The Lewis Prize for Music: A Revolutionary Grant

Mike Lawson • FeaturesJanuary 2021 • January 8, 2021

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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 inaugural 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).

In 1986, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, established a center for public service to support the university’s educational mission of including public service and experiential learning in the undergraduate curriculum. Later, in 1997, Brown University senior Sebastian Ruth was awarded a one-year post-graduate fellowship of $12,000 by the Swearer Center for Public Service, to address music instrument lessons in neighborhoods of need. Ruth had just earned his BA in violin performance. Ruth described the development of his “one year project” in a recent interview. “I was sure that I wanted music to be a big part of my life, but wasn’t sure what form that would take,” he says. “I wanted to include a commitment to public life and social justice with my musicianship.” After referencing the usual make up of concert attendees and how the experience of hearing music can be transforming, Ruth commented on bringing that experience to young people in challenged neighborhoods and providing additional opportunities for established musicians to perform.

The little, one year project that he came up with was providing free violin lessons to 15 children in an educationally underserved Providence neighborhood. The challenges and reality of making that happen would lead to the beginnings of Community MusicWorks, now 23 years in existence. Community MusicWorks (CMW) uses music education and performance to build relationships between children, families and professional performing musicians. CMW created a permanent residency of professional musicians who all teach instrument lessons, mentor their students, organize local neighborhood educational and performance events that build community. Today, due to the pandemic, many of these activities are transitioning to a virtual environment.

All students of this after school activity receive free instruments, weekly individual music lessons, and community days, which include a studio class and ensemble playing. Group workshops are conducted by guest artists. Student groups would perform at neighborhood events. Teen students have an additional opportunity, called Phase II, to join a leadership development group which mentors younger students, helps plan the community events, and discusses social justice. A two-year fellowship program offers young professional musicians an opportunity to develop their careers. CMW has drawn national attention, not just by the Lewis Prize, but by the Andrew Mellon Foundation which helped create a biannual Institute for Musicianship and Public Service. This Institute assists other communities to create similar groups in their own environment. (the CMW website is www. Four 2021 Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator awards will be announced on January 12, 2021 from a finalist list of eight. The Lewis Prize group recently increased the number of Accelerator prizes from the originally announced three to four!

This year’s finalists include leaders and groups from seven different states. These include Dave W. Christopher, Sr. and Academy of Music Production Education and Development (AMPED) in Louisville, Kentucky; Matthew Kerr and Christopher Thornton with Beyond the Bars in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Celinda Miranda and Hyde Square Task Force in Boston, Massachusetts; DeLashea Strawder and Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, Michigan; Susan Colangelo and Saint Louis Story Stitchers of St. Louis, Missouri; Michael Reyes and Elizabeth Stone with We Are Culture Creators, in Detroit, Michigan; Terri Winston and Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco, California; and Dantes Rameau and the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) of Atlanta, Georgia.

Space does not allow us to present all of these fine groups and their leaders. One example of this year’s finalist group for the Lewis Prize for Music is the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) and its founder and executive 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. Dantes 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 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.

Under Dantes’ 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

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.

Daniel R. Lewis retired from an executive position with the Progressive Insurance Company founded by his father in 1937. That company 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

Although they are hundreds 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 this year’s eight finalists, but for every group and its leader that is seeking to provide music education and change young lives. David Lewis, Sebastian Ruth, and Dantes Rameau are doing something about it.

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