In March 2020, the city shut down its public schools because of Covid-19. For music teacher Celina Velez, the timing was a crushing blow. “My third-grade students had been working for weeks with some Opera Philadelphia musicians and singers. And they had been preparing pieces to perform...they had rewritten some words to an aria. It was a very big project and they had shown so much growth.” Their concert was canceled.
Resiliency through art
Students at Cayuga Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where Velez teaches, received Chromebooks from the District but, she said, “There are students that, all last spring, did their classes in the back seat of a car, because mom drove to wherever there was some good Wi-Fi.” Velez praised their resilience: “They would show me, ‘Look what I did in art yesterday,’ and they would pick up a picture on a clipboard that they had in the back seat.” Like herself, Velez said, they are “pandemic-OK.”
Yamaha Music, the maker of instruments for professional and student musicians, has made the world a bit more OK for Velez and 39 other educators it honors in its inaugural 40 under 40. She was humbled, she said, that someone she respected as much as Mimi Stillman would nominate her.
En tus manos
Stillman, founder of Dolce Suono Ensemble, is a Yamaha performing artist and clinician. When the company asked for nominations for the new program, she said, “I instantly thought about Celina.” Stillman has worked with Velez since before she began the Música en Tus Manos (Music in Your Hands) project, bringing chamber music to Spanish-speaking communities in the city since 2013. She admires Velez for her skills on the violin and the viola, but more for her dedication and passion as a teacher and says, “She leads by instilling enthusiasm in her students.”
Velez has the same effect on her peers. She founded the North Philadelphia Art Teachers Alliance to bring district arts and music teachers together for support and idea-sharing—and to give students more opportunities as well. “We wanted the opportunity to workshop with each other and to do things with each other, and then we thought, well, just like we want to collaborate with other people, our students want that as well.”
So it comes as no surprise that for Velez, the Yamaha honor is more than the recognition. “Seeing some of the people that were also selected—it was really inspiring. It really encouraged me. It gives you a little view of what we can do in the future.” For now, Velez is focused on making music class a safe space where students can learn a love of music. And next year, she told me, they will be working with the Metropolitan Opera.
Image Description: Celina Velez, a Latinx woman, plays her violin, sitting against a gray and white background.