YMU's 2017 spring concert.EXPAND
YMU's 2017 spring concert.
Courtesy of Young Musicians Unite

Young Musicians Unite Is More Than an In-School Music Program

Young Musicians Unite (YMU) isn't just about teaching kids to play music; it's more like a youth development program that serves as a home away from home. Each student receives more than 80 free, in-school lessons and participates in at least four performances during the school year, providing a regular opportunity to meet with music mentors and talk about problems at home.

"Some kids, when they first start, they're mean — they're bullies," says YMU's president and CEO, Sammy Gonzalez. "Now you see them and they're leaders. They're recruiting kids. We've even had some students become teachers in the program."

YMU helps at-risk youth in underserved communities such as Overtown, Wynwood, and Little Haiti to pursue the long-term vision of practicing music to perform it. "It just helps out with life skills in general, realizing their goals and all the little steps you need to take to get there," Gonzalez says. The program also encourages young musicians to connect with the broader community through opportunities such as playing the National Anthem during Miami Heat games.

Gonzalez adds that the program helps keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. "When you're in an ensemble, you hold each other accountable and work toward a common goal, which is a performance. When the students perform, they're nervous beforehand, but afterward they're confident and feel good about themselves as people."

New Times caught up with Gonzalez ahead of YMU's Annual Spring Concert this Friday, May 18. With a fundraising goal of $100,000, it's the organization's largest benefit of the year, presenting performances by the Open Community Jazz Band, Wynwood and Miami Jazz Combo, Wynwood Rock Ensemble, and three partnered rock bands — Arrowhead, Avalanche, and Ripcord. Only about 15 percent of the program's annual budget comes from grants; the other 85 percent is raised by performances and sponsorships in YMU's magazine.

But attending the show isn't purely an act of charity. According to Gonzalez, the music is worth coming out for: "Our jazz combo is badass," he says. "They sound amazing."

YMU launched in 2013 with eight students taking guitar class at the Young Men's Preparatory Academy, and now more than 240 students in 13 classrooms have participated in the program. Next fall, YMU will expand to 400-plus students, including some in Opa-locka.

Gonzalez has experienced firsthand the way music can keep young people on the right path. He is a classical guitarist and former bassist for the rock band Jacob's Ladder and was recently named director of the Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble, which was founded in 1972 as the first group of its kind in the nation. "It's a program I went through that inspired me to become a teacher and a musician, and now I get to take it over," Gonzalez says.

The band director was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, and he knows everything could have turned out differently. "Music changed my life," Gonzalez says. "I was lucky enough to have access to free music education growing up, and I had really amazing mentors who were so selfless and giving. If I had needed to pay for lessons, I wouldn't be a musician now; I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. Now my mission is to do for others what was done for me."

Young Musicians Unite Spring Concert. 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 18, at Racket, 150 NW 24th St., Miami; 786-637-2987; racketwynwood.com. Tickets cost $25 to $75 via youngmusiciansunite.org.

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