Bringing Music To The Needy

Kenny Liner, who recently began a Living Classrooms program, Believe  in Music, has noticed that learning about music has helped his students improve their math and reading skills.  (Marc Shapiro)

Kenny Liner, who recently began a Living Classrooms program, Believe
in Music, has noticed that learning about music has helped his students improve their math and reading skills.
(Photos by Jordan August Photography

Anyone who drives through downtown Baltimore has probably passed by the Perkins Homes. The six square blocks, which border Fells Point and Little Italy, are home to Baltimore’s largest public housing project.

While most people likely keep their eyes on the road or play with smartphones as cabs drive them through, Baltimore native Kenny Liner, who toured for more than a decade with The Bridge,  decided to take an interest in the neighborhood and bring in something that Perkins’ school-aged children have had very little, if any, exposure to: a multifaceted music education.

In September, Liner, 34, launched Believe in Music, a Living Classrooms Foundation program, not only to teach music, but also to uplift his students and provide an outlet for them to express themselves culturally and spiritually. Since November, he has been teaching at P.O.W.E.R. House (P.O.W.E.R. stands for Providing Opportunities to Work, Expand and Rise) at Perkins Homes and the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center, which is also in downtown Baltimore.

“I had been on tour for 11 years with The Bridge and I realized that being in a band, for me personally, was sort of a selfish way to live my life. I felt like I was being very self-indulgent,” Liner said. “Everyone’s driven past this project — if you’ve ever been downtown — and never stopped, and I just really wanted to help the people in the community who need the most help.”

Liner played mandolin, percussion and beatbox, a form of vocal percussion, in The Bridge. Although the eclectic Baltimore band technically broke up in November 2011, the members have reunited several times since. The band will once again take the stage on Aug. 10 for a Believe in Music benefit show at Pier 6 Pavilion that will be headlined by Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra.

Tim Walther, co-founder and promoter for All Good Presents, said it was an easy choice to help Liner by putting the Pier 6 show together.

“The organization’s intention to connect with underprivileged children by using music as the catalyst for positive change really spoke to me,” Walther, who is a board member of Grateful Dead-founded nonprofit the Rex Foundation, said via email. “Plus, [Liner] is one of my favorite area musicians, and I believe if anyone can accomplish the organization’s mission of experiential learning, he can.”

080213_bringing_music_to_the_needy1Liner teaches children from first grade through eighth grade in four groups. His curriculum includes music history, which traces African drumming to the birth of hip-hop, introduction to rhythm, in which the students learn by playing in a bucket band together, melody and harmony, in which students competed in “P.O.W.E.R. House Idol,” a unit about the media, group vocal ensembles, group songwriting and individual songwriting.

Devonta Woodrau, a fourth- grader, said Liner taught the students how to face their fears by performing solos in the bucket band.

“He set the chairs up and he put the bucket in the middle,” Woodrau said. “He had each of us perform our own move.”

Kanye Carney, also a fourth-grader, said he enjoyed “P.O.W.E.R. House Idol,” although he fell just short of going to Hollywood.

“I got four-and-a-half stars,” he said. “I went to Vegas.”

Davon Smith, a 16-year-old Perkins Homes resident who is a volunteer at the P.O.W.E.R. House this summer, said Liner has taught the kids about res-ponsibility and exposed them to music they had never heard, such as reggae.

“Kenny really taught me a lot [about] how to have fun with the kids and just flow with them,” Smith said.

Dorothy Scott, the program aide at P.O.W.E.R. House, said they constantly have to tell students to walk, not run, to Liner’s class when it’s their turn. She said he’s making a great impact, and she sees a difference in the children.

“I don’t know what Kenny does to them, but they love Mr. Kenny,” she said.

On a recent Thursday, Liner foc-used his lesson on mass media and its messages. For homework, he had his students watch TV and pay attention to the commercials for what they were selling, the kind of music that played and any other messages in the ads. His aim was to teach the students about the different kinds of media and how it influences them, sometimes without them even knowing.

“My main goal is to get the students to do critical thinking, for them to go outside the box of their normal thinking,” he said. “Around here, their status is based on [their] shoes, and there’s a reason for that.”

Through learning about music, Liner has seen his students’ math and reading skills, as well as attendance numbers, improve.

“They’re having so much fun they don’t realize they’re learning,” said Travis Street, the site manager at P.O.W.E.R. House.

Street, who grew up in Perkins Homes, said Liner’s program has changed the way the students think and interact with each other because he treats them as equals and gives them self-encouragement.

James Bond, president and CEO of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said Believe in Music is a perfect fit for his organization. Through P.O.W.E.R. House, students get homework help, a healthy meal, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and yoga, and older residents are helped with financial education and a grocery program.

“Our mission to bring education alive through hands-on experiences,” Bond said.

