Small Size, Big Sound: Music Booms In the Bronx

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This week, 90 seniors will graduate from Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, the borough’s first music-focused high school. Created in 2003 to teach the discipline, focus and professionalism that rigorous music education can provide, the institution thrives – boasting not just a concert band, but a chorale, concert choir, select choir, women’s choir, show choir, freshman band, symphonic band, freshman orchestra, major orchestra, jazz band, Latin band, piano program, guitar program and rock band.

Using Manhattan’s well-known LaGuardia High School for Music and Performing Arts as a model, principal and founder Dr. William Rodriguez created a schedule that combines intensive workshops in instrumental music, vocal music, and theory with classes in English, math and science. In its fifth anniversary year, Celia Cruz boasts high graduation rates, a full trophy case and students who don’t want to stop playing.

At a Concert Band rehearsal this spring, a roomful of student musicians gathered in a room at the neighboring partner institution, Lehman College, so busy making music that they kept playing even after their conductor lowered her baton. But it was hard to blame them for sneaking in extra rehearsal time—this was their first time playing a difficult piece, and they were sightreading, a skill that even professional musicians work at throughout their careers. As one hoodie-clad horn player flubbed his solo and blamed his dental work, the band director, Penelope Smetters, challenged his excuse.

“I played oboe with a mouthful of braces—no pity for you!” Smetters declared.

“Ohhhh,” chorused the group of twenty students, poking fun at their classmate and their teacher’s audacity.

“Oh, snap,” grinned Smetters, a petite woman in a cable-knit sweater, playfully chiding the students.

By the end of the 90-minute period, a lilting refrain could clearly be heard passing from the clarinets to the saxophones, with trumpet and flute lines dancing above, and bassoons and horns fleshing out the bluesy harmony of the band piece “On the Summit.” Heads in backwards baseball caps bobbed in rhythm and Nikes tapped.

Smetters was proud of their progress, but not surprised. “They’re awesome,” she said later. She has worked at Celia Cruz since its inception and has taught in the Bronx throughout her career. “I want to make sure they get the same training here that they would get in Westchester or Long Island.”

Getting Started

In 2001, when the call went out from the city Department of Education to create smaller schools, no one was talking about music, said Rodriguez, the Celia Cruz principal. At the time he worked for the performing and visual arts department of DeWitt Clinton High School, a 4,500-student high school in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx.

The small schools movement, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, encouraged school districts to break up struggling behemoth schools throughout the nation. In New York, Rodriguez said, the Bronx got the lion’s share of attention because it had the greatest need—only 40 to 50 percent of seniors were graduating each year.

Each new school had to have a niche like math or education and a community-based organization (CBO) that would guide its growth and contribute funds beyond the Department of Education’s public school allotment. A DOE official held meetings for area educators. When no one mentioned the part of his own high school experience that Rodriguez found most memorable, he realized he had to take charge.
“Ask anyone who’s successful—a doctor, a lawyer, whoever it may be—what they remember about high school, and they’re likely to tell you that it was being in the band,” he says. Rodriguez grew up in the Bronx, in a time when arts were a bigger part of education, before budgets were cut in the 70s and 80s. “You could see the damage that did to schools,” he said.

Rodriguez organized Celia Cruz – it received the Grammy-winning salsa singer’s name after her death in 2003 – pulling together teachers he knew from schools like New York University’s Steinhardt and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and enlisting Lehman College of the City University of New York as its partner. The school’s first home was inside DeWitt Clinton, but it soon moved to Walton High School in Kingsbridge, as that campus was split into five mini-schools.

Parents were upset by the move, and some refused to send their children to the new building, Rodriguez said. Walton had been designated by DOE as an “impact school,” which meant that because of its record of violence and disorder, students faced six security guards with visible guns at the entrance, metal detectors and a heavy police presence, according to the public schools website But the new location was convenient—Lehman College was within walking distance, and students could use their rehearsal rooms and perform in their concert halls.

Rodriguez hoped that the institution of smaller schools would turn the campus around; Walton High School dissolved when its last seniors graduated, and the “impact” label is gone too. “Fewer students will fall through the cracks,” he said. He thought that teaching music in particular would teach social skills and provide students a sense of structure. “You have to work together to play music, and you always know that you have something pending, something to work towards, when you have a performance coming up,” he said. While all students must participate in band, orchestra or chorus, Rodriguez will not allow struggling students to play in the popular after-school jazz and rock bands. Thus, music becomes both a part of the school day and a reward.

Celia Cruz became a place where students could cultivate their musical talents within the Bronx, even if they weren’t quite prepared for a place like LaGuardia (made famous in the movie “Fame”). While each student faced an entrance audition, academic requirements were less stringent than they were at the “big name” school, and Rodriguez sought to create an environment where students of varied skill levels could educate each other. Today his school is one of the more than 70 performing arts-focused high schools in the city.

After four years, 85 percent of Celia Cruz students graduated in 2007, according to the DOE’s 2006-2007 Progress Report. With just 90 students in each class, that means that all but a handful finished high school, and Rodriguez said that most graduates are now in college. In the 2007 graduating class, two students received full scholarships to attend New York University to study music education, with one also majoring in bassoon performance.
Looking Forward

Though Celia Cruz boasts a commendable record, Rodriguez doesn’t understate the challenges of running the school. He wants to make sure students get through school successfully, prepared for college and motivated as self-learners. He also hopes they learn to be good citizens and enjoy themselves in constructive ways.

“I want them to know that there are fun things out there like playing music with friends and practicing,” he says. “They don’t have to be involved with negative things like gangs. Hopefully music will get their minds away from all of that.”

His students seem to have taken to his ideas. While student aide Carlos Contreras says there are “a few bad apples” for him to chase out of stairwells and into classrooms, the hallways are quiet, and students show only respect for Ms. Smetters. Rodriguez says that alumni return at each break and comment on the changes in the school—“Where was the display case when we were here?” they ask.

“Those are the trophies you won,” he replies. Each year, students attend a New York State School Music Association festival, where they play solo pieces before a panel of judges. There are no rankings, but the students receive accolades for mastering standard pieces of music at various difficulty levels. Before Celia Cruz was founded, Bronx students had never been represented. Today, students dress up for the event and thank judges regardless of their comments, proud to defy some people’s negative expectations of the borough, Rodriguez says.

The NYSSMA competition is not the only place the students show off their talents. “We also get trips out of New York,” trumpet player Michael Rivera boasts. He calls playing the horn “much better than anything else you could do in high school.” Celia Cruz musicians compete with other students from the tri-state area and New Hampshire at Six Flags Great Adventure Music Festival for High School each year. More than one of their groups has won first prize. In addition, they’ve been invited to perform on Disney World’s Tomorrowland stage in Orlando, and at Lincoln Center.

Rodriguez aims to hold three concerts each semester at Lehman College to showcase his students’ talents to the community. The shows used to be free, but Lehman College was only required to help finance Celia Cruz for the first four years. To help raise money for shiny, high-quality instruments, Rodriguez now charges $5 a ticket. Despite the price hike, the last concert sold out.

– Ronni Reich