A Saturday stroll in May through some of Los Angeles’ less chic neighborhoods might surprise the unwitting pedestrian. Walking through Exposition Park, or past Quincy Jones or Alexandria elementary schools or Los Angeles City College, entrancing sounds emanate. In each location, the beautiful harmony of an orchestral ensemble beckons the casual passerby. That such beautiful music is being made in Los Angeles’ most under-resourced neighborhoods is the work of Dr. Margaret Martin, who founded The Harmony Project in 2001.

Martin earned a doctorate in public health, and she had been interested for a number of years in interventions that enhance a young child’s future. For many years, that interest took the form of prenatal care initiatives. But one weekend morning, as she was shopping with her five-year-old son at a local farmer’s market, she discovered her true mission. Max was a music prodigy and he had announced that he was going to “work” at the farmer’s market. He set up to play at the intersection of a number of stalls. Martin strolled the various vendors’ wares, shopping for her family’s produce while keeping a watchful eye on Max. She froze when she saw members of a tattoo-covered gang stop to listen to Max play. What they did next confounded her—at first. They listened attentively and then began pulling money out of their low-slung pockets and placing it in Max’s violin case. With those simple gestures, those gang members changed the course of her career, and life.

Martin’s life had already undergone significant change. She had been a teen mother who several years later and with her two children in tow, left an abusive husband. She and her kids were homeless for a year, sleeping on the floor of an office building. Summoning deep inner strength, she turned her life around. At 33, she enrolled in LA City College as a freshman. Ten years later she had earned her master’s degree and a doctorate in public health at UCLA.

At the farmer’s market, Martin realized that those kids had found their sense of belonging in a gang. She called their response to her son’s playing “an authentic moment of grace”. Through their simple gesture of support, they taught her that they would have made other, better choices had better alternatives been available to them. With this realization firmly in mind, she set out to found what is today called the Harmony Project. It is widely considered one of the most effective arts-based youth intervention programs in the country. Dedicated to providing music education for youth in under-resourced communities, Harmony Project differs from other music enrichment programs in that it commits to the child for his or her entire childhood and provides an immersive experience into the world of music. Students are given an instrument and they study, practice, and perform for 5 to 20 hours per week for years.

And, it turns out, the kids love that discipline and feeling of being a part of something bigger. In early 2014, Harmony Project ran programs at 18 sites and served 2,000 students who would otherwise not have learned to play an instrument or appreciate music. Demand far outpaces supply—there are 400 children on the wait list.

Eighty highly qualified teaching artists, all professional musicians, are paid to work with these children from under-resourced neighborhoods. They become mentors and friends over the years. According to one of those instructors, Anne Rardin, “Harmony Project has been able to do something extremely rare—provide quality musical instruction that’s very deep.” She adds, “I’m so inspired by these kids, by how they evolve, how they accept responsibility, and how their attitude in general really changes.”

Harmony Project aims to reach students with the highest need. Children typically join the program between the ages of 7 and 11—an age when research demonstrates they are at the peak of their willingness to learn. In a world where most music instruction is provided by generalists, Harmony Project uses specialists to instruct. The students begin by taking a musicianship course. At its conclusion, they are given an instrument, which is theirs to keep as long as they’re in the program, and they begin learning to play. Twice a week, they meet with five to ten other students for an hour of instruction after school, and on Saturdays, they come together for two to three hours of ensemble rehearsal. Most commit to this regimen until they graduate from high school. “Harmony Project has given me a way to express myself other than through my voice,” says program participant Ari. “Without it, I’d have more free time and might be hanging out with the wrong crowd. A lot of people I went to school with are in gangs and using drugs.” Instead, Ari is headed to USC next year, where he has been accepted and offered a scholarship.

Ari’s path is typical of Harmony Project students. In a city school district of 750,000, the average dropout rate is 50%. In the neighborhoods where Harmony Project works, many of them “gang reduction zones,” the dropout rate jumps to 70%. But for kids in the music program, the graduation rate for high school seniors is 93%. The average length of participation of Harmony Project high school graduates is 6 years. For those graduates who’ve been in the program for at least three years, Harmony Project awards a $5,000 college scholarship.

“[Margaret] gets excited by the data,” recounts Harmony Project board member Tony Silbert. “She has an appreciation for the research and what really works…Her ultimate goal is to change public policy.” To that end, Martin persuaded Dr. Nina Kraus and her Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University to include a group of Harmony Project students in her ongoing research into the biology of auditory learning. Kraus’ research is rