RISING STARS: Aspiring musicians get free training and instruments at UpBeat NYC. (PHOTO/Ana Valdez Saravia)

BRONX — In Mott Haven, every day starting at four in the afternoon, a section of the Tercera Iglesia Bautista fills with music. In this corner of the South Bronx, children and youth practice different melodies with UpBeat NYC, a community organization that provides free music lessons.

The organization was envisioned by Jaime Austria, a Filipino musician who played the double bass in the New York Opera Orchestra and was an activist for making the arts more accessible to underprivileged communities. In 2009, Austria motivated his daughter Liza Austria to create UpBeat NYC as a family project that would give youth in the South Bronx access to a music program.

Richard Miller, Liza’s husband, joined the project, and together they began offering free music lessons to a group of just 10 children under the philosophy of El Sistema, a musical movement that was launched in Venezuela in 1975 by Venezuelan musician José Antonio Abreu and focuses on teaching music to communities in poverty as a recreational activity for children.

Currently, UpBeat NYC serves over 170 children with free musical instruction.

‘How Important Music Is’

“Music is often seen as something for the upper echelons,” said Carlos Sánchez, coordinator of UpBeat NYC and a Venezuelan cello and double bass teacher trained in El Sistema. “In Venezuela, it was the opposite; music went towards the communities, we went to towns to play so that people could see how important music is in life.”

The young artists range from ages 5 to 21. Some are new, while others have grown with UpBeat NYC for many years. Most are Latino, African American, Afro-Latino and migrants coming from low-income families.

“All our programming is free for the children and families of the South Bronx,” said Miller, co-founder of UpBeat NYC. “I think it’s important to offer these things for free in this community, because otherwise it would be a barrier for most of the families living here.”

UpBeat provides free instruments and represents the cultural diversity of the area, which is predominantly Latino and African American, with a high level of poverty. At their winter concert held on December 7, 2023, at Lincoln Hospital’s auditorium, they presented six musical ensembles, including a full orchestra and their Afro-Latin jazz band. The repertoire included the Mexican song “Juana la Cubana,” which connects some of the children’s Hispanic roots with those of the community.

Music With Meaning

For parents of children participating in UpBeat, the program reduces the economic burden of finding activities for their children. “For my girls, music has a full meaning,” said Alessandra Costa, a mom of two girls in the program from Bahía, Brazil. “Of course, it’s free and that helps a lot. Plus, it’s very important because this helps the children in their development.”

Some children in the program say that joining helped them discover new paths in the world of music. Yaden Scharf initially wanted to play the violin or piano, but there were no spaces available. That’s how he discovered the cello. “The instructor told my mom that the cello was like a big violin,” says Scharf. “That’s how I began to play the cello. That’s how I even discovered it was an instrument.”

IN TUNE: The UpBeat NYC orchestra presents its 2023 winter concert in the auditorium at Lincoln Hospital in Mott Haven. (PHOTO/UpBeat NYC)

UpBeat NYC offers concerts throughout the year, including their end-of-year winter concert where they performed songs from the Nutcracker and classics like Mozart, Pachelbel, and Tchaikovsky. While the concert was free, the community helped raise funds so that the program can continue providing free musical education in the South Bronx. The next round of concerts are planned for June, with dates to be determined. 

Student Krystal Castellanos says being part of the program has helped her grow in confidence.

“I play the viola and it’s like my baby,” said Castellanos, who has been in the program for six years. “I feel that I can be myself when I play my instrument.”

UpBeat offers music classes year-round from Monday through Friday, 4 pm to 7 pm, and Sundays, 9 am to 1 pm, at 338 E. 141st St., around the corner from Tercera Iglesia Bautista. For more, go to https://upbeatnyc.org/