Sarah Pineda never imagined she’d be a member of the Phoenix Youth Symphony’s string orchestra. In fact, the odds that the 14-year-old Westview High School student would ever learn to play the violin—let alone become proficient at it—were slim given her family’s financial challenges.


But as a fourth-grader at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School, Pineda was able to explore her passion and develop some important life skills along the way—thanks to the Sounds Academy, a nonprofit organization started by musician and educator Kirk Johnson.



The mission of Sounds Academy is to teach, mentor and provide musical experiences and opportunities to underserved youth. In Arizona, barriers to musical inclusion for children are particularly sobering. About 50 percent of schools do not have a curricular budget for music education, and 80 percent of them without programs spend less than $1 per student per year on arts education.


Johnson, who taught in the Roosevelt Elementary School District, launched Sounds Academy in 2014, modeling it after similar nonprofit music education programs he developed in Indiana. The organization partners with schools, churches and community centers to cover the costs of instruments, classroom and solo instruction, and fund scholarships through four diverse music programs.


Since its inception, the academy has provided more than 35,000 lessons and classes, with 19,000 students being exposed to live music and instruments through its Musical Access Program. Currently 4,300 students are involved in some level of the academy’s programs.




“As an outreach program, we work with our partners to make space available to teach children in their own neighborhoods. The problem with children receiving music education has to do with accessibility and affordability,” says Johnson, who believes access to music education should not depend on a child’s ZIP code.


“Kids travel 10 to 15 miles to get music education. We find pockets in Arizona where there isn’t a lot of music education offered so kids don’t have to worry about traveling long periods of time to receive it,” he says of the organization’s reach, which is K-12 in communities primarily in west and south Phoenix.


The academy isn’t interested in grooming the next virtuoso. While its goal is to expose kids to music and teach them to play an instrument, they also walk away with some basic life lessons: fundamental and lasting character values such as creativity, leadership, perseverance, resilience, and teamwork, according to Johnson.


“If you’re playing in an ensemble, you learn to lead without talking and teamwork. If you’re playing and mess up and then continue, you’re showing resilience,” he explains. “Music education also helps meet social and emotional needs like consistency and routine. For example, we’re still having weekly lessons and projects students can participate in to use those creative skills and be productive during COVID.”

“The problem with children receiving music education has to do with accessibility and affordability.”

– Kirk Johnson, Founder, Sounds Academy

And the opportunity of music education is a support system that spills over into other aspects of students’ existence—school, sports and their personal lives.


“It’s part of the reason I think students dream. They get an instrument and then think, ‘I want to make a sound, now I want to play a song and next, I want to play on stage and travel.’ The dreams start to get bigger and bigger the longer they play. To the naked eye, they are just playing music, but there are a lot of lessons being learned,” says Johnson.


Pineda, who started out in group instruction then progressed to quartet and eventually to solo lessons at the music academy, personifies how music education can positively influence a child when given the chance to participate.


“Outside of music, I’ve been able to find my true voice. I can express myself with music,” she says of her involvement in Sounds Academy, which offered her a scholarship so she could audition for the Phoenix Youth Symphony in 2019. “It’s also helped me find things within myself that I didn’t know I had, like leadership. I have had to lead my quartet many times and the experience with Sounds Academy has helped me build my character, working with a group and helping others. All of it has helped me improve musically, and maybe for when I’m older. ”



The idea of being on a grander symphony stage playing to large audiences now isn’t so unimaginable for Pineda. Nor is going to law school. 


“I want to do both,” says the polite and focused teenager who speaks with confidence. “I want to be a lawyer and a professional musician.”



Story: Sally J. Clasen

Photos: Mark Lipczynski