In a small, cluttered room, a group of five middle school students gathers with their instruments – guitars, basses and keyboards. They begin to play and slowly, the individual notes form into the ‘50s hit “Lean on Me.”
In the corner, behind the drums, is 25-year-old Geoffery Saunders, a graduate student who is directing the small band of musicians. Drawings of musical beats are scribbled on the whiteboard to help the students follow along.
Saunders is part of Frost MusicReach, a mentoring program that pairs undergraduate and graduate students at the Frost School of Music with schools and community centers in Miami-Dade County. The goal is to help at-risk and low-income middle and high school students by teaching them music.
“I want to promote kids getting together and playing music,” said Saunders, who is in the Henry Mancini Institute at Frost. “It doesn’t have to be orchestra. It can be a rock band or even rap music.”
Saunders teaches at one of the three charter middle schools run by ASPIRA of Florida Inc., which works with underprivileged children. Along with the charter schools, ASPIRA has programs in more than 40 high schools across South Florida to help students.
“I always believe that music is a great after-school program to get these kids off the streets and focus on something constructive,” said Edward Hernandez, chairman of ASPIRA of Florida, Inc.
Hernandez initially approached Frost Dean Shelton Berg two years ago about creating a partnership between ASPIRA charter schools and Frost. Berg was excited to help, and the MusicReach program was born. Currently, the mentoring program places student teachers at more than 10 schools.
“What really blew me away was how the people at the School of Music were so positive and so into it,” he said. “It was music to my ears.”
Hernandez learned to play music while growing up in New York City, and he understands the impact it can have.
“It teaches them a lot of valuable life lessons,” he said. “We are changing young people’s lives.”
The lessons themselves vary from week to week, Saunders said. Some days are focused on the technical aspects of music, from learning to read the notes to studying different rhythmic patterns. Other days are focused on writing raps and composing songs.
“What I’m trying to do is keep that creativity going but also give them theoretical and musical knowledge to continue that,” he said.
Bill Longo, 32, also teaches at one of ASPIRA’s charter schools. Longo has taught music for 10 years and is currently pursuing his second master’s degree at Frost.
“It’s been the best part of my year so far, being able to teach in this program,” he said. “I’ve missed being in the classroom.”
Longo usually focuses his lessons around the pop music his students listen to.
“We’ll go into breaking down the groove of a club song,” he said. “Then we’ll do some echoing with instruments or clapping. They’re really enthusiastic about it.”
Carlos Salgado, 13, goes to the after-school programs at ASPIRA just to attend the music lessons.
“This program is great because it helps me channel my creativity and let my feelings go,” he said.
Fellow musician Wisly Bernard, 12, also enjoys the classes.
“You get to pick your own songs to play and hang out with your friends,” he said.