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The Lewis Prize for Music – A Revolutionary Grant

By Marty Steiner

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Daniel Lewis, founder and chair of the Lewis Prize for Music group.

The mission of the Lewis Prize for Music is to partner with leaders and their groups who create positive change by investing in young people through music. The Lewis group believes, “young people with access to high-quality music learning, performance and creation opportunities will mature into thriving individuals. Many communities fail to prioritize music education opportunities for all its young people. This limits their youth’s potential to become effective citizens by learning, performing and creating music with others, peers and caring mentors.”  

The Lewis Prize for Music is centered on the work of creative youth development programs that utilize music as the tool in addressing these inequities in our communities’ systems. Launched in 2017 to “amplify and support efforts of systems change through music”, it announced its first three Accelerator awards in January of this year, 2020. The awards, $500,000 each, went to three groups “who created positive change by investing in young people through music.” The awards satisfy the Lewis goal of finding and awarding ambitious leaders who are already strengthening young people in their communities through rigorous and diverse music programs. 

That first year saw 187 applicants from 32 states plus the District of Columbia. “These three stood out for doing reciprocating work of both leading young people toward tools for social transformation, and by also being led by young people toward more just futures,” commented Daniel Lewis, founder and chairman of the Lewis Prize for Music. 

The three groups and their leaders awarded these initial prizes were Brandon Steppe founder and executive director of David’s Harp Foundation (San Diego, California), Ian Mouser, founder and executive director of My Voice Music (Portland, Oregon) and Sebastian Ruth, founder and artistic director of Community MusicWorks (Providence, Rhode Island). 

My Voice Music (MVM) operates with the mantra “Write, Record, Release,” which mirrors the real working entertainment world. This process involves writing an original song, recording it in the MVM studio with a band and releasing it to the public by CD, online distribution or public performance. Experiencing this method not only develops performing artists, but confidant community leaders. 

A young My Voice Music vocal student records in the MVM industry-standard recording studio.

Creating music and lyrics also helps express thoughts and emotions that might not be easy to communicate otherwise. An example is the song “Shine” written by two Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students shortly after the tragic shooting at their school in Florida. This underlying method of communication and emotional release through music is the basis of much of MVM’s work with youth in Foster Care, treatment and rehabilitation centers. (The MVM website is www.myvoicemusic.org).

Ian Mouser founded MVM in 2008 after working as the program director at a free wilderness camp for youth in foster care. He also had worked as a treatment counselor and music teacher at a treatment center that served youth with mental health challenges. He had observed that music and songwriting helped build real relationships with youth and became a transformative tool in his work. He shared his observations with others and MVM was born. Ian continues to write and perform his own original music. He has been recognized for his leadership role in “celebrating passion, creativity and commitment to youth in after-school settings” by the National Afterschool Alliance. 

At the time of receiving the Lewis award, MVM was active only in the Portland, Oregon area with an annual budget of under $500,000. The Lewis Prize for Music grant has enabled MVM to now serve much of the state of Oregon. This has included communities that have been entirely destroyed by wildfires. 

Four 2021 Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator awards were announced on January 12, 2021 from a finalist list of eight. This year’s finalists with vocal programs or activities include leaders and groups from seven different states. Space does not allow us to present all of these fine groups and their leaders.

The Atlanta Music Project Senior Choir zoom-perform the national anthem at an Atlanta Falcons football game in the Atlanta Mercedes-Benz Dome.

One example of this year’s finalist group for the Lewis Prize for Music is the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) and its founder and artistic director, Dantes Rameau. 

AMP operates with three distinct branches serving over 300 students. The AMP Orchestra Branch operates all instrumental offerings, the AMP Academy manages all private lessons and the AMP Choral Branch, known as AMPlify, operates all vocal programs. There are two AMPlify Youth Choirs, the Junior Choir for grades 6 through 8 singers, and the Senior Choir for grades 9 through 12. Both of these groups are audition-based and require previous choral involvement and discipline. An AMP Prep Choir is an open group, with no audition, for grades 3 through 5 that serves as a feeder for students with no school-provided opportunity to perform with a choir. The virtual audition process is defined with a video submission. 

All choral activities are on a nine-week schedule of vocal training. AMPlify Teaching Artists are performing musicians with social change in mind and a desire to pass on their talent and skills to the next generation. These Teaching Artists spend their afternoons working with the AMP choral students. 

Rameau came to Atlanta to do exactly what he is doing, bringing music education to the youth of a neighborhood that had little if any access to such. Dantes is a musician, a bassoonist, with degrees in bassoon performance. In 2010 he graduated from the El Sistema program at the New England Conservatory where he studied non-profit management and music education. After settling into Atlanta later that year he completed a number of community leadership programs and is currently an Arts Management Fellow at the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute. 

Atlanta Music Project choir members in concert (pre-pandemic)

Under Rameau’s leadership, the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) has established key partnerships with Atlanta’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Atlanta Public School System, and a variety of Atlanta regional colleges and universities. AMP recently established its headquarters in the neighborhood it serves utilizing a former national chain grocery store building. Facilities for vocal and instrumental education and performance were created including high tech practice rooms and performance space. Currently all programs are being executed virtually, however, due to the pandemic. (AMP website is www.arlantamusicproject.org).   

Lewis has devoted much of the last 19 years to philanthropic activities. He has particularly focused on social change and musical arts. This has led to leadership roles with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, the Festival of North American Orchestras, and the League of American Orchestras. He founded and chairs a group in Miami that is pursuing making music education accessible and affordable for every Miami area school child. 

Some of My Voice Music’s younger students mix it up.

Daniel R. Lewis retired from an executive position with the Progressive Insurance Company founded by his father in 1937. That company was, and is, known for innovative change in the insurance industry. Lewis now brings his support to innovative change in music education by non-profit groups with the establishment of the Lewis Prize for Music. 

The Lewis Prize for Music recognizes and invests in the leaders and the groups that they represent. It is notable that all three of the first year’s recipients are the founders of their groups, as well as the current executive officers. These are individuals who have made lifetime commitments to service youth with the universal tool of music. (For full information about the Lewis Prize for Music, see www.thelewisprize.org). 

Although they are thousands of miles apart and address and serve their communities in different ways, the two leaders and their groups described in this article are remarkably similar. Both serve the underserved and have established a safe harbor physical site that is the hub of the group’s activities. They provide the tools and committed leaders to present these tools and to listen to their young charges. 

The same is true, not only for the eight finalists, but for every group and its leader that is seeking to provide music education and change young lives. David Lewis, Ian Mouser, and Dantes Rameau are doing something about it. 

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