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Miami Music Project Students Strike Chord In Little Havana

By Alexander Gonzalez
Students at the Miami Music Project perform a dancing song by composer Béla Bartók Thursday, July 2 at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana. They rehearsed for four weeks in an annual summer camp.";

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” back to back. Why not?

That’s what kids participating in the Miami Music Project (MMP) said when they performed the pieces to an nearly full house at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana Thursday afternoon.

The Miami Music Project is a year-round program that offers children of all ages and all experience levels music instruction and education. Maestro James Judd founded MMP in 2008 with a $1 million challenge grant from the Knight Foundation. The program started with 17 students in Doral and has grown to four sites with hundreds of students now: Doral, Little Haiti, Little Havana and Liberty City.

Elisha Martin, a double bassist, is starting his third year with MMP. He was placed in the program's most advanced level – known as the "leaders." They meet at the Little Havana site where they rehearse for concerts at big venues, such as the Arsht Center, Florida International University and the University of Miami. Martin recalls how little he knew when first starting the program.

“I couldn’t count 7/8 or difficult time signatures,” he says. “I’ve learned more music theory that I didn’t even know existed.”

Martin was not a newcomer to music. He was a leader of his church choir, and dabbled in piano and guitar until he focused on the double bass five years ago.

Plus, music runs in the sixteen-year-old’s family. His mother has a music degree, his father plays the piano, and his older brother plays the double bass, too.

Martin says his biggest victories are small moments of inspiration, like learning the story behind Russian composer DmitriShostakovich.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” he says. “Shostakovich is more than just a piece of music that you play and you get graded for. This is actually something that has meaning.”

Martin says he used this feeling as inspiration for one of his concerts.

Martin attends the Miami Arts Charter School and plans on attending music school in college.

But MMP also provides a space for newcomers who have not picked up an instrument.

Ten-year-old Rebecca Alcala started with MMP four weeks ago for its summer camp. She says she got involved because her older sister had participated in it.

Alcala says choosing an instrument was easy – the violin. It’s the one her sister plays. 

But Alcala had a harder time choosing a favorite piece she’s composed.

“I like them all,” she says.

She plans to continue with MMP during the school year in its Doral location. 

However, both she and Martin can agree that the real draw to MMP is socializing and playing with other young musicians.

Maria Araujo teaches music theory, singing, and composing. She says MMP uses music to teach kids how to work together and listen to one another.

“It’s about how do we build society,” she says.

Plus, she says MMP tries to show students the impact of classical music, especially.

“Classical music can really take you to what does a sunset sound like, what does a waterfall sound like,” she says.

Araujo has been teaching with the MMP for more than a year. She got involved after watching one of its performances at the Arsht Center.

The pianist, composer and singer then began teaching at one of the newer chapters in Liberty City.

MMP students do not pay tuition, and many play with donated instruments or ones borrowed from family member, Araujo says.

Though many won’t continue with music after they leave MMP, Araujo says the experience is still transformative.

“I loved to see how the students, the very young students … how they started changing, blossoming … and happiness has taken over,” she says.

Alexander Gonzalez produces the afternoon newscasts airing during All Things Considered. He enjoys helping tell the South Florida story through audio and digital platforms. Alex is interested in a little of everything from business to culture to politics.