When everyday kids learn to be musicians, this is what happens

October 30, 2016 GMT

MIAMI — Imagine being 10 years old and having the opportunity to perform with renowned musicians like Shelly Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, and classical music star conductor James Judd.

Thanks to outreach programs like UM’s Donna E. Shalala MusicReach, now entering its ninth year, and Miami Music Project, founded in 2008 by former Florida Philharmonic director Judd, young musicians in Miami-Dade have had significant opportunities to learn an instrument, develop their musical talents, and showcase their gifts at local and national performances.

All at no cost to the children or families, thanks to donors and the efforts of mentors drawn from the community and schools.

Children, some from elementary, through middle and high school, drawn from underserved areas in Little Haiti, Overtown, Liberty City, Little Havana, Goulds and elsewhere have recently enjoyed the chance of a lifetime.

For instance, in September, more than 20 participants in the Miami Music Project, ages 6 to 18, were invited to play in Colorado with conductors and youth from across the United States at one of the opening performances at the National Take a Stand Festival. The event was a joint initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival and Longy School of Music of Bard College.

At the same time, more than 4,000 Miami-Dade schoolchildren have received free music instruction and mentoring by over 200 Frost School of Music undergraduate and graduate students on UM’s Coral Gables campus and at eight sites the program serves.

The pairing, using music as the glue, builds life skills like teamwork, self-confidence and discipline.

For the students, it’s life-altering.

“One of the creeds I live by is you learn something more when you teach it. You don’t understand anything unless you can explain it to a child. I feel being a good musician is only possible in how you develop your other characteristics that make you a better human being,” said Johnathan Hulett, a second-year Frost master’s student in the jazz performance program.

Hulett, 24, is a teaching assistant and mentor for MusicReach. A few days a week Hulett drives to Frederick Douglass in Overtown and Mount Olive Church near his home in South Miami to work with children. His passion is the drums, an instrument he discovered at 2. Any surface, he quickly discovered, could be a percussion instrument. “Sometimes it chooses you,” he said.

Hulett also believes in giving back. It’s who he is, said Berg and Melissa Lesniak, MusicReach program director.

“One of the reasons I really do this is because it was the type of program I came up on as a kid. I see some kids, even some who are super talented, who might be more shy or reserved. I identify with the kid who touches every instrument to figure it out.”

Making a difference among the young is critical, Hulett believes.

“It’s kind of like any type of circuit. If there’s something happening in the electrical circuit if you want to stop the current you have to chop off a piece of the wire. And you can implement something right then and there that will travel through the rest of the circuit. At that age, younger and more impressionable, they develop their personality and habits and the way they see the world. So you can introduce positivity,” Hulett said from a room at Frost School of Music.

Steven Liu, Miami Music Project’s new director of education, is a direct result of mentoring programs in the Los Angeles area. “If I didn’t have phenomenal music mentors myself I was not going to go to college,” he said. “I was able to work with the LA Philharmonic, got hired as a teaching assistant and it introduced me to this concept. ... I found the way it could be a powerful agent to transform communities. That’s reflected in my own personal experience. Who knows what I would have been?”

Renee Myrthil, a Kendall mom to six, saw first hand the benefits of music outreach with her children. Two came through MusicReach — eldest daughter Relyn, 19, is a concert manager at Mount Holyoke College Music Department, where she is studying music.

Siblings Kiera, 14, and Yosef, 10, are currently working with mentors at UM on Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. Tayib, 8, and Chaim, 6, both violinists like their sisters, intend to join MusicReach when they are a bit older.

“This has been a great supplement in seeking musical education for my children,” Myrthil said during a visit to Frost School of Music. “Something like this would definitely not be affordable if I had to seek out music lessons. I understand the benefits of music.”