Morrisania non-profit teaches what area schools don’t
Former recording artist Bervin Harris has found a way to bridge the gap between Bach and Beyoncé.
Harris’ passion for music instruction for kids began in 2000 while he was working for a Hunts Points organization whose mission was to introduce young people to music in Bronx schools affected by budget cuts. When he heard that a middle school student in a violin class was acting up, he went to the classroom and saw the girl banging her desk while the instructor was playing classical music on the violin.
“I didn’t think she was trying to be unruly,” he said. “I thought the sound was foreign to the ear.”
Harris, 48, took that lesson and used it to launch Renaissance Education, Music & Sports in Morrisania in 2001, a not-for-profit offering tutoring, dance, sports and music classes to at-risk 6-to-19 year-olds.
“I try to meet kids where they are and not where they should be or where we want them to be,” he said.
Harris and his staff teach young people to sing and learn the chords to their favorite pop songs, which helps them become receptive to other music genres, including classical, he said. Students also learn to play the drums, piano and guitar.
This winter, Renaissance kids will star in Teens Live To Tape, a new variety show Harris created to provide teens a platform to express themselves through theater, poetry, dance and music. The show premiered on BronxNet on December 14.
“Mr. Harris sees both the talent and the message in these kids,” said Howard Altarescu, 63, chairman of the center’s board and advisory committee. “He teaches by the way he does things as well as with his words and you really feel it with these kids.”
During summers, the group tours the nation, performing up to 60 free concerts at parks, beaches, and community centers as well as high profile venues like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium. They attempt to spread positive messages through original songs like “Pull Your Pants Up” and “The Bronx Is a Beautiful Place.”
Despite Harris’s whirlwind schedule—he also teaches voice and piano to children and adults at 17 schools around the city—he shows no signs of slowing down. While supervising lessons recently, he bumped into kids waiting for their classes to begin. No encounter went without a handshake or a hug.
“I speak for a lot of kids in the program when I say that this is like a safe house,” added Elvis Perez, a 19-year-old Renaissance alumnus who teaches guitar lessons at the center. “If I don’t know where to go, rather than be in the streets, I go to Renaissance.”
Harris chose the South Bronx for his project because few local public schools offered music classes. That surprised Harris, who grew up loving music while playing drums in the Freeport, Long Island HS marching band, where arts programs were the norm.
“It taught me life lessons, but it also gave me a way to express myself,” he said.
Harris who is married and has three grown children, once tried to launch a musical career of his own. In 1990, he released a soul-jazz album called “In the Mood,” on Capitol Records, but contractual issues marred any potential success, he said. Another obstacle to the album’s success, he added, was his unwillingness to compromise his artistry for a few hits.
“At that time, it was all about taking your shirt off and suggestive dancing,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could make that kind of adjustment.”
The multi-instrumentalist instead went to work as a songwriter/producer for musicians like New Kids On the Block, Michael Urbaniak, Mary J. Blige and KRS-One. He has also toured as a drummer and keyboardist for Donnie McClurkin, Lisette Melendez and Tony! Toni! Tone!
But Harris says his days dealing with the music industry are behind him.
“Now I write songs with purpose,” he said. “If I look at a situation within our community, I feel the obligation to write a song to try to speak life to that situation.”
Harris hopes the kids at Renaissance will learn responsibility from the program, and to use what they learn to motivate their peers and community.
But his drive to teach and mentor young people transcends the music itself.
“It excites me to no end to be able to be the one to turn that light on,” he said. “One day, I’ll be like Forrest Gump and I’ll stop running. But right now, I feel like we have a lot more work to do.”