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Two Teenage Boys, A Pandemic, and the Beautiful Sound of Collaboration

This is a story about two teenage boys who overcame the pandemic’s isolation and boredom in the most beautiful way we’ve heard yet—literally.

In New York City last spring, it was impossible to miss one of the city-wide impacts of the pandemic: silence. The city that hums with near-constant noise—the whir of traffic, the hiss of bus brakes, conversations that echo up between buildings along with horns and sirens—became disconcertingly quiet. The venues that normally witness some of the city’s most beautiful sounds—Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the theaters on Broadway—also fell silent.

Amid that quiet and isolation last spring, in a small apartment in East Harlem, Osiel Dominguez was getting bored. A seventh grader then at the Partnership’s Our Lady Queen Angels, he is a typical middle schooler; by his own admission, he almost never stops moving, dashing out to the playground at school to play soccer or football whenever there’s a break. Cooped up indoors, he decided it was time to do something he’d long thought about trying: learning to play the piano.

Except he didn’t have a piano—or anyone to teach him. His mother got him a shortened keyboard for his birthday, and he simply “started messing around with it.” According to Osiel, “The first thing I did was question myself: what do I have to learn to get started?” That self-examination and “messing around” led to the first song he taught himself: Chopsticks.

“Then, after about three months—I don’t know why I did this—I said, I am going to learn ‘Für Elise.’ I know if I try hard enough, I’ll get it.” And he did.

In following weeks, he tackled other pieces, including one that his hardworking mom had mentioned she liked. And one day, when she got home late from work, he told her had a surprise. She put him off for an hour while she juggled household tasks, but eventually they sat down, and he played her this:

Delighted by the gift, Osiel’s mother found a way to get him a full-sized keyboard for Christmas. “The action of the keys is more like a real piano,” he says with a grin.

Elsewhere in Manhattan, Diego Barrera’s routines had changed as well. An eleventh grader at the Collegiate School, Diego is already an accomplished pianist who has performed in Europe.

While busy with a load of AP courses and his own practice—he studies under Tatiana Goncharova at the Manhattan Conservatory—he too was seeking something new amid the pandemic, and shared with a family friend that he’d like to volunteer to teach piano, perhaps to older kids not too far from his age. “I had a peer teacher when I was in middle school, and I found it super-rewarding, so I wanted to do the same thing.”

That family friend, Beth Cogan Fascitelli, serves on the Partnership Board of Trustees, and she proved that even in isolation, networking can work wonders. She connected Diego to our network’s leadership, who mentioned it to our principals—including Liz Nuzzolese, Osiel’s principal. And in early February, thanks to the momentum spreading through these small acts of connection, the boys met for the first time via Zoom—and were off to a roaring start. “I was super-impressed,” Diego says. “I saw Osiel had a ton of potential, and most importantly he was really interested to learn.”

In the months that they’ve worked together, Diego has taken the same approach to Osiel’s playing that his own teachers at Manhattan Conservatory have taken with him. “We had to go back in order to go forward,” spending time focused on technique.

That could make something that had been free-form fun become a drag. But the driving curiosity about music and the friendliness that both boys share ensured that it was not. “Technique was what I really wanted,” Osiel explains, “to play so that it sounds good, not just so that I know the notes.” And, he adds, Diego is a great teacher. “I ask a LOT of questions, and Diego is really patient. He explains it all really well.”

Diego has a second pupil from a Partnership school, who agrees with Osiel’s assessment; Taylor Davenport, a sixth grader at Sacred Heart in the Bronx, is also taking piano lessons from him. “Diego is really nice,” she says, “and he really helps me progress.”

Diego carefully selects pieces for both students. (“a LOT of classical music,” Taylor says.) With Osiel, he’s choosing pieces “with basic rhythm but complex articulation,” like minuets.

Both Osiel and Diego are clearly benefiting from their work together. Osiel shares that now, “When I play the piano, I feel like there is sun in the house. I feel free.” And Diego explains that there’s a practical benefit of teaching for his own playing: “Going back to the basics with Osiel helps me remember the basics when I’m playing.”

More deeply, though, it is clear that Diego and Osiel’s passion for and curiosity about making music amplifies the other’s. And while the two come from what are in many ways different worlds in New York, their connection through music transcends that.

“This,” Diego explains, “is the role music should play in people’s lives.”

When we landed on “Partnership Schools” as the name for our network, it came from an awareness—both practical and faith-based—that wide-ranging collaboration is necessary for our students to thrive and fundamental to affirming the best in all of us. And in the middle of these strange times, two young men in our midst are making that kind of partnership into something quite simply beautiful.