As a bassist for Latin jazz band Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar, Mike Vinas has performed on some of the biggest stages in the world.
But several times a week, the Latin Grammy Award winning artist comes to a classroom in Newark at the Robert Treat Academy to teach music composition to a small group of students in an after school enrichment program.
“I always wanted to have my own music lab, so when the opportunity came to work at the Robert Treat Academy, I said to myself, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for so many years,” said Vinas, who has been teaching at Robert Treat since 2008.
Vinas teaches a two-hour after school composition class three days a week. On Thursdays, he teams up with longtime friend and band mate Reynaldo Jorge on Robert Treat’s nine-member jazz band.
His musical composition classroom at Robert Treat is well equipped with state of the art keyboards and music programs, allowing students to express their creativity by creating their own compositions.
Sixth grader Jessica Bernardo said that Vinas’ class allows her to take her mind to places where her creativity can come to life.
“I feel like I can actually express myself through my music, like I can get my emotions out onto the keyboard,” she said.
Jessica added that she feels privileged to have Mr. Vinas as a teacher because he is fun and has a lot of experience when it comes to music.
Her classmate, Tatiana Nazario, has big aspirations.
“I’ve always loved music and this class allows me to experiment with sounds and write lyrics to the compositions that I create,” Tatiana said.
Turning to her teacher with a smile, she says, “When I grow up I want to be like him, but more popular.”
Vinas relishes the passion of the students at Robert Treat.
“I love teaching, because I was able to go out and play and bring my experiences back to the classroom. I used my credibility as a musician to hook them in,” he said.
Hooking them in is the easy part he says. Keeping them disciplined and attentive is another obstacle.
“You have their attention, but what you do with their attention determines how good of a teacher you are. I use everything in my arsenal to get them to learn.”
Robert Treat Principal Theresa Adubato said the public charter school is unique because most students remain at the school after the traditional end of the day to participate in a wide range of enrichment programs. Students at Robert Treat begin the day as early as 7:30 and many stay until 5:30 p.m.
“The programs that we offer after school are important to the growth of our students, but there’s no way we could fit them in during the normal course of a typical academic day,” the principal said.
Stephen N. Adubato, the founder of Robert Treat, said while students at the school are among the most academically proficient in the state, it’s also important for them to have a creative outlet.
“Having our students exposed to a Grammy Award winning artist who comes from the same background gives them inspiration that anything they want to achieve is possible,” Adubato said.
Adrianne Davis, the vice president of the Robert Treat Academy board of trustees, said Robert Treat students are sought after by the nation’s top high schools not only because of their academic training, but their well-rounded backgrounds.
“Of course it’s important for us to make sure our students do well academically, but we also want to develop the whole student,” Davis said. “That’s what these after school enrichment programs are all about.”
Vinas, who was born in the South Bronx in 1950 and taught at the same school there for 32 years before retiring in 2005, also moonlights as a professional musician in one of Latin America’s most famous bands.
In November of 2011 his passion for music was rewarded with a Latin Grammy as Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar took home the award for best salsa album.
“It’s validating to be recognized for something you’ve done your whole life, but it wasn’t something I felt I needed to accomplish” he said. “The students get a real kick when I show them the trophy and some are even afraid to hold it. I tell them to go ahead and get all their finger prints on it.”
Vinas credits his grandfather for introducing him to music at a very young age.
“Being of Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage, my whole family was involved in music, but my grandfather on my mother’s side was the one who really opened the door for me,” he said.
“I truly feel like I’ve had the best of both worlds,” he said with a smile stretching across his face. “I’ve been extremely fortunate to do two things that I am very passionate about.”