An acclaimed Miami musician uses music to keep kids away from gangs and guns…and has plans to take the show on the road.
Miami – A one. A two. A one, two, three…Counting is key to music.
So, you’d expect one of Miami’s most acclaimed professional musicians to love to count. But you’d be surprised that in addition to counting the beat to the music he’s performing, he also loves to count the number of young people successfully graduating from middle school and set-up for success in high school and beyond.
Award-winning jazz trombone player and Miami Activist Chad Bernstein is so interested in the ways in which music and musicians can improve school graduation rates that he’s written a PhD thesis about it, earning a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Miami.
He’s also the co-founder and front man for the growing non-profit group Guitars Over Guns, which works to entice at-risk teenagers in high-crime neighborhoods to play band.
That may sound nerdy, but it’s not. Bernstein’s spin on after-school band programs uses popular music taught by working musicians to make things hip and fun. The program’s goal is to engage students, keep them interested in school, and away from gangs, guns and violence.
Most of us know too well that school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, suffer poor health, rely on government support, commit crimes and end up in jail, or worse. So graduation rates are a well-known point of leverage that a lot of people are working on.
But Bernstein’s approach to this monumental social problem is uniquely his own. He’s been playing piano since age five. He took up trombone in the fourth grade. He describes the first time he heard a school band as a visceral moment that finally made school fun.
“It was intense curiosity at first sight,” said Bernstein, who’s been a hardworking band member nearly his whole life. Band was something that allowed him to tolerate the things he didn’t like about school so he could to get to what he did like.
Guitars Over Guns was conceived in a juvenile detention center.
It was 2006. Bernstein was 22 and had been invited by a friend to perform at a career day organized by the prison.
It was a dingy and scary place. Passing through security was tense. The guards were concerned that the guitar strings could be used to strangle someone.
Finally, the band got set-up. The leader started talking about the life of a professional musician. But he bombed. “We were in a room with 40 kids convicted of God knows what. Nothing was landing, there was no connection,” as Bernstein remembers it.
But then the band began to play. Heads started bobbing, digging the music. Someone started chanting, “Na, Na, Nueve,” words that didn’t mean anything but created a connection leading to a call and response with the kids in the driver’s seat. Suddenly it was their song. A couple of the kids got up and rapped. The band fell in, playing a beat behind. The room was jamming. And Bernstein experienced the same musical vibe that drew him to the band in 4thgrade.
Soon after, on a long car trip, Bernstein and his father spent hours working out a way to pair music with academic support and counseling to create Guitars Over Guns.
Since October 2008, the program has served more than 3,000 students, 99% of whom have been promoted to the next grade on time. In surveys, 91% of participating students say they’ve learned to better appreciate their own talents, 94% report improved decision-making skills and 95% report increased self-esteem.
Today, the organization has a $1.2 million operating budget. It maintains an administrative staff in Chicago, Bernstein’s hometown, and Miami, where Bernstein has lived since 2002. The organization employs more than 50 professional musicians who are specially trained and certified to act as mentors. It provides a stipend to 13 teachers who act as In-School Coordinators. There’s also a dedicated staff social worker in Miami and Chicago. This academic year, Guitars over Guns is operating 26 programs, at 19 sites, serving 800 students.
Clearly, this is not your typical side hustle for a jazz musician.
And, Bernstein has an even larger vision. By 2030, he plans to operate in 8 more cities. Beyond that, his ultimate dream is to build a network that provides every poor student with access to music education.
That’s a big dream. But Bernstein just may do it. He’s fearless and says, “Entrepreneurs are people who will duct tape an airplane together.”
He’s also a workaholic. Until his second child was born two years ago, he played gigs six nights a week – sometimes with Frost School of Music bands, other times with well-known musicians such as Shakira, Pitbull, Steve Miller, Bruce Hornsby, Pharrell and the Beach Boys, to name a few. He’s toured nationally and abroad with a variety of bands, including the Miami-based Latin-funk band ¡Suénalo! He’s also appeared on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brian and the Ellen Show.
To expand Guitars Over Guns, Bernstein’s attacking two fronts. The first is to strengthen the operations in Miami and Chicago so the organization can grow without losing any of the magic that makes the current program work. He’s also expanding the board of directors, creating a strategic growth plan and fine tuning the formula so the model can be easily replicated in other places.
