performers on darkened stage from 2018 Production of Lucretia

Diversifying the Music Makers

Cali Pathways Project is changing the face of classical music by helping talented young underrepresented musicians reach their full potential

Posted in: Cali News

Pathways program vocalist in front of accompanist on stage
Vocalist Imani Achokah performs at the December Cali showcase, accompanied by collaborative pianist Michael Caldwell.

As a freshman, Basil Blasa is already performing at the highest levels at the John J. Cali School of Music. As a member of the prestigious Wind Symphony, he plays his own silver-plated clarinet, a high-quality instrument he could never have afforded on his own.

But as a Music Education major in the Cali Pathways Project – which identifies talented musicians while still in high school, and provides funds to help them buy instruments and more – Blasa is reaching his potential thanks to Montclair State University’s commitment to diversify the field of music.

In just its second year, Cali Pathways is hitting all the right notes. With about 40 high school musicians receiving instruments and training while still in high school, the first freshman cohort of 10 Pathway “alumni” sing and play on campus, preparing for careers as professional musicians and music educators.

Pathways program clarinet student on stage as part of workshop
Last year, as a high school senior from Bayonne, New Jersey, Basil Blasa came to Montclair for an improvisation workshop with violinist Charles Yang and other Cali Pathways students.

Funded by grants and private donations, Montclair is now launching a campaign to expand the initiative. A Name-A-Seat campaign will allow donors to name one or more of the 180 permanent seats in the Leshowitz Recital Hall. The goal is to raise $100,000 to help fund scholarships for talented student musicians from underrepresented backgrounds.

“The students we are trying to reach are students who are very passionate about music, talented at music, involved with their music programs in their public schools but who don’t have the resources to take that next step,” says Cali Pathways Project Coordinator Tomoko Fujita. “We’re trying to overcome those barriers so that students are not making life choices based on the limited opportunities in front of them, but instead can reach their fullest musical potential.”

Victoria Ortega, a freshman Music Education major, learned of the program from a teacher while helping to set up the band room in her Staten Island, New York, high school. “They can provide you with lessons, they can provide you with an instrument, they can provide tuition assistance,” Ortega recalls the conversation. “I had to submit a video of myself playing so I used a clip of me playing a solo on the euphonium.”

She recalls the day at Montclair when she was presented with an euphonium of her own. “It’s basically a tuba, but it sounds more like a trombone,” Ortega says. “I didn’t own my own instrument because it costs $5,000 and it was just not something we could afford.” Opening the case, and playing it for the first time, “I sounded so good, I didn’t want to stop.”

Nationally, there are multiple efforts underway to increase access to music education for underrepresented young talent. “But the reality is that we haven’t really significantly changed the demographics,” Fujita says, noting that just about 3% of musicians in professional orchestras are musicians of color.

“What’s interesting about Cali Pathways is that we are not just looking to diversify orchestral musicians, we’re also growing music educators. If we can have more musicians of color teaching in the schools, then we’re going to be able to inspire and connect with a greater number of young students of color. That can have a huge impact,” Fujita says.

Blasa aspires to teach in high school, pausing as he talks about his goals to remember (and thank) his teacher at Bayonne High School for inspiring him. “If I could do that for even one student – if I could be like she was to me – then my life is made. I find something so remarkable about that.”

Cali Pathways is modeled after existing nonprofit programs, with Montclair the first university in the nation to work directly with public schools to recruit and train high school students, and to follow and guide them to admittance into music schools. Montclair provides full scholarships for the students who successfully audition and are admitted to the John J. Cali School of Music, says Director Anthony Mazzocchi.

“Every student has a very different story and very different needs,” Mazzocchi says.

Many will be the first in their families to attend college and students say the encouragement from the Cali School is transformative. “The program represents hope,” says high school senior Taymar Garlington, a trumpet player from Staten Island, New York.

“I’ve become more confident because when you’re around your peers, you’re always getting feedback, ‘oh, you’re doing so good.’ But when you get in front of people who you don’t know or people who are more experienced, it’s like, wow, maybe I am better than I thought,” Garlington says. “That’s just so surreal to me because if you were to ask me a year and a half ago if I’d be going to college for music or if I’d be getting an instrument, that I’d be here on campus playing for people, I never would have thought so.”

Maria Taveras, a high school senior clarinetist from the Bronx, New York, adds, “Even though we’re all from different areas and different backgrounds, the thing that brings us together is music. That’s what makes me happy because I’m not the only Hispanic out there who enjoys classical and jazz music and wants to focus on it.”

Photo Gallery

Pathways program clarinet student on stage receiving a lesson from clarinet professor
In December, Cali Pathways high school musicians visited Montclair to showcase their talents for Cali School faculty. Maria Taveras, a high school senior clarinetist from the Bronx, New York, plays for Professor KeriAnn DeBari.
Anthony Mazzocchi, director of the John J. Cali School of Music, shares the stage with Sophia Bonamo, a junior high school musician from Staten Island. Bonamo plays the euphonium and says she enjoys her lessons at Cali. “It’s a safe space and very welcoming. It’s OK to make mistakes here.”
Geanelly Vallecillo (right), a high school junior from Paterson, New Jersey, listens to instruction from Professor Kathryn Lockwood. Cali Pathways funding helped her attend a summer music camp, “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Vallecillo says.
Pathways program coordinator gives violin to Pathways student
At Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music in the Bronx, New York, Cali Pathways allowed students to try out instruments. Shown are Venus Rodriguez and her private violin teacher, Naho Parrini.
Pathways program student plays new violin
Alan Alvarez plays a new violin at Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music in the Bronx, New York.
Famed violinist Charles Yang plays on stage in the Jed Leshowitz Recital Hall with Cali Pathways students, working on improvisation. It was the first time the students were able to come together and play safely due to the pandemic.
Workshop with Pathways program students on stage from above.
The view from above of a Cali School master class in session.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos and video by Rob Davidson.

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