While Liner said he is a Jew in his own way, Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation said Jewish tradition is strongly reflected in Believe in Music.

“There are a lot of people — not just Kenny — a lot of people from his generation who might not even realize that a lot of what they’re doing is driven by Jewish values,” Schwartz, who got to know Liner through The Bridge, said. “The whole idea of worrying about the disenfranchised is such a core value in the tradition, going all the way back to the earliest strata of tradition.”

Said Liner: “Every day I can see the effect I’m directly having on the students in a positive way, and it really helps me get up in the morning. … I love the fact that at the end of the day I’m helping somebody else out and not being selfish.”

The Circus Life

071213_the_circus_lifeKaely Michels-Gualtieri’s mother, Dia Michels, jokes that her daughter somersaulted out of the womb.

Now 23, Michels-Gualtieri soars 35 feet in the air from hanging ropes, self-designed trapezes and other assorted apparatus as an aerial performer in Cirque Italia. This family-friendly, modern European-style circus, which has been described as “Bellagio meets Broadway,” sets up its tent up at Owings Mills Mall July 12-21. An aerial artist, Michels-Gualtieri floats, spins, swings, flips and flies above a 35,000-gallon pool with fountains showering the “stage” and Michels-Gualtieri for Cirque Italia’s Aquatic Spectacular. Many of her breath-catching tricks and her apparatus — trapezes, carabineers, ropes and rigging — are self-designed, a nod to her days as a high-school physics and science geek.

Michels-Gualtieri, who grew up on Capitol Hill in southeast Washington, D.C., knows from family stories that she started gymnastic classes soon after she learned to walk.

“By the time I was about 6 or 7, I was on a competitive gymnastics team and competed all the way until I graduated from high school,” she said last week, relaxing at her childhood home, with her mother nearby — a great advantage to having a tour stop in the D.C. region.

A graduate of the Field School in the District, throughout her elementary and teen years, Michels-Gualtieri — with her parents’ help —  juggled rigorous academics at her private school, gymnastics lessons, team practices and competitions — as a high school senior she placed third in the Virginia championships— and Hebrew school. Her family, including a younger brother and sister, have been members of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., where the then-rising young gymnast celebrated her bat mitzvah a decade ago.

After a high-school internship at the Circus School of San Francisco, Michels-Gualtieri, who was accepted to Wellesley College and McGill University in Montreal, took a gap year and moved to Torino, a small town in Italy to join up with a circus school.

“I love learning languages, and during a summer family trip all over Europe, we visited several circus schools. At the one in Torino no one spoke a word of English, and I didn’t know Italian, but … I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

She then moved on to the Academie Fratellini, a renowned professional circus school in Paris, where she trained with the world’s best trapeze coaches, readily drawing on her gymnastics training.

Every day, Michels-Gualtieri wakes up in her tiny caravan room, eats a hearty breakfast and then walks over to the circus tent. There, she said, “The first thing I do is make sure that all of my rigging is there and that everything is rigged correctly, because that’s the stuff that makes sure I don’t die when I’m performing.”

After she tapes herself up, making sure to pay attention to past injuries, she applies tape to the backs of her legs to protect from rope and other contact burns. After a trip to the makeup tent, it’s time to warm up. Michels-Gualtieri has a solo spot in both halves of the show: She performs on the swinging and the static trapeze; her set includes a number based on the blue-painted creatures of the film “Avatar.”

“I haven’t come across many other Jews” in the circus world, she noted. “And when I was in my circus academy in Paris, I had to explain to several people what Judaism was, which shocked me. I know other people who are Jewish who do circus, but in the particular places I’ve been in Europe there haven’t been any other Jewish people.”

But her mother insists that Michels-Gualtieri’s Jewish upbringing has helped her daughter along her path to succeed in the highly competitive — and dangerous — world of circus acrobats and aerialists.

“She didn’t grow up with pressure to do the mainstream thing,” Michels said, “because, of course, the Jewish heritage often still may exclude you from the mainstream. So you better figure out what you’re going to do to take care of yourself.”

Her mother noted that her and her husband’s “Jewish traditional values allowed us to support Kaely to do this.”

And Michels-Gualtieri doesn’t disagree, pointing out that she knows this is her first, not her only, career, and some day she may be headed into medicine or nursing.

“My Jewish upbringing and always being told to ask questions and go further and figure out why things are the way they are has played an important role in my becoming successful,” she said. “One of the things that sets me apart from other people is when someone says, ‘This is impossible,’ I say, ‘Why?’ That’s just a trait that I’ve noticed that not a lot of other people have.”

Cirque Italia, July 12-21, Owings Mills Mall, 10300 Mill Run Circle. For more information and tickets, visit

Lisa Traiger is an area freelance writer.