As the sun lowers on Homesteads Northwest Fourth Street, the residents of an aging apartment building relax on their balconies. Some are single moms juggling two or more low-wage jobs; others have returned from laboring in Homesteads nurseries or tomato fields. Although the balconies look down on a parking lot, to the parents whose children are rehearsing choral music in the Sweet Vine building next door, it is not a concrete lot they see. It is a field of dreams.
She tells me, Mommy, I want to be a singer, says Venise Cadet as she arrives to pick up her 9-year-old daughter Venia.
The mother of three, who came to South Florida from Pestel, Haiti, in 1992 and works as a server at a Homestead KFC, has had only one 30-minute break since 5:30 this morning. As budget cuts decimate arts programs in many middle and high schools, Miami Childrens Chorus (MCC) has made it possible for Cadets daughter to participate in a free, six-week We Will Sing after-school program. Its an enrichment experience that she and other students in Homestead, East Little Havana and North Miami Beach might not otherwise be able to do.
They saw other kids their own age doing amazing things, Sweet Vines executive director Tonnette Collier remembers the Christmas concert two years ago where her schools relationship with MCC began. Their eyes barely blinked. They told me, I want to do that.
Today they are.
Bawk, bawk, bawk! Analy Mendez, MCCs artistic administrator who conducts the We Will Sing choristers, paces the tiny Sweet Vine classroom, encouraging 25 6- to 9-year olds to toss off their inhibitions and sing My Country Tis of Thee like a chicken. The class titters, following her lead.
Collier, whose after-school curriculum last year provided 90 children with 54 field trips, says the training is helping her charges break out of what she calls the cocoon.
I was scared because there were so many people. They were looking me in the eye. Then I just sang, Venia Cadet describes last years We Will Sing performance, when she and her fellow performers received a standing ovation. It was so exciting.
Now, she and her peers, whose musical diets had consisted of rap and hip hop, vie to perform Galop, a quintessential concert number sung in the musical language solfege (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti). A quiet boy often found drawing pictures in a corner, 9-year-old Elijah Cruz pokes his head in the music classroom.
Is it too late to sign up? he asks.
A few blocks from Sweet Vine, a chorus of third- to fifth-grade voices fills a buttercup-yellow classroom at Thinking Child Academy, rehearsing in Swahili for the Oct. 13th performance at Homestead Community Center when the two schools will perform.
Mimi kusimama, na upendo, na tamaini.
What are we trying to tell the audience? Mendez challenges the young singers.
We need to come together, a shy girl volunteers.
Right. With love and hope. What is hope? Mendez asks.
To believe, comes the reply.
Yes. You guys have power in your little voices. Let em ring.
Christine Vera, whose mother Noelia Montaner owns Thinking Child, says her experience singing with MCC when she was 8 made her more confident in my voice. Not only to sing, but to express myself.
As Thinking Childs program administrator, making We Will Sing part of her after-school curriculum was a no-brainer for Vera, 25. Through a grant from Childrens Trust, 120 students from Florida City, West Homestead, Redondo and other elementary schools pay a one-time $50 fee to participate in We Will Sing and other enrichment activities for the year.
What theyre doing with kids is wonderful, Montaner says.
Twelve-year-old Craig Williams has one of those smiles that lights up a room. Last year the Thinking Child student was one of 50 boys who received a scholarship to attend a MCC choral program at the University of Miami called Bring On The Boys.
He loved it so much that he auditioned for the beginners chorus, says Mendez. What we loved about Craig is that he has such positive energy. He has a passion, and he has such an angelic voice.
A Boston Conservatory-trained musician who started piano lessons when she was 3, Mendez is utterly confident in the childrens abilities. If you pour yourself into something with passion and discipline, youre going to come out on top, she says. Asked if Craig could pursue a classical music career, she says, If he wants to, absolutely.
The hour grows late. There are a few yawns around the classroom. Still, the energy level in the room is high. The children lean forward in their seats, eager.
Im tired, says one.
Me too," Mendez replies. I havent slept for two weeks. If Im still standing, you can too. She projects high expectations, and they meet them.
You guys are the only ones Ive started music this hard on this fast. Im proud of you. Mendez raises her hands.
One, two, ready, and
For the fourth time, they launch into Fuego, one of three songs about the elements they will perform in Spanish. The room fills with the sound of children singing in harmony, with the polish and discipline of adults.