INTEMPO: Embracing culture and improving literacy through music education

Sep 27, 2021

UNESCO defines literacy as “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication…in an information-rich and fast-changing world.” In September we recognize International Literacy Day and National Literacy Month, which bring attention to the importance of ensuring all members of society have the tools they need to engage with the world around them.

Hispanic Heritage Month is also celebrated each year from mid-September to mid-October, honoring the many contributions that American citizens of Hispanic and Latin descent have made to our country.

As the importance of literacy takes the world stage this month, students enrolled at INTEMPO, a Stamford-based music education program, are doing much more than learning how to fine-tune their performance techniques: they are being empowered “to leverage the skills they gain through engaging with music to improve their educational and socioemotional outcomes.”

Angelica Durrell, Founder and Executive Director of INTEMPO, was eight years old and already learning to play the violin when she emigrated from Ecuador to Norwalk, where she continued playing in school before attending UCONN to study violin performance. While an undergraduate, she began envisioning how she could help marginalized children with circumstances that mirrored her own gain exposure to the arts in a more culturally inclusive and diverse way.

As INTEMPO, a long-time partner of the Community Foundation, prepares to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the organization is helping to close the achievement gap in Fairfield County by not only giving students the chance to learn a variety of musical instruments and participate in multilingual choir lessons, but by providing family advocacy services and one-on-one tutoring.

In a 2014 study that followed children from at-risk neighborhoods enrolled in a community music program, researchers found that there was a link between music instruction and changes in neural processes that led to improved outcomes for learning, listening, and literacy skills.¹

Not long after INTEMPO welcomed its first students in 2011, Durrell says she and other instructors noticed that some children had difficulty coordinating the motor skills needed to play their instruments while concurrently reading music, finding rhythm, or learning lyrics. These observations led Durrell to uncover that some students were reading below grade level, setting her on the path to provide services that addressed their academic needs. The organization partnered with literacy coaches and reading specialists to work with students individually, as well as with family advocates to help parents and caregivers stay involved in their children’s education.

“One key to INTEMPO’s effectiveness is their investment in relationships,” says Luis Guzman, Director of the Community Foundation’s Immigrant Success Fund. “They take the time to truly get to know their students and partner with their students’ families.”

In 2019, with funding from the Community Foundation and an anonymous donation of computer equipment, INTEMPO was able to broaden its impact to include not only traditional literacy (the ability to read, write, and interpret words or images on a page) but digital literacy as well. At INTEMPO, students can learn to record and mix their own music, livestream events or programs, produce podcasts, and were recently invited to manage their own radio show. When the pandemic forced students to learn remotely last year, Durrell knew that INTEMPO students had the digital competencies they needed to adjust to online learning, even helping their peers and family members make the transition.

“Our approach to music and literacy – building language and community cohesion – is unique and innovative,” says Angelica Durrell, Founder and Executive Director of INTEMPO. “We’ve proven that our curriculum works.”

This summer alone, INTEMPO served more than 1,000 students, teaming with Stamford and Norwalk Public Schools and other community partners to serve meals, provide instruments, engage in summer learning, and offer intercultural professional training to teachers.

This fall, as the country recognizes Hispanic Heritage Month and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, INTEMPO will be rolling out the New Arrivals program at three Stamford public schools. The new initiative focuses on helping English language learners transition out of the schools’ ELL programs more quickly and with a heightened sense of confidence and inclusion. In what is referred to as the “silent period,” children commonly go through a phase of not interacting verbally as they digest what they are learning and build the confidence to communicate in a new language. By immersing newly arrived students in a welcoming space that reinforces what they are learning in the classroom through music, Durrell hopes to bolster not only their literacy skills, but the students’ self-esteem.

“FCCF is proud to continually partner with and fund INTEMPO’s extraordinary work,” says Guzman. “As a grassroots nonprofit, INTEMPO empowers a crucial sector of our community: children who have recently arrived in Connecticut. INTEMPO’s approach of seamlessly blending musical achievement, education, English language skills, and social-emotional learning is as innovative as it is effective. INTEMPO and their New Arrivals program subscribes to the belief that Fairfield County is successful if our newly arrived children are successful.”

As INTEMPO expands its work, it continues to serve as “a vital safety net” for a growing number of children and their families. “Our goal,” says Durrell, “is to invest in our younger generations so that they can be empowered by their culture, by their language, by their surroundings and use music as their passport to success.”

INTEMPO is presenting a Cultural Crossover Concert on November 7th and 9th to celebrate its 10th anniversary. To purchase tickets and support INTEMPO’s programs, visit