Back in second grade Ruth Joseph heard what many others didn’t — or couldn’t.
“Music speaks to me,” she said. So when she saw flyers announcing a new program, the 7-year-old immediately joined the Miami Music Project. Now 12, Ruth plays a mean trombone, and she has traveled around the county and across the country to perform at seasonal concerts and musical festivals, meeting other kids who have found their niche playing orchestral music.
“I’d be a different person without music,” Ruth added. “I think I’d be more mad because music soothes me.”
The Miami Music Project, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by former Florida Philharmonic director James Judd, gives youngsters like Ruth a chance to do something they might not otherwise have been able to. This year the organization is providing free instruments and free lessons to most of its 520 students in after-school programs at four public school sites in Liberty City, Little Haiti, Little Havana and West Dade.
Ruth and her fellow young musicians receive up to 10 hours of orchestral instruction per week and get the opportunity to attend a four-week summer music camp, as well as perform in various venues. Instuction is provided by 40 specially trained professional musicians and educators — the program calls them Teaching Artists — while volunteers serve as mentors.
For most of these kids, this is a priceless opportunity. Seven of Gisla Bush’s nine kids, for example, play with the Miami Music Project, the only way the siblings would’ve been able to take music lessons. “This has given them a broader view of the world, and they get to meet other children,” said Bush, who home schools her kids. “I think of music is an important part of education, but I can’t teach music and all those instruments and classes would be expensive [if we had to hire out].”
Two of her sons — 16-year-old Bobbie (clarinet and classical guitar) and 13-year-old Benjamin (cello) — hope to attend either Julliard or the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. Yet, Miami Music Project’s goal is not necessarily to train future performers. It wants to use music as an instrument for social transformation.
“Kids have a right to grow up with music no matter their circumstances,” said Anna Pietraszko, Miami Music Project’s executive director. “We believe that if you put an instrument in a child’s hands, they’re more likely to not pick up a gun.”
This is music as confidence booster, skill builder and leader training. Or as Alex Berti, one of the Teaching Artists, put it: “I want them to do more than make music. I want them to believe in themselves.”
The Miami Music Project is patterned after El Sistema, a free, private music education curriculum founded in Venezuela in 1975 for needy children. It’s no coincidence then that the Miami organization opened its first site with 13 students in Doral, a Venezuelan stronghold, in 2010. By the end of the school year it had 100 musicians.
The students’ familiarity with instruments varies, but there seems to be a common thread among the young musicians, regardless of background: “Classical music is a very foreign concept to them,” Pietraszko said.
For parents, many of whom volunteer with the program, their children’s participation in the Miami Music Project has been a transformative experience. Evelyn Milian, whose 19-year-old daughter Kelsey played the violin with the program until heading north for college as a sociology and music education major, credits Miami Music Project for encouraging Kelsey to come out of her shell.
“She was kind of shy and her self-esteem wasn’t good, but playing and performing gave her confidence,” Milian said. “She found people just like her who were interested in what she was interested in.”
When Kelsey returns to Miami, she always helps out with the program. Her mother also continues to volunteer throughout the year. “We feel this is our family,” she added. “These are my kids, too.”
That sense of belonging is echoed by younger musicians who say the Miami Music Project has afforded them a place to be themselves. Florencia Casaballe, 16, has been playing the viola with the Miami Music project for the past three years. She, like Ruth Joseph, is now part of the Leaders Orchestra, a selection of the most experienced young musicians.
She says the Miami Music Project is where others get her — and her sense of humor. “When I try to tell a music joke in school, they don’t know what I’m talking about. Same with my family. But here everybody gets it. I don’t have to explain.”
Practices are long and demanding, Teaching Artists exacting. At a recent Tuesday night rehearsal at Citrus Grove Middle School in Little Havana, Berti was instructing the Leaders Orchestra through Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane” and Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” At one point, as the strings came in, he grimaced and held his hand up to halt the music.
“What happened there?” he demanded. “What happened?”
This month, the young musicians are deep in practice preparing for holiday performances. None seems to mind the arduous rehearsals, and some also play with their schools’ ensembles. “This is fun,” Ruth insisted.
Ruth is hoping to become a pediatric surgeon, and she believes music will help her achieve that dream. “I’ve learned that things you think you can’t achieve you actually can. You just have to set your mind to it.”
Winter Concert Series
There’s a suggested donation of $5 per ticket.
Dec. 17, 1 p.m.: Performances by Miami Music Project Little Havana Chapter’s Ensembles. Miami Senior High School, 2450 SW First St.
Dec. 20, 6 p.m.: Performances by Miami Music Project Little Haiti Chapter Ensembles. Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary, 120 NE 59th St.
Dec. 21, 7 p.m.: Performances by Miami Music Project Doral Chapter Ensembles. John I Smith Middle Learning Center, 5005 NW 112th Ave.
Dec. 22, 6 p.m.: Performances by Miami Music Project Liberty City Chapter Ensembles. Charles Drew K-8 Center, 1775 NW 60th St.