Performing Arts

Piano Slam, students’ mashup of music and poetry, headed to Arsht

Jaekyung Yee, a previous Piano Slam participant.
Jaekyung Yee, a previous Piano Slam participant.

Carlene Sawyer, the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation’s executive director, set out in 2009 to forge an appreciation of classical music in young students by putting on concerts of professional musicians in schools.

“In the beginning, we were told kids don’t like this kind of music — well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Sawyer said. “A lot of kids and young people don’t get a chance to hear professional live music of any kind, so there was an immediate connection and popularity with young people.”

To create a deeper connection, Sawyer decided she needed to build a relationship that would go beyond putting on concerts. She produced Piano Slam, a Dranoff Foundation initiative that turns the tables and has the students be the ones using their voices as tools of expression — creating poems about music and their lives in reaction to the classical tunes they hear.

On April 13, acclaimed pianists Maarten van Veen and Bobby Mitchell will be jamming to Brahms, Beethoven and Bach supported by the lyrics of young poets; remixing the original sounds will be DJ Brimstone 127. The show, in the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center, is open and free to the public. Award-winning theater producer and playwright Teo Castellanos will direct.

Exzavier Moss, a junior at Homestead High, participated in one of the Piano Slam workshops and noticed an improvement in his writing; he joined the poetry club shortly after.

His love for music developed as a young child after his stepfather had a small music studio in the house next to his bedroom. By the fifth grade, Moss was singing, writing and rapping with his cousins. In middle school, he joined a choir and has been performing since.

“The skill level of my peers and competitors is ridiculous,” Moss said. “Piano Slam is an unexpected challenge. I often used lots of hours and strategies to write, but my Piano Slam poem just flowed right from my heart because I have a passion for music.”

Carol City Middle School reading coach Lorette Jones knows the benefits of Piano Slam. She says the program motivates the students to see education in a positive manner by providing a creative outlet for their emotional, psychological and social experiences, allowing the students to see education as more than just books and projects but as real life.

“I can remember our finalist from last year,” Jones said. “The competition introduced this student to the arts and another aspect of academia. Being able to train with professionals, be on the open stage, and being able to perform their pieces afforded this student opportunities that she would not have been privy to if the program was not available.”

Loretta Dranoff founded the Dranoff International Piano Foundation in 1987. Piano Slam serves more than 150,000 students and visits some of the county’s most underserved communities. Because it is free to all participants and during school hours, it can reach more students than after-school activities.

From the Arsht performance, which will feature 16 finalists this year, students gain an understanding of work in a professional field — some have pursued careers in theater management and acting. Some also receive scholarships and internships enhancing their chances to attend a higher education institution.

Through poetry and music students develop critical thinking skills while enhancing their language skills and reinforcing their reading, vocabulary and concentration abilities, Sawyer said.

And that’s the best takeaway.

“Every year, teachers say they find new talent in their students in the middle of the year, which means some students have just blossomed right there in that very short period,” Sawyer said. “The very first time I noticed young people walking into the Arsht with their families — it was a big celebratory moment in their lives and to see that happen with every group of kids after these 10 years we’ve been in the schools is life-changing for us.”

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If You Go

What: Dranoff 2 Piano Slam poetry competition

Where: Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13

Though the event is free, tickets are required. Call 305-949-6722 or go to