Imagine being 10 years old and having the opportunity to perform with renowned musicians like Shelly Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, and classical music star conductor James Judd.
Thanks to outreach programs like UM’s Donna E. Shalala MusicReach, now entering its ninth year, and Miami Music Project, founded in 2008 by former Florida Philharmonic director Judd, young musicians in Miami-Dade have had significant opportunities to learn an instrument, develop their musical talents, and showcase their gifts at local and national performances.
All at no cost to the children or families, thanks to donors and the efforts of mentors drawn from the community and schools.
Children, some from elementary, through middle and high school, drawn from underserved areas in Little Haiti, Overtown, Liberty City, Little Havana, Goulds and elsewhere have recently enjoyed the chance of a lifetime.
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For instance, in September, more than 20 participants in the Miami Music Project, ages 6 to 18, were invited to play in Colorado with conductors and youth from across the United States at one of the opening performances at the National Take a Stand Festival. The event was a joint initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival and Longy School of Music of Bard College.
At the same time, more than 4,000 Miami-Dade schoolchildren have received free music instruction and mentoring by over 200 Frost School of Music undergraduate and graduate students on UM’s Coral Gables campus and at eight sites the program serves. These sites include The Barnyard and Virrick Park in Coconut Grove, Ludlam Elementary in South Miami, Frederick Douglass Elementary in Overtown and Mays Conservatory in Goulds.
Also, West Lab Band and Strings Program in Coral Gables, Pine Villa Elementary near Mays in Goulds, Centro Mater and Leadership Learning Center in Little Havana and Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in South Miami.
The pairing, using music as the glue, builds life skills like teamwork, self-confidence and discipline.
For the students — mentees and mentors, alike — it’s life-altering.
One of the creeds I live by is you learn something more when you teach it. You don’t understand anything unless you can explain it to a child. I feel being a good musician is only possible in how you develop your other characteristics that make you a better human being.
Johnathan Hulett, University of Miami master’s student and music mentor for the MusicReach program.
“One of the creeds I live by is you learn something more when you teach it. You don’t understand anything unless you can explain it to a child. I feel being a good musician is only possible in how you develop your other characteristics that make you a better human being,” said Johnathan Hulett, a second-year Frost master’s student in the jazz performance program.
Hulett is a teaching assistant and mentor for MusicReach. A few days a week Hulett drives to Frederick Douglass in Overtown and Mount Olive Church near his home in South Miami to work with children. His passion is the drums, an instrument he discovered at 2. Any surface, he quickly discovered, could be a percussion instrument. “Sometimes it chooses you,” he said.
“One of the reasons I really do this is because it was the type of program I came up on as a kid. I see some kids, even some who are super talented, who might be more shy or reserved. I identify with the kid who touches every instrument to figure it out.”
Making a difference among the young is critical, Hulett believes.
“It’s kind of like any type of circuit. If there’s something happening in the electrical circuit if you want to stop the current you have to chop off a piece of the wire. And you can implement something right then and there that will travel through the rest of the circuit. At that age, younger and more impressionable, they develop their personality and habits and the way they see the world. So you can introduce positivity,” Hulett said from a room at Frost School of Music.
“When you go into a community to see the classroom or music room you see the areas as a whole,” Hulett, 24, said. “When I drive to, say, Overtown, it’s a complete scenery change from here in Coral Gables. Looking at the surroundings, you get a sense of what is happening in the neighborhood and what kids are exposed to and experiencing before you have them for that 45-minute block of time. It establishes a connection that reminds me, in some ways, of the neighborhood I grew up in. I’m doing it in part because I understand how far those kind of programs got me as a person and as a musician.”
Steven Liu, Miami Music Project’s new director of education, is a direct result of mentoring programs in the Los Angeles area. “If I didn’t have phenomenal music mentors myself I was not going to go to college,” he said. “I was able to work with the LA Philharmonic, got hired as a teaching assistant and it introduced me to this concept. … I found it could be a powerful agent to transform communities. That’s reflected in my own personal experience. Who knows what I would have been?”
