Training ground fuels musical careers, dreams

Frost School alumna Diana Rush, left, and graduate student Olivia Rich co-teach the Little Canes classes. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Maya Bell

Frost School alumna Diana Rush, left, and graduate student Olivia Rich co-teach the Little Canes classes. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

Training ground fuels musical careers, dreams

By Maya Bell
For nearly two decades, the Frost Preparatory Program at the University of Miami has served children by taking them on a musical journey. But that trip also has paved career paths for countless students who worked as teaching assistants and found a calling.

During the past pandemic-altered year, Arn Xu often worked in isolation to finish his master’s degree in piano pedagogy and performance. Hundreds of miles from his Miami home, he rarely created music with anyone else in person. He taught piano online, practiced in a void, and had limited performances. 

Yet even amid a minefield of uncertainty, Xu, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami Frost School of Music in 2019, wasn’t worried about launching his career when he graduated from the University of Toronto last month. With a phone call to Megan Walsh, the founding director of the Frost School of Music Preparatory Program, he lined up a part-time job with the program teaching group piano and private lessons to pre-college students this fall.

Arn Xu
Frost School alumnus Arn Xu is returning to teach piano.

“Prep was always on my list,” said Xu, who literally grew up in the program that, for nearly two decades, has offered piano, guitar, strings, percussion, and a wide variety of other music courses to children from eight weeks to 18 years of age. “I knew that, at the very least I’d be able to pick up a few students and network through the University. I felt pretty sure I had something to offer.” 

For her part, Walsh, a concert pianist who has performed around the world, was elated Xu will return as an instructor for the program he enrolled in when he was 10. “He is a gift that fell in my lap,” she said. “I need piano teachers and Arn is very good at what he does. And he can relate to children.” 

And, unlike the weddings, live-music venues, and other outside gigs musicians often rely on to pay the bills, prep program jobs did not dry up when COVID-19 shut down the group and private lessons that usually take place on the Coral Gables Campus after hours and on weekends. Barely missing a beat, the program quickly adopted new technology and innovative teaching techniques to continue reaching most of its clients online, which piano instructor Juan Andres Gomez views as yet another invaluable career development skill. 

“I never thought I would do online classes, but it was a great experience,” said Gomez, who is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in music on a full scholarship from Florida International University. “When I started, I had no idea what to do, but I gained confidence and communication skills by figuring out how to adapt to each student.”

Now a Frost prep teacher, Juan Andres Gomez grew up in the program under director Megan Walsh’s guidance.
Now a Frost prep teacher, Juan Andres Gomez grew up in the program under director Megan Walsh’s guidance.

Like Xu, Gomez enrolled in Frost prep’s piano classes as a child and plans to become a music educator—a career goal that evolved during the two years he volunteered as one of the program’s teaching assistants after high school. “I didn’t even know I wanted to be a music teacher until Megan gave me that opportunity. Helping out in the program got me hooked. It’s why I decided to stay in Miami for college—to continue as a teacher at Frost prep.” 

It was Walsh’s own experience as a teaching assistant that gave flight to both the prep program and her distinguished teaching career. When she arrived at the University in 2003 to pursue her Doctor of Musical Arts in piano performance and pedagogy, she oversaw the Frost School’s Keyboard for Kids lab, which enlisted graduate students like her to instruct young piano students. But she was surprised by both the program’s limits—it only served 35 kids—and the dearth of other opportunities for children to explore the world of music. 

“As a child, I went to Carnegie Mellon’s preparatory program and I couldn’t believe after moving to big Miami that we didn’t have a prep school in South Florida,” Walsh recalled. “So, I saw an opportunity to create a job for myself by building one.” 

But she credits the children who literally grew up taking Frost prep classes, and the talented Frost School students who were available to teach them, for the program’s astounding growth and reach, which the Toppel Career Center cited in recognizing the Frost prep as its 2020 Program of the Year. 

Today, Frost prep serves approximately 500 children. Many of their parents work for the University and began their child’s musical journey by accompanying them to Little Canes music class. The innovative curriculum uses movement and song to introduce infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to music. But as the kids outgrew Little Canes, and advanced to violin, piano, or drum lessons, they began asking for something different. Walsh happily obliged. 

“They were pretty much the fuel for me to keep finding new things,” she said. “As they were growing up, they’d say, ‘Hey, I want strings’ or ‘I want rock band’ so we pulled in strings, we pulled in rock band, we pulled in musical theater.” 

She also recently added songwriting for high schoolers. In addition, ukulele became a part of the ever-growing offerings. The latter is what graduate student Olivia Rich, who is pursuing her master’s degree in vocal performance, teaches—in between helping Little Canes manager Diana Rush, another Frost School graduate, lead the Little Canes exercises. 

 “This is such a fun job; it’s not work,’’ said Rich, who aspires to be an opera singer. “But it’s great experience. I was drawn to the Frost School for many reasons but one of the biggest was how many teaching opportunities there are. For vocal performers, it’s kind of inevitable we are going to have to teach. So, these are dream jobs.” 

Although many Frost prep participants do not pursue careers in music, Walsh said most remain in the program through high school. They leave with a lifelong appreciation for music and a sense of confidence, poise, and discipline that, coming from performing, will serve them in any discipline.

She also knows she’s likely to see many of them again. 

“It’s been a beautiful ride, a real labor of love,” Walsh said. “Some of these kids started with me at 6. And here they are graduating college, going out in the world, and coming back to teach—or with strollers filled with their own kids.”

For more information about the Frost Preparatory Program’s variety of offerings, including summer camps, visit Preparatory Programs.