Bernstein is gaining more support. The Children’s Trust has agreed to give Guitars Over Guns $300K annually for a total of $1.5 million over five years. Miami philanthropist Dan Lewis has funded a joint venture between Guitars Over Guns and Teach for America to expand after-school arts education. Miami-Dade Public Schools awarded a Hope Grant to launch the program at Carol City Senior High School in Miami Gardens. And a new to Miami organization called Social Venture Partners awarded a $100K grant to help expand the program.
“They have a big vision and a track record of getting things done,” said Lauren Harper, the founding director of Social Venture Partners in Miami which provides money and expertise to help organizations tackle social challenges.
When I arrived at Brownsville Middle School on a recent Tuesday, a free afternoon snack was being distributed to about 90 kids taking part in a variety of after-school programs. The nine students participating in that afternoon’s Guitars Over Guns program were at the end of a long lunch table in the far corner of the school cafeteria.
Walker Moseley, the group’s Miami regional director, was introducing the kids to singer-songwriter Sarah Stephens, who had just joined the program as a mentor and is also working on her latest album.
Moseley also introduced me to Leo Mayorga, who performs as a rapper and works as a producer and sound engineer. Mayorga’s been a Guitars Over Guns mentor for four years. He enjoys encouraging the kids and keeping them out of trouble. “I didn’t have this as a kid,” he remembers, “I went straight to the trouble and then it was like ‘oh shit,’ how do I get out of this.”
I also met two teachers, Varun Devakonda and Taylor James, who serve as in school coordinators, or “ISC’s” in Guitars Over Guns’ parlance. They’re the bridge between Guitars Over Guns and the school administration and they stay on top of academic needs, working with other teachers and arranging tutors as needed.
After snack, the group walked to the school band room, where a third mentor, J. Howard, was waiting. Howard is a singer and a drummer who I had met the week before during a break in his show at the Wynwood Yard. His band was playing there as part of a jazz series curated by Bernstein.
“It’s about the kids, they are the future,” said Howard, when I asked him about his dual role: jazz drummer and singer by night, Guitar Over Guns mentor by day. “Nobody cares what you know, until they know that you care, you know what I mean,” he continued, riffing on a quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, which I didn’t fully understand at the time.
Each Guitars over Gun session begins with a social-emotional exercise. The kids formed a friendship circle. A few shared a story about something good that had happened. A few other kids took a little longer to settle down and continued horsing around. But they eventually joined in.
That afternoon, the kids were practicing “They Don’t Care About Us,” a 1996 song by Michael Jackson. The song has a strong drum beat which the kids think sounds best on plastic buckets. So they all grabbed an orange or white 5-gallon plastic bucket, a set of drum sticks and sat in a circle.
Howard stared to warm them up. “Tac at, tac at, tac at, rest, rest, rest,” he called out, as the kids formed a rhythm band with their simple percussion instruments. When the horseplay didn’t stop, or a band member missed a cue, Howard would demand, “drop and give me five,” meaning five push-ups, which was the first time I’d seen that sort of punishment doled out in a band room. And it was needed, because there was plenty of horsing around, and even a little apathy at times.
But the three mentors were up the challenge. They seemed just the right mix of affection, fun and discipline.
When Howard finally banged his sticks together over his head, indicating that warm ups were over and it was time to play, all nine students fell immediately into drumming the beat.
Stephens laid down a keyboard riff on top of the drum beat. A couple of the kids started singing:
Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
Sue me, Sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kick me
Don’t you black or white me
All I want to say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I want to say is that
They don’t really care about us
The professional musicians weren’t entirely pleased. To their trained hears, not everyone was on the beat. So to them, the rehearsal wasn’t going all that well. But frankly I had never heard plastic buckets sound so good.
I was amused by the irony of the lyrics, and I finally understood what Howard was explaining to me the week before at Wynwood Yard. The program works because the kids know that the musicians from Guitars Over Guns really do care.
Click here to visit the Guitars Over Guns website.
Click here to read Bernstein’s 2012 doctoral thesis: The Effectiveness of Music Mentoring for At-Risk Youth in Middle School.
Click here for the full lyrics of Michael Jackson’s 1996 song, “They Don’t Care About Us.”
Click here for the Jazz in the Yard performance schedule.