Renee Myrthil, a Kendall mom to six, saw first hand the benefits of music outreach with her children. Two came through MusicReach — eldest daughter Relyn, 19, is a concert manager at Mount Holyoke College Music Department, where she is studying music.
Siblings Kiera, 14, and Yosef, 10, are currently working with mentors at UM on Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m.
“This has been a great supplement in seeking musical education for my children,” Myrthil said during a visit to Frost School of Music. “Something like this would definitely not be affordable if I had to seek out music lessons. I understand the benefits of music.”
She cites how music enrichment feeds into every area of her children’s lives.
Sometimes, for instance, Yosef’s mentor Tom will ask him to play a softer tone on his cello or perhaps one that is a bit richer.
“All of those things, yes, they are in music. But that also travels in how they deal with their day to day and relationships with siblings,” Myrthil explains. “Be soft sometimes. Sometimes be sharp. Be firm. All of these things will translate musically but personally as well. This will give them that direction for everything they do.
“The arts, and music, not only makes great musicians but makes more sensitive people and makes you more aware of your surroundings. That is something we’ve grown up with and I’ve seen in the older children,” Myrthil said.
“When you are studying music or anything, especially music, you have to have that concentration and focus,” Kiera said. “When you are trying to sit down and figure out that math problem you don’t always get to the answer right away or in one way. That comes with the discipline you learn from music and the repetition. It gets you in the mindset, ‘I can get through it.’ It teaches the brain to work in different ways instead of being one-minded.”
For the first time, a MusicReach mentee, Katherine Attong-Mendes, has become a Frost School of Music student and a MusicReach mentor.
Attong-Mendes, 18, started working with MusicReach mentors in seventh grade at Southwood Middle and continued through her years at Coral Reef Senior High. She plays the oboe and as she travels to Mays Conservatory to work with middle school students she remembers how her mentors made her feel.
“It’s a cool experience,” Attong-Mendes said. “I like the idea of being able to teach people and it’s a learning process for me to help them get better. In order to teach you have to know it so well you can come up with 15 different ways to say it so everyone gets it.”
Nothing keeps kids in school better than music. Nothing. Music is essential to human development, essential to society. A lot of problems we have in society can be traced, in some part, to music being taken out of schools.
Shelly Berg, dean of The Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
Berg, dean of Frost who has worked with everyone from Gloria Estefan to ceremonies at the White House, agrees. “Nothing keeps kids in school better than music. Nothing. Music is essential to human development, essential to society. A lot of problems we have in society can be traced, in some part, to music being taken out of schools,” he said.
“We know that kids who participate in music together get along better, they are more respectful of each other and their teachers, they gain self-esteem,” Berg said. “It’s an interesting thing. You have to develop as an individual but you really have to do it with others.”
Berg recalls an example among two well-known artists he had worked with — actors Kevin Spacey and the late Jack Lemmon. (“He was a pretty good piano player.”)
“Teaching has as much to do with my musical development as practicing and playing with others and for our mentors that is true for them,” Berg said. “Giving back is important. When Kevin Spacey was a kid he went to a workshop Jack Lemmon was conducting for young actors. He took Kevin under his wing and when Kevin won his Oscar for ‘The Usual Suspects’ Jack Lemmon called him and said, ‘It’s time to send the elevator back down’ — he was saying it’s your turn. Ever since then, Kevin has been helping younger actors.
“So our mentors learn the elevator must go down. Katherine, she is sending the elevator back down.”
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How to get involved
To support Donna E. Shalala MusicReach or to attend the Winter Wonderful Frost Holiday Dinner, a fund raising concert at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at the JW Marriott Marquis Miami, 255 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, contact Lynne Gibson at email@example.com or call 305-284-2238 or 305-284-6755.
To support Miami Music Project visit miamimusicproject.org.