1. Tampa

Florida Orchestra, Prodigy gain added dollars for violin lessons

EAST TAMPA — Outside the Cyrus Green Community Center, cars often ride past with hip-hop blasting from the speakers.

But inside the building, a different genre of music is catching on with youngsters like Amaya Akbar.

Amaya, 10, is already a talented musician who has experience playing the guitar and drums.

Recently, she's taken up a third instrument, the violin. It's not as exciting as the drums — which Amaya likes because they are "loud" — but she's found at least one thing she likes about the string instrument.

"I like the sounds of the 'D' string," she said. "It has a lower pitch."

Makiah Taylor, 10, however, loves the violin.

"My favorite part is learning new songs," she said. "We play songs that some people don't really listen to. It makes me feel that it's going to make them listen even more."

Twice a week after school, Amaya and Makiah join several other students in a large classroom at the center to get violin lessons directly from some of the best musicians in the bay area thanks to a ground-breaking partnership between The Florida Orchestra and the University Area Community Development Corporation's after-school cultural arts program, Prodigy.

Hillsborough County funds the program and the county commission recently approved an additional $100,000 to extend and expand the lessons and other musical experiences to children who might otherwise not have the opportunity.

The additional funding will cover instrument rental and other class supplies, and allow the orchestra to hire a violin instructor and a part-time coordinator dedicated to the partnership.

The grant will continue to fund a program is part of the orchestra's mission to increase community engagement.

The UACDC has a similar objective through Prodigy, which offers underserved youth a plethora of activities and courses at a number of sites throughout the county. Art, break dancing and theater are popular. The violin classes could catch just as quickly thanks to the enthusiasm from Amaya and other students, said Prodigy director Mike Trepper.

"The majority of our kids are not artists," he said. "But through skills develop and mentorship, they do find a niche. And when young people find something they are good at, their whole world expands."

The partnership began over the summer when the orchestra taught group violin classes twice a week to Prodigy kids at Roy Haynes Recreation Center in Tampa – a first for both organizations. The orchestra also performed chamber concerts, hosted Prodigy students and families at a TFO Masterworks concert at the Straz Center and offered the Instrument Petting Zoo at various venues, giving students the opportunity to see, touch and play instruments.

The free violin lessons continued at Roy Haynes this fall and expanded to Cyrus Greene.

In a recent class, the gathering is smaller than usual but that's no bother for instructor Bennett Astrove. He gingerly goes over music scales with Amaya and three other students and then shifts into teaching them Rocket March, a three-part song.

When Ky'lee Barnes, 7, is having difficulty with parts of the latter, Amaya – who's a quick study – steps in to assist.

"If I help others, they'll get better," she said. "I help them catch on so we can move faster."

In addition to violin, students also are taught life lessons patience, respect, communication, focus/effort — or the Four Responsibilities, as Astrove calls them.

A splash of discipline and structure — students cannot miss more than two classes unexcused and must set up and break down their own equipment – also are doled out.

Those characteristics are necessary to learn how to play the violin as well as work with other musicians as a team, he said.

Much of what the students learn on the instrument and in class applies to real life, said instructor Michelle Painter.

"It's sort of a game of patience, which is a skill that everyone needs," she said. (Learning the violin) requires you to slow down. That's sort of the challenging part of it at first."

The 10-week program culminates with a recital where the students can show off what they've learned. And while the violin may not be her favorite, learning how to play it has opened Amaya to another string instrument.

"I want to learn how to play the piano," she said.

Contact Kenya Woodard at