Miami Gardens festival part of music education initiative

“So darling, darling, stand by me. Stand by me,” a teen sings with a group of drummers and other musicians at the Betty T. Ferguson Amphitheater in Miami Gardens.

The inaugural outdoor concert was the culmination of a two-year pilot program providing free music education to more than 4,000 Miami Gardens public school students as part of the Miami Foundation’s Music Access Miami initiative. The goal is to expand the program to other public schools across Miami-Dade County to ensure pre-K to 12 students have equitable access to music education.

“We know that when students have access to music education, there are certainly all the great benefits like academic performance … but something that we’ve especially seen as part of these past couple of years, these tumultuous years, is arts education unlocks something deeper,” said Kunya Rowley, director of Music Access, Arts, and Culture at The Miami Foundation. “It unlocks the power for youth to believe in themselves, to take chances, to create opportunities. And that’s what we want for every young person.”

Principal Aisha Marrero said she’s seen the change in her students at North County K-8 Center, 3250 NW 207th St., in Miami Gardens.

“Music has really like awakened all of the senses of our students,” she said.

The school, which has about 370 students, was given a grant by the Miami Foundation to get keyboards, drums and other instruments for its 2nd-5th grade music classes. Young Musicians Unite is providing music teachers to the school for beginning band and drumline and Guitar Over Guns is running an after-school care program for kids in 6th-8th grade where they can create and learn about different types of music, including composition and songwriting.

A group of student performers at the inaugural Miami Gardens Youth Music Festival on Saturday, May 21. Brianna Acevedo

“You can see their smiles in their faces, you can see a sense of accomplishment,” said Marrero. “And they’re absolutely amazing, again, to have students that have never put their hands on an instrument and now be playing. It’s amazing. It’s like breathtaking. It’s priceless.”

The Miami Foundation’s Music Access Miami initiative began with a $4.5 million donation from philanthropist Daniel Lewis and led to the creation of the Miami Gardens Music Alliance, which currently encompasses 12 schools in Miami Gardens and seven nonprofits: Achieve Miami, Arts for Learning, Guitars Over Guns, Miami Music Project, Young Musicians Unite, Save the Music Foundation and the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Rowley said the May 21 Miami Gardens Youth Music Festival, which included performances from students and ensembles from several Miami Gardens schools and other young performers from across the county, was a celebration of the alliance’s progress.

A group of students jam out on their guitars at the inaugural Miami Gardens Youth Music Festival on Saturday, May 21. Brianna Acevedo

Lewis, in a news release, described the festival as a celebration of the work that will “close Miami-Dade County’s music education gap” and serve as a “benchmark from which future progress will be measured.” Music Access Miami is also working with Miami-Dade Schools to update its online map on where students have access to programs across all arts areas and where gaps exist.

Rowley, the initiative’s director and an alum of the New World School of the Arts opera program in downtown Miami, considers himself to be an example of how music education can help open the door to opportunities. The University of Florida alum can trace his passion for music back to Ojus Elementary School near Aventura, where he began singing and was given encouragement by his fifth grade music teacher.

He said the music education he had growing up helped him get a scholarship for a free ride to college and led him to a career path that included artistic performances with Magic City Opera, Slow Burn Theatre, Opera Naples, Florida Grand Opera, Orchestra Miami, Klezmer Orchestra, and M Ensemble.

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Kunya Rowley is the director of Music Access, Arts, and Culture at The Miami Foundation. He’s an alum from the University of Florida and New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami. Miami Foundation

“I feel really, really, really lucky. To experience what I did is again, all of it was serendipity, and all those really came down to ZIP code, where I lived,” said Rowley, in reference to the music education access he had growing up.

“And that’s what’s so powerful about what’s happening in Miami Gardens — students have a lot of choice. If they want to join an orchestral program, they can. If they want to learn about music production, they can. They want to learn about hip hop and or rock they can,” Rowley said. “What we know is that there’s no prescription for music education. And that, like creativity, takes on many forms. And so we want students to be able to explore things that are meaningful and powerful and relevant to them.”

This story was originally published June 2, 2022 6:06 PM.

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There’s never a dull moment in Florida — and Michelle covers it as a Real Time/Breaking News Reporter for the Miami Herald. She graduated with honors from Florida International University, where she served as the editor-in-chief of Student Media PantherNOW. Previously, she worked as a news writer at WSVN Channel 7 and was a 2020-2021 Poynter-Koch Media & Journalism fellow.