’s something that makes Music Haven really special.”

Running a nonprofit program of Music Haven’s scale is, of course, not without its challenges. On the administrative side, the most pressing question is always funding. “Most arts organizations face the challenge of having low earned revenue,” Annalisa says. Music Haven, whose annual expenses totaled over $600,000 last year, seeks funding predominantly through individual donors, arts grants and governmental contributions. While government and foundation funds are crucial to Music Haven’s success, the organization also relies heavily on the surrounding community’s support.

Music Haven has employed a variety of fundraising strategies in the past, ranging from organizing benefit concerts to distributing Music Haven bumper stickers. This May, Music Haven will participate in The Great Give, an annual fundraising event in which nonprofit organizations in New Haven compete to raise money over a 36-hour period. Music Haven has had remarkable success in The Great Give in the past few years, receiving the award for most individual donations acquired over the course of the competition. This year, the Music Haven team is already hard at work to ensure another successful campaign.

Other challenges center more around the classroom. Consistent attendance and transportation, for example, pose constant logistical issues. Although the city of New Haven now provides complimentary after-school busing for Music Haven’s students to the Whalley Avenue studio, some parents’ work schedules do not allow them to pick their children up from lessons. Because local public buses are not always reliable, the program has learned to expect delays in pickup and last-minute attendance troubles.

“Teaching is an infinitely compelling, interesting challenge,” Annalisa also notes. “I live for those moments when something clicks and we have ‘ah-ha’ moments.” These “ah-ha” moments require patience, compromise and understanding, though. One case that sticks out to Annalisa is the story of a young violin student who she sensed never had a passion for the instrument. Annalisa recalls, “We had the conversation, ‘He should practice like he should brush his teeth’ … because it’s good for him, even if he doesn’t want to.” In preparation for the annual choose-your-own-song recital, however, the boy began learning a Pitbull song on violin and his attitude changed entirely — he suddenly cared about how the song sounded and whether he was using correct technique. Looking back, Annalisa remembers this breakthrough as a mutual “ah-ha” moment for their student-teacher connection. What musical culture does he bring to the table? And what is his experience? And how can we honor that and put that in the violin context? These are the questions Annalisa began to ask; their relationship has been stronger ever since.

Courtesy of Music Haven.

Courtesy of Music Haven.

Six years older than Jazmine, Robert walks around Music Haven with the confidence of a veteran viola player. A 17-year-old student at Wilbur Cross High School, Robert is tall and looks focused as he plays scales before rehearsal.

“I practice a lot more than a lot of the kids here. Most of them do at least up to an hour or two and I try to dedicate myself to doing at least four to five hours a day,” Robert asserts, waiting for Harmony in Action to begin. Although he is now one of Music Haven’s most accomplished violists, Robert only began playing three years ago as a freshman. He describes his learning curve as fast, noting that a rigorous practice schedule helped him quickly surpass his initial group lessons. “The hardest part is practicing,” he says. “Practicing, especially on your own, is very difficult if you don’t have your teacher next to you.”

But extensive practicing has become habit for Robert, who Annalisa claims has “found his soulmate in the viola.” Robert stays up until midnight or 1 a.m. rehearsing most nights. During the school week, he is a Music Haven fellow, which involves helping teach a group introductory viola class to some of Music Haven’s youngest students.

Even when he’s not at Music Haven’s Whalley Avenue location, Robert often finds himself thinking about his viola studies. The 17-year-old’s experience of music listening, for example, has been profoundly shaped by Music Haven. “I definitely look out for the strings now,” Robert says. “I know the different timbres of what instruments are being played. So I can identify whether it’s a viola, a violin, a cello.”

Like Jazmine, Robert plans to pursue music professionally. He will be applying to colleges this summer and is particularly interested in music performance and music therapy programs. In describing his motivations for continuing to play viola, Robert is straightforward. “It’s safe,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about a lot of things happening outside in the world because when I’m in here, and I’m listening to and playing music, and I’m around my friends, a lot of it doesn’t matter.”

Music Haven aims to think critically about how to maximize the program’s impact in the community. As a result, Music Haven is constantly expanding its outreach. This year, Yaira, Music Haven’s resident violinist, began a collaboration with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. Yaira now teaches an introductory violin course to 13 new students from recently immigrated families, including refugees new to the country.

Jazmine, along with a group of other Music Haven students and their families, recently went to visit this class at IRIS and helped their new peers learn to hold their instruments. Dyniqua, Jazmine’s mother, accompanied her daughter on this trip and was particularly moved to observe the students’ collaboration. “It was exciting because you have all these little children who are from a different area, and my daughter is teaching them!” Dyniqua says.

Most Music Haven parents, like Dyniqua, take great pride in watching their children develop a skillset about which they are passionate enough to teach, a phenomenon that can be all too rare in underserved New Haven neighborhoods. “You can see, through the children when they play, that these teachers are actually putting in a lot of time and effort.” Dyniqua smiles with pride. “They play so well.”