Miami's Guitars Over Guns: Teaching Kids Music and Keeping Them Off the Street

Cutting music and arts programs from public schools is a sign of the decline of western civilization.

But have no fear, professional musicians are here, and they're putting the instrumentation back into education.

Guitars Over Guns is Miami's answer to the need for leadership training in the form of artistic expression, and the local community outreach organization will be throwing a party at the Fillmore Miami Beach to help raise money for its programs. Here's what co-founder Chad Bernstein of Suénalo and Spam Allstars had to say about juvenile justice, non-profits, and working with Shakira.

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Crossfade: How did you get started on this journey?

Chad Bernstein: I always loved playing music. It was the kind of thing that kept me focused and was my outlet as a kid. And when I realized a lot of music programs were disappearing from the school system, which is where I got my exposure to music, I felt like we needed to do something. And instead of changing big-time laws and policies for school curriculum, we decided to do it ourselves, and make a program for kids who needed it most.

So you got started with everybody from Suénalo?

It began with Suénalo doing some random things in the community for friends who are teachers or who had affiliations with concerts. We did a workshop at the Juvenile Detention Center, and that made me go, "Whoa." If we can perform and discuss music and how to play it and take these kids from rowdy and upset to forgetting where they are for a half-hour, that's incredible. And when you reach that level of engagement, it gives you a platform to reach them on other levels. Through music we can reach them on mentoring. We use pop music and stuff that's on the radio so it's easier to get interested, more than classical music and stuff like that.

How many mentors are there so far?


How many students has the program helped so far?

Hundreds of students, over 200 students.

You started at North Miami Middle School, what's the new school you're adding?


What instruments do you teach?

Guitars, keyboards, rap vocals, singing, drums, bass, and trumpet. And we're gonna start incorporating music production as well -- get 'em making beats. DJing is something we'd love to incorporate. We've been acoustic with everything so far, except for the keyboard, so it can all be done without electricity, which allows us to work in places with limitations. But now the culture is in the schools we're in, and the teachers and principals have started to get respect for the program. And we have major partners in Communities In Schools Miami and the University of Miami's Frost School of Music.

What songs, what kinds of music are the kids playing?

Right now we just got home from NBC and two kids performed "Stay With Me" by Sam Smith. At a recording session last week, one kid did Bruno Mars and also "Yesterday" by the Beatles and "All Of Me" by John Legend. We've also done "Latch" by Sam Smith, "Wrecking Ball," and we did a video of "Happy" by Pharrell with these amazing videographers from Chicago's Tall Tale Productions.

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What did your doctoral degree teach you about your own program?

My doctorate is in jazz performance, but the University of Miami allowed me to do my dissertation on the effectiveness of music mentoring through the Guitars Over Guns Organization program. It taught me the value of having a measurable effect and it really helped me analyze the weak points. I was honest in my research about what needed to get better. I've never tried to stand there and say that we're perfect. We try to engage as many people as have similar approaches and like minds to be part of it. The end goal is to be successful in reaching and helping these kids. Right now in our community, there's a huge interest in non-profit collaboration. A lot of good people are doing a lot of good things in the community. Our Department of Cultural Affairs is one of the most progressive in the entire country, and you've got other organizations like Motivational Edge and PATH that have incredible programs helping kids through musical expression and the arts. So we're trying to get as many people as possible involved to help each other.

What do the students tell you about their experience?

Oh, man, you can see it right on their faces. It's so apparent that they feel like they found something they can identify themselves through, the arts and music. Not everyone is gonna become the next great musician, but they all belong to Guitars Over Guns. And a sense of belonging and ownership goes a really long way in making these kids leaders who have the confidence to make the right choice when it's not easy to make the right choice, and to do so in front of other kids.

How long does the program last?

Throughout the school year, and we're working on partnerships with the juvenile justice system to create year-long programming.

What do the students do with the knowledge when they get to high school?

They come back and help mentor the middle school kids.

Do any students express a want to pursue a career in music?

Some do. And there's certainly kids that I think could go on and get a music scholarship. A lot of kids go into a band program after Guitars Over Guns, and at the very least, it exposes kids to an opportunity to learn music no matter where they take it after. Music is the bridge to reach these kids and build relationships with them. The real effectiveness of the program is the mentors. Our mentors are amazing. And they're all local professional musicians.

Are they volunteers?

It started as a volunteer-based program, but then we realized it wasn't fair to ask a musician to turn down work any more than it was fair to ask the kids to build relationships with people coming in and out of their lives. We provide stipends for mentors to ensure they make a commitment. It's not a lot of money. It's not a full-time job. But our goal is eventually to provide enough hours of work that they can have this be the missing piece of the puzzle between a musical career and what they need to have decent living salaries.

Will you move into music business classes as well?

Not at the middle school level, although they do think like little hustlers. Some of them really think with a business sense. We just want to make sure they get through high school and go onto college, I have a firm belief that we should do less things more effectively than to try and spread ourselves too thin.

What is the greatest reaction you have seen the program produce?

The reaction of a kid coming off the stage from a standing ovation and just being in tears. And we hang with them as long as they stay engaged. They never leave the program. The students in our first class from six years ago is now at the end of their high school career. We're also moving a chapter to Chicago next year, so we have big things in the works.

You've worked with a lot of influential recording artists like Pitbull, Pharrell, Pee Wee Ellis, Shakira, Calle 13, and many more right?

I've played trombone and keys and recorded and written for a lot of artists, but it's not about me. The most important part of that in terms of the program is that it's given me experience and credibility with the kids. It is what it is. I'm a professional musician. That's why I do what I do. Without music, man, I'd be lost. And that's why I think it's so important to help these kids find it.

Any shout outs?

I wanna shout out all the people that work really hard for the kids: our mentors. That would be Sherrine Mostin, JJ Freire, Amin De Jesus, Michelle Forman, Eric Escanes, Ted Zimmerman, Danny, Michelle, Bianca, our event planner Abby, and my dad, with whom I co-founded Guitars Over Guns.

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Guitars Over Guns' Choose Your Sound Benefit Concert. With music by Suénalo, Spam Allstars, and Tomas Diaz, as well as a silent auction and art exhibition featuring work by Lebo, Krave, Bhakti Baxter, Alvin Hernandez and Eva Ruiz. Hosted by NBC 6 South Florida's Roxanne Vargas. Saturday, August 23. Gleason Room at Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The event begins at 7 p.m. and ends at 11. Tickets cost $83.50 plus fees via All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit

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Jacob Katel
Contact: Jacob Katel