Love them or hate them, poetry slams are a thing. These are competitions where writers shout their poems at an audience, and judges determine a winner based on arbitrary criteria. It is a slow death for most admirers of the art form.
Mercifully, Piano Slam is nothing like that (despite the similarities in name).
The event is curated by the folks at the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation (DI2PF) and hosted by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Perfoming Arts. Now in its eighth year, the event will take place in downtown Miami Wednesday, April 13. The multicultural, multimedia experience not only puts a new spin on poetry but also fosters education.
"It's a poetry-writing contest that [students] write about music in their lives," Carlene Sawyer, director of DI2PF, says of Piano Slam. "The Dranoff Foundation is an international music foundation, and we take nine-foot pianos and bring artists from all over the world to schools all across Miami-Dade County."
The musicians then collaborate with the students in various workshops to develop all sorts of skills — including poetry writing. Part writing project, part performance art, Piano Slam is the culmination of months of hard work by students, teachers, and guest artists and educators. Sixteen poets are selected from 2,000 and trained by professionals for the show.
Sawyer stresses that although it’s a free event taking place during National Poetry Month and teenagers are involved, it’s not what you think. “It is not a high-school talent show; it is a big professional show.” The most important aspect of the entire affair is that the students don’t simply read their poetry — they perform it.
Winners present their work with the aid of classical musicians, hip-hop artists, and dancers. The 2016 edition will feature internationally acclaimed pianists Maarten van Veen from the Netherlands and American Bobby Mitchell, who will play a mixture of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Puerto Rican-born, Miami-bred playwright Teo Castellanos will direct the grand affair.
It may seem like a kitchen sink approach to the arts. But in truth, at the heart of most modern-day music is both the rhythmic and spiritual qualities inherent in poetry. It only makes sense to combine dancing, rapping, and Steinways.
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Piano Slam is an involved undertaking that sees local young people from all over the county intermingling with professionals hailing from every corner of the globe. Furthermore, the Miami Heat has long been a supporter of the program. Players such as Chris Bosh, Justise Winslow, and hometown hero Udonis Haslem have shared some of their favorite poems with the students.
“It’s very different from many in-school art programs in that it goes from the live performance to teacher training to lots of writing workshops... It’s almost like a Broadway-type show,” the DI2PF director explains.
Above all, Sawyer says, Piano Slam is entertainment that will blow your mind. Attendees who go to a show walk in thinking they're simply supporting arts and eduction, but they walk out saying, "Not only did it exceed expectations, but I had a great time," Sawyer laughs.