On a clear Sunday afternoon, roughly two dozen teenage members of the Greater Miami Youth Symphony filed into the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music carrying violins, violas, cellos and basses.
It would be their final practice before performing back-to-back shows two days before Halloween at Spooky Symphony, an annual event presented by The Children’s Trust at the Adrienne Arsht Center. The young musicians would be playing alongside the Alhambra Orchestra, led by Daniel Andai, dean of music at New World School of the Arts and an alumnus of the youth symphony.
“We get to use that beautiful concert hall, and we’ve been focusing on making sure we’re ready,” said Huifang Chen , the youth symphony’s music director.
Founded in 1958 by composer and UM professor Robert Strassburg, the youth symphony is among South Florida’s oldest music-related nonprofits, according to its president, Leslie Carpenter. More than 1,000 young musicians ages 5-18 participate every year. They begin in preparatory classes, which feed into higher-level courses and concert orchestras.
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“We accommodate everybody, and it’s all-abilities, all-inclusive,” said Daniela Santana Cairo, the symphony’s chief operations officer. “It’s a whole life commitment for them. They start when they’re 5 and finish when they graduate. And 100 percent of the kids who are in symphony go to college.”
Music education has long been associated with improved performance in classrooms. A report published in 2001 by the College Entrance Examination Board found that students involved in music programs score considerably better on standardized tests like the SAT.
“Learning to read music is like learning a new language,” said Adrian Ulloa, 16, the symphony’s principal cellist. “Having that new ability gives you so many more skills.”
Programs that promote the arts can improve a community’s overall well-being, according to recent research. In March, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice published a study that examined creative arts organizations in New York City. In low-income neighborhoods, the study found a significant link between cultural resources and better health, schooling and security.
“It’s impossible, when you surrender to music, to seek violence,” said Maida Santander, who co-founded American Children’s Orchestras for Peace, a nonprofit after-school music program.
Since 2001, Orchestras for Peace has used grants and donations to provide courses to children living in some of Miami’s most underserved communities, including Little Havana, Little Haiti, Overtown and Allapattah. All activities, materials and instruments are provided to the children for free.
Weekly activities at Jose Marti Park, Shenandoah Park and Shenandoah Elementary School teach children instrument techniques, music theory and music history. Their lessons culminate in at least 12 annual concerts.
“It helps with a child’s cognitive, intellectual and emotional development,” said Jose Carlos Oviedo, a Somerset Academy teacher who teaches viola and violin for the organization. “It helps with memory and coordination, social skills, self-confidence — I could go on and on.”
Oviedo’s assertion isn’t conjecture. A 2013 study published by Brain and Cognition found significant correlations between long-term musical training and visual attention ability. And the younger a person begins his or her musical studies, the greater the effect is.
Gisla Bush’s daughter, Grace, was in her early teens when Bush noticed she was having trouble concentrating. A friend of the family suggested South Florida Youth Symphony, a nonprofit founded in 1964 by former Miami Ballet conductor Carmen Nappo and now run by his stepdaughter, Marjorie Hahn.
“She was having a problem being able to multitask; she basically said it was an overload,” Bush said. “When she got into music, I saw that begin to change.”
Bush said the results were so striking that she enrolled eight of her nine children in the program. Grace, now 19, has already earned a master’s degree in public administration from Florida Atlantic University and plans to make music her career.
“The kids who come to us, many of them can’t afford music lessons, instruments or the books that they need,” said Hahn. “They’re so talented, but if they didn’t have this, they wouldn’t be able to progress on to college, and so many of them go on to college after being with us.”
The symphony is slated to perform at Carnegie Hall at the National Instrument Music Festival in February, if they can raise the $40,000 for the trip.
“This will be an incredible, life-changing experience for these kids,” Hahn said.
Indeed, orchestral programs serve as bridges between youthful exuberance and fruitful maturity, said Myra Weaver, who co-founded the Florida Youth Orchestra with her late husband, Bob Weaver, Miami’s first TV weatherman. A nonprofit since its inception in 1988, the Florida Youth Orchestra, now in its 30th season, has 800 musicians ages 6-19, producing more than 40 performances throughout South Florida.
“These kids are developing traits such as commitment, responsibility, flexibility, cooperation — all the skills needed to develop into successful, productive adults,” she said. “Music is a very large part of it, but the attendant benefits will be with them throughout their entire lives, regardless of whether they make music their careers.”
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