Music is “a great conversation starter,” says Ezequiel Beltrame, an 18-year-old flutist from Hollywood Hills High School. “Even if you have nothing to talk about, you can talk about music. And that usually leads to other things.”
For Beltrame and more than 50 other South Florida Youth Pride Band students, who perform Sunday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, post-music discussion topics include sexual orientation, gender identity and bullying.
“We don’t talk about it enough,” says Beltrame, who identifies as pansexual. “Most people don’t even know what that is. It means that gender is not a factor in my attraction.”
The Youth Pride Band is a project of the South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble, an LGBT band that marched last month in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade in Washington, D.C.
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“It started as an idea of our board in April 2011,” said ensemble member Adam DeRosa, youth band coordinator and president of the international Lesbian and Gay Band Association.
In June 2011, the Community Foundation of Broward gave the adult ensemble $5,000 to launch a youth band. In 2012, 23 students participated in the three-week program, and the ensemble awarded five $1,000 college scholarships.
Last year, the Community Foundation gave another $8,000. Private donors have also contributed, and additional scholarships will be announced at Sunday’s concert.
The youth band will be joined on stage after intermission by the adult ensemble. The program, called “Taking Flight,” will feature songs including Come Fly With Me, Defying Gravity from Broadway’s Wicked and Theme from Superman.
“The concept of bringing in the 50-some young musicians to sit beside the older musicians is a fantastic learning opportunity,” said Grammy-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton of Fort Lauderdale, who has guest-starred with the wind ensemble. “I’ve heard other gay bands around the country, and I have to say it’s one of the best.”
Ensemble director Dan Bassett said the adults advertised in high school marching band programs and relied on word of mouth to reach teen musicians from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“The kids get out of it a real sense of camaraderie,” said Bassett, assistant principal and band director at St. Mark’s Episcopal Academy in Oakland Park.
There’s no requirement that youth members be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. “It’s not something we ever ask,” DeRosa said. “We don’t ask our own members and they’re adults.”
Ensemble members want to nurture the students and provide a safe space for them, he said. “The most important thing is we want it to be an outstanding musical experience for the kids. The idea of the organization is to celebrate diversity and be a positive way to combat bullying.”
“This is my second year here,” said clarinetist Jake Glass, 17, of Pompano Beach and North Broward Prep. “It’s a great experience. ... Because it’s a gay-straight alliance band, it’s an extremely open community. I’m straight myself, but I have a number of friends who have been bullied or suffered through it because they are gay or bisexual.”
Clarinetist Natalie Mullen, 18, of McArthur High School in Hollywood, said the band experience has taught her much.
“I learned a lot of things about different people and the different views of everybody,” said Mullen, whose sister is a lesbian and best friend is gay.
Last year, she said, a gay classmate jumped off a third-floor school balcony and broke both his legs. “He said he was tired of being bullied and just wanted to kill himself.”
Most school bullying involves mental, not physical abuse, Mullen said.
“Mental can get down and rip your soul apart rather than physical being bruises on your body that can heal,” she said. “These are bruises inside that can take longer to heal.”
Clarinetist Bayleigh Kilpatrick, 17, of Loxahatchee, drives more than an hour each way to attend band rehearsals in Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “I have a lot of gay friends. I’m part of the [school gay-straight alliance]. I’m not gay myself, but I don’t feel people should be judged because of that.”
Flutist Michelle Krzyk, 17, of Coral Springs Charter School is a second-year band member who considers herself a lesbian.
“When I heard about this, I pretty much leaped at the opportunity. I’ve made some great friends here,” she said. “Last year, the concert was phenomenal. A wonderful musical experience, but I felt we spread a lot of awareness in the audience. I heard a lot of people were crying, happy tears, not sad tears.”
Trumpeter Julia Bravo, 15, of McArthur High, said the band is “a great opportunity to learn musically, and about the lesbian and gay community.
“I’m not lesbian, but I’m not the girliest person,” she said. “Since elementary [school], it’s always stood out. It’s nice to be in a place where no one criticizes you for not being girlie.”
“It’s very important to realize that we can’t keep putting people into these boxes,” flutist Beltrame said. “Any time you have any kind of art, it’s so important for everyone to realize that not everything is black and white. There’s not one answer. And music is very open to interpretation. That’s how everything in life is.”