Inspired by the philosophy of Venezuela's "El Sistema," husband and wife team Liza Austria and Richard Miller established UpBeat NYC in 2009. UpBeat began its work in Central Brooklyn working in partnership with the BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger and in the South Bronx at the Promised Land Church. Initially, the staff included just four instructors: Richard, Liza, her mother Chris and younger brother John. As the volunteer staff grew, so did the program, yet UpBeat retained its original family feel. UpBeat now operates year-round in Mott Haven, five days per week with an enrollment of 150 students and 18 staff and volunteer instructors.
In fact, it was family experiences and concerns that led to the genesis of UpBeat. As a New York City public school teacher, Liza’s mother was frustrated by the rise of testing and decline of arts education. Liza’s older brother and juvenile justice activist, Ruben, spoke passionately about the lack of positive alternatives for NYC’s at-risk youth. He shared stories of children as young as eleven being locked up, isolated and left with no discernible path toward a normal life. Above all was the influence of Liza's father, Jaime Austria, one of New York City's finest bass players. His brilliant and tenacious advocacy for El Sistema, the groundbreaking musical movement in Venezuela, inspired and sustained the family's resolve to take action.
From UpBeat’s very first days in Mott Haven—when children discovered the program by walking in from the street and signing up for a piano lesson, or by tagging along with a friend or family member to get a chance to try a violin—UpBeat has embraced the community’s children with open arms. Through the years, the program has become known among local families as a trusted place where their children can safely study and explore music.
As more and more children became consistent participants, we were able to form an ensemble that began performing in the neighborhood and around the city. The ensemble, now the UpBeat Youth Orchestra, gave over 20 public performances in NYC in last season, in venues such as El Museo del Barrio, the Hostos Center for Culture and the Arts, the Cinco de Mayo Festival in Flushing Meadow Park, the Lincoln Hospital, the New York City Marathon, the Longwood Arts Festival, Mott Haven Library's Summer Reading Kick-off, International Worker's Day, South Bronx Unite's Waterfront Celebration and the Queens Museum of Art. Students from the Youth Orchestra have been accepted into prestigious NYC-area high school music programs, including Laguardia High School for the Arts, and Celia Cruz Bronx High School for the Arts. Several students also participated in the 2016 National Take a Stand Festival, where students ages 12 and up from El Sistema-inspired programs across the country were selected to participate in a week-long summer workshop after a competitive audition process.
In addition, UpBeat’s Youth Orchestra made history in the summer of 2015 when it became the first U.S. El Sistema-inspired orchestra to travel to Venezuela to study and perform with instructors and students of El Sistema. For one full week our orchestra students studied at the National Center for Social Action Through Music in Caracas and performed in a massive bi-national orchestra of 200 children under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. Most of our instructors and many parents came along as well. It was an absolutely amazing experience that inspired our participants to reach beyond all expectations and has galvanized our teachers' and parents' vision of social action through music.
As UpBeat has grown, more performing ensembles have formed. UpBeat now boasts a Jazz and Latin Big Band, a Children’s Orchestra, and a Children and Parent’s Choir that perform regularly in addition to UpBeat’s many chamber and class ensembles.