In 10 years, Guitars over Guns learned one big lesson: ‘Keep showing up’

While playing with his band Sueñalo back in 2006, musician Chad Bernstein visited a juvenile detention center in Miami to talk about how to create a career in music. He did it as a favor to a friend.

When the band showed up, most of their instruments were stopped at the door.

“We couldn’t bring our guitars in, or anything with strings, because [they said] the kids might use them to strangle us,” Bernstein recalls.

The presentation began, and the kids’ eyes started to glaze over pretty much immediately.

“They had zero interest in what we were saying,” he says.

Then, with the few instruments they were allowed to bring in, the band started playing. The energy in the room totally changed. The kids were tuned in, jamming with the music.

“Then they started listening, we started to play games like a call-and-response and they were shouting back.”

This moment, and Bernstein’s experience with how much impact playing music had on his own life, is what spurred the idea for Guitars over Guns, the Miami-based non-profit he’s been running for almost a decade now.

Guitars over Guns offers musical instruction and mentorship to kids in underserved communities. It began as an informal volunteer-based program, but after seeing the results, Bernstein decided to go full-speed ahead.

With the support and guidance of his father, who was working in the investment world in Chicago, Bernstein was able to turn Guitars over Guns into a formal nonprofit that partners with local schools and faith-based organizations. It’s funded primarily through grants, individual donations, and some government funding.

The curriculum includes musical instruction and personal mentorship. Each student is paired with a mentor who is trained to help the students develop both artistically and personally. More than 90 percent of the program’s after school students have improved academically, in their conduct, and in their decision-making skills.

Making Miami home

The focus on improving academic and personal skills through music is a part of the program’s design and it has a lot to do with Bernstein’s own background. Originally from Philadelphia, he learned how to piano at a the age of five, but he soon got bored. He almost quit.

“I was trying out other instruments and … I had long arms so they said play the trombone,” he said.

That’s when his passion for music went full force. And it’s also what helped him realize how important it is for a child to find the right instrument for them in order for them to succeed.

Bernstein’s family then moved to Chicago, where he picked up an affinity for jazz. He received a full scholarship to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music for his undergrad which he finished in 2006. Around that time, he started touring and playing with Sueñalo and The Spam Allstars.

“It was kind of nerve wracking — [Spam Allstars] was so well formed and there were so many songs and no titles. All of the band members knew the songs, but there was no setlist. Andrew [Yeomanson] (DJ Le Spam) just starts playing a beat,” Bernstein said.

“It was intimidating at first, to be a young kid and playing with one of Miami’s most iconic bands.”

Fifteen years later, they’re still playing together and Bernstein has made Miami his home.

He stayed on at the University of Miami to complete a masters and then a doctorate at the Frost School of Music. His doctoral dissertation was largely informed by the work he did with kids through the Guitars over Guns program, studying the effect of music on at-risk youth.

Two years after his dissertation was published, one of his mentors published another dissertation on the vocal curriculum of Guitars over Guns, which helped develop first set of workbooks for the program.

“I realized people in the world were willing to love and dedicate as much to this as I was,” he said.

Growth and expansion

After finishing his dissertation in 2012, Bernstein took on Guitars over Guns full time. That complete focus has helped the program grow. In 2013, it expanded to Chicago in collaboration with the Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in the crime-ridden South Side.

“We had two kids in the program, who, when they saw each other, one kid immediately left the room,” Bernstein said. The two teens were in rival gangs, and one was told he would have to kill the other.

With mentorship and support from Andre Daniels, the Chicago studio’s leader, “they worked through it, wrote a track together and now they are close friends,” Bernstein said.

In Miami, 80 students at the Guitars over Guns program in North Miami used music to work through the anxieties and sadness that children have felt amid rampant gun violence in their community. They put together a music video that premiered at the Pérez Art Museum Miami on March 2.

This work has not gone without recognition — in 2015, Bernstein was named a CNN Hero for his programs. And more recently, one of the bands from the Chicago studio performed on the Steve Harvey show.

Keep showing up

But there’s one wrinkle – as a white man from an upper-middle class family, his life is drastically different from his students he’s trying to teach. That’s something he will have to constantly work to overcome with new kids.

A lot of the kids are “working through trying situations — homelessness, attempts to be set on fire in their sleep by their parents, some who drive themselves to school because their parents alcoholics,” he says.

He says he keeps it focused on the music — connecting everyone, across race or socioeconomic status.

Still, “sometimes parents will even pull their kids out of Guitars Over Guns when they find out it’s run by a white guy,” Bernstein admits.

His solution: “Keep showing up.”

“Nothing you can say can build that trust and create that vulnerability to create a relationship. You have to prove it and it takes a long time,” he says. “Give your word that you’ll be back even though they might flip the bird and tell you to go fly a kite … in less nice words.”

“When you come back it says more than you ever could have.”

If you’re interested in donating to or participating in Guitars Over Guns, you can find more information here.