Ramon Rodriguez thought he knew everything about teaching music until a 5-year-old student caught him off guard with a simple question: What's a beat? “I was thrown,” recalls Rodriguez, 52. His best answer might have been three words: Latin Youth Ensemble, the 13-member band that Rodriguez has directed for more than three decades at Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, the program he runs in New York City's East Harlem. The conservatory, founded in 1970, provides musical instruction to around 1,100 students annually, including some from New York's toughest neighborhoods.

Case in point: Yeissonn Villamar, 17, who two years ago was in a gang and feared some of the members wanted to kill him. Encouraged by Rodriguez and a girlfriend, Villamar fled that life and threw his energies into studying the piano. These days he travels 90 minutes from Queens five days a week for ensemble rehearsals and earns money playing gigs. “Ramon took me under his wing,” Villamar says. “He's been like a father to me.”

The son of Cuban immigrants, Rodriguez gained a love of music from his father, Mario, a tailor, who took the family to Broadway shows and concerts and bought Rodriguez a piano for his fifth birthday. Rodriguez was contemplating a career in chemistry until a high school science teacher encouraged him to pursue music. Classically trained, he eventually found his heart in the Latin sound, tracking down musicians and begging for lessons. These days Rodriguez leads his young ensemble in performances of mambo, salsa and other forms made famous by the late Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and other greats. Three group members performed at 2004's Latin Billboard Awards. Honored by the Bank of America Charitable Foundation last fall, Rodriguez is quick to shift the spotlight. “The kids,” he says, “they make it happen.”