(l-r): Torrington music teachers and WCSU alumnae Michelle Castellano and Ashlee Hyatt
The Torrington, Connecticut Public Schools website proclaims “Torrington Public Schools have been recognized as one of the Best Communities for Music Education in America for 22 years by the NAMM Foundation. Torrington has received this national designation more than any other community in Connecticut and is one of only two school districts in the United States to receive this national designation for 22 years.”
What makes Torrington such an amazing place for students interested in learning music? Perhaps it’s because of the 10 music teachers employed by the district, eight are from a Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) institution and five attended Western Connecticut State University.
Two WCSU Music Education alumnae, Ashlee Hyatt ’04 and Michelle Castellano ’14 & ’20, recently were named Teacher of the Year for their respective elementary schools in Torrington. Hyatt went on to also win Teacher of the Year for the entire Torrington School District.
“In my opinion, WCSU takes the cake in music programs,” Hyatt said. “I knew I was going to attend a CSCU institution with a strong music program and I wanted to go into my career path with the best training possible, which is why I chose WCSU.”
What Hyatt didn’t expect was what she would also learn outside of the university’s practice rooms and performance spaces. Growing up in the Windham County town of Plainfield, Connecticut, Hyatt said her hometown was not a very diverse community. “Moving to Danbury for college really opened my eyes to all the cultures represented in Connecticut. It was so different from my small town and prepared me for the diversity of my students — first as a teacher in Waterbury, and since 2008 as a music teacher in Torrington. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful WCSU was for me in building character, knowledge and world experience. I wish as many students as possible could have that kind of experience.”
Primarily a clarinet player, Hyatt currently teaches instrumental music, band and orchestra at Torrington’s Forbes Elementary, relying heavily on the teaching techniques she acquired from WCSU’s Music Department faculty, especially Professor of Music Dr. Luis Fernando Jimenez.
“Dr. Jimenez has such high standards from day one,” Hyatt said. “It makes you push yourself so much more because you want to earn his respect. I had such admiration for him and wanted to reach my best level of performance. I would not be where I am without his push to work hard to get to that level, and I feel so proud of my and Michelle’s accomplishments.”
Castellano, who was named Teacher of the Year for Torrington’s Southwest School, grew up in Torrington. A bassoon player, Castellano said when she visited WCSU for an audition/instrument interview and met Jimenez and Applied Bassoon and Chamber Music Instructor Dr. Gina Cuffari, “I knew I had to go there. I tell high school students now to look at music schools and meet the professors before they apply. They need to make sure they feel comfortable before they go and to trust their instincts when visiting colleges. I knew right away.”
Like Hyatt, Castellano recalls the high expectations of her WCSU professors, but also the connections they made with students. “I loved my ensemble classes because I was so into my instrument. What I also enjoyed was how friendly the faculty was — they would say ‘hi’ in the hallways, and you could always ask questions and they would help you. I try to do that with my students now.”
Castellano began her teaching career at Hart Magnet School in Stamford before joining the music staff at Southwest School in 2016. In 2020, she supplemented her WCSU undergraduate degree with a WCSU Master’s in Music Education. In addition to her dual degrees, Castellano also met her husband, jazz bassist Silvain Castellano, at WCSU.
When the university’s new Visual and Performing Arts Center had its official ribbon-cutting in September 2014, Hyatt, along with Michelle and Silvain Castellano, performed in the alumni band and signed their names on the final beam.
“Clearly, if I didn’t go to WCSU, I wouldn’t have the life I have now,” Castellano said. “WCSU is such a good program in our state, and it’s nice to see what has changed and what’s coming in the future. The program is so good,” she added, “that we continue to hire WCSU graduates in Torrington. Our latest general music hire is also a WCSU Music Ed graduate.” Hyatt added, “If you want a high-quality education without paying the high cost of a private college, go to WCSU. The quality of the education can’t be matched.”
Reflecting on their respective Teacher of the Year awards, Hyatt said, “Now I have a great vision for what I want to accomplish in the next 10-15 years in my career.” Castellano agreed. “Being awarded this kind of recognition enables me to keep the momentum going.”
Hyatt added, “Torrington is a great community and is super-supportive of the arts. We have grants, so we almost have an instrument for every child who wants to play. We make strong musicians, and our administration is totally behind the magic we are making.”
Much of the magic began in the WCSU Department of Music, where 93% of its 2022 class of music education students are either already employed in their chosen field or are in a graduate degree program.
Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.