As a child, Aurora Mendez lived a mere train ride away from Carnegie Hall. From the age of four, she wanted to play violin — but there were few music programs for young students in the Bronx. Each month, her grandma sacrificed part of her social security check to help pay for Mendez’s classical violin lessons.
Today, Mendez is a Harmony Fellow at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, or NHSO. The Harmony Fellowship is a two-year program that provides career development and community engagement opportunities to groups underrepresented in classical music. Through the fellowship, Mendez helps provide the public music programming she lacked as a child to students in New Haven.
The Harmony Fellowship was established by a team at the NHSO including CEO Elaine Caroll, Marketing Director Katie Bonner Russo and Education Director Caitlin Daly-Gonzales.
“The classical music world is asking itself a lot of questions right now, in terms of what music we are playing, who is on stage, who gets the voice at the table, and who’s in the boardroom,” said Daly-Gonzales. “It’s a predominantly white field, pretty much since its inception. There are so many musicians of color out there who are talented and deserve to be heard, and not just as a musician, but in life.”
While planning the fellowship program, the team discussed systemic issues which decrease access to music programming and developed career development plans to help overcome these issues. In 2017, the NHSO received a grant from the American Orchestras’ Futures Fund to officially establish the fellowship.
Since its inception, the Harmony Fellowship has expanded to provide opportunities for underrepresented conductors, administrators and board directors. Through the flagship fellowship for underrepresented musicians, fellows get opportunities to rehearse and perform with the orchestra, take private lessons from an orchestra member and receive a professional development stipend and coaching.
“More than colleagues, we’ve become this Harmony/NHSO family,” said Mendez. Her time with the fellowship introduced her to invaluable mentors who provide insights while she makes career decisions. “I got my undergrad degree in violin performance, and I’ve also played with several orchestras,” she continued. “The best education I’ve ever received has been when I’ve sat in rehearsals with these titans.”
Through working with the NHSO musicians and conductors, Mendez feels she has picked up on nonverbal cues and interpretive nuances in music she never would have otherwise. Additionally, she believes that having an orchestra on her resume “vouching” for her has helped her access a new level of career opportunity.
“Before I started my fellowship with the symphony I sent my application to a B-class orchestra in the U.S. My application got rejected immediately,” Mendez said. After becoming a Harmony Fellow, she applied for a workshop at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. With the fellowship on her resume, she was immediately given an audition. Now, she’s studying with members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany.
In addition to career development, Harmony Musician Fellows are placed into string quartets of two fellows and two rostered orchestra members. Before the pandemic, these quartets performed short concerts paired with conflict-resolution workshops geared toward elementary-aged students.
“A string quartet is such a great way to learn about conflict because there’s no conductor — it’s just the musicians themselves,” explained Daly-Gonzales. “If there’s anything that they want to try, they have to talk it out amongst themselves.”
The quartet acts out potential conflicts for the kids. For example, a violinist in the group might want to play a song from Moana, while the rest of the group wants to play Ed Sheeran. Then the quartet models how to resolve the conflict by talking it out in front of the students.
For James Keene, one of the fellowship’s inaugural fellows, community outreach involved repeated visits to Wilbur Cross High School, which has an 88 percent minority enrollment. During visits, quartet members taught students to compose classical music. At the end of the year, the class took a trip to a professional recording studio, where the quartet recorded each of the students’ creations.
Keene said that the students “view performers themselves to be these dry, boring, most-likely elderly white people that are just really unwelcoming.” The opportunity to see a relatively young person of color play classical music — and have fun doing it — humanized classical music for the youths. Many of the students he worked with even came to future NHSO concerts on their own accord.
Harmony Fellows also combat language barriers. Many of the students they work with are English language learners and first-generation Americans who speak more Spanish than English. Fellows with Spanish-speaking backgrounds, such as Mendez and Keene, are able to address students in Spanish and translate for their fellow quartet members.
“Their eyes just lit up,” said Keene, about speaking to students in Spanish during workshops. “It took them completely off-guard. They looked so happy. And you know, they kind of like almost visibly relaxed a little bit too.”
Due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the NHSO extended 2020’s Harmony Fellowships for a year. While in-person community outreach has been suspended, fellows have transitioned to digital outreach. Mendez is currently translating the educational portion of the NHSO website and creating Spanish-language videos introducing the musical instrument families.
This year, the NHSO is seeking two more fellows, a violinist and a violist. Successful applicants are not only outstanding players, but have a history of working within their communities and a vision for community engagement in New Haven. Applicants from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in classical music — including but not limited to those from diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic and geographic backgrounds — are strongly encouraged to apply.