He used to be shy, said Christopher Ovid, an eighth-grader at Linda Lentin K-8, but being in the Miami Choral Academy — an after-school music program for students in economically challenged neighborhoods — has made him less so.
“It’s helped me as a person, and it’s helped my singing abilities,” said Christopher, adding that one of his favorite parts of rehearsal is the warmup “Shakedown,” or what he calls P.E. in choir form, where students wave their arms around wildly to loosen-up.
Karren Diuvellie, 13, a student at John F. Kennedy Middle School, agreed.
“Instead of getting angry, now I’m more carefree,” she said, smiling broadly. “When you’re feeling the stress of life, music is an escape. You meet other people like you and see how there are other people who can sing but haven’t been in a choir [before].”
More than 80 students are in the Miami Choral Academy, an initiative of the Grammy-nominated Seraphic Fire vocal ensemble, in partnership with Miami-Dade Public Schools since summer 2010. The academy, modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema music program, is funded with $150,000 grant from the Children’s Trust Foundation. It has four staff members including a piano accompanist, and students come mostly from Natural Bridge Elementary, Citrus Grove Elementary, Morningside Elementary, Lorah Park Elementary and JFK Middle School.
Each year the academy’s director visits schools to recruit candidates nominated by teachers candidates to audition.
“I see a real tangible impact on students’ lives,” said director Brett Karlin, 29. “These are students in some of the roughest ZIP Codes in Miami.”
The academy buses the third- through eighth-graders from each of their schools to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Miami Shores twice a week for a two-hour rehearsal. They work on a wide range of music — from Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to the Oh Happy Day gospel arrangement — which they perform at the academy’s annual winter and spring concert. This year the academy also did a series of Christmas concerts with singers from Seraphic Fire and sung at an event for homeless families organized by the Chapman Partnership.
“A lot of kids have a strong background in gospel and spiritual music because they attend church, and others have a strong Latin background, so all these concerts try to connect with kids through music that they’re familiar with,” said Karlin, who is conductor of the Master Chorale of South Florida.
Karlin energetically directs students during rehearsal with dramatic hand motions and can transition from offering playful encouragement (“Have little more ‘do bee di bop bop bop!’” he insisted during a rendition of Amazing Grace) to being sharp and stern. Commands like “marshmallow mouth!” and “north to south!” remind students to widen their mouths and enunciate vowels, creating a sound that Karlin calls “not an adult sound but something that is much more warm and beautiful.”
Students build self-confidence at the academy. Karlin described how a shy fifth-grader sang a solo in the Oh Holy Night Christmas carol during the academy’s winter concert. The girl, who is developing a vibrato, hit a high C and “knocked it out of the park.”
“This is a student who outside of that context when talking to people might be very shy, but she had the opportunity to sing this big solo in front of 250 people and they jumped up and gave her a standing ovation,” he said. “The amount of self-worth this does for her is invaluable.”
And there are academic benefits, too. A 2013 study by Dr. Lawrence Scripp, director of the Center for Music and Arts in Education, found that “the MCA program impacts musical development significantly and that the averaged student musical literacy ratings of MCA students are significantly associated with standardized academic achievement test scores,” referring specifically to the reading and math scores in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Hazell Alonso, 12, a student at Citrus Grove Middle School, said she has improved in language arts and math over the years. She explained that the choir teaches her to pronounce words well in different languages and that music notes can be thought of as fractions.
“There’s a whole note that’s four [beats], and a half note that’s two,” Hazell said. “You can round up [add] some eighth notes to make a whole note.”
The program also enriches students’ musical tastes. Latron Coleman, 10, from Natural Bridge Elementary, likes a French folk song called V’la L’bon Vent and a Japanese song called Muraseme that makes him think of a Japanese woman singing in the rain. Ashley Joseph, 10, who attends Morningside K-8, favors Children’s March from Carmen and Karren enjoys the Christmas carol Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming.
“I like the lyrics because they’re better and deeper, because you go back to the classical days when music came with emotion,” Karren said. “It’s not just a beat and lyrics.”
Karlin hopes to expand the program to include high school students so different age groups can mentor each other.
“We can have a profound impact,” he said. “Not only do we get them singing, but they’re also learning how to be teachers themselves.”
Families often cannot attend concerts since they may be working or do not own a car.
“Family involvement is a challenge not because families are negligent but because they’re in difficult situations,” Karlin said. “What we provide is an afterschool experience that allows those parents to cook a healthy dinner or take a second job so they can provide for their students.”
Indeed, parents are supportive of the program.
“I think the academy keeps kids out of trouble and it also helps them proceed further if their career is to become a singer,” said Louisa Leandre, Latron’s mother. “When he has solos, I practice with him — it’s really cool, I really love it.
Ashley’s mother, Marie Joseph, who is from Haiti, started teaching her daughter songs in Creole.
“I didn’t know she could sing until she sang at the Miami Choral Academy,” Joseph said, adding that Ashley now also performs in church.
For Gemma Ovid, her son Christopher is now a different person.
“He transformed from a boy to a young man,” she said. “Now he’s so much more outgoing and outspoken. Once they get up on that stage, it’s a whole transformation. It’s amazing to hear those voices together.”
The Miami Choral Academy’s Spring Concert will be at 7:30 p.m. April 10 at the Rose of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. Admission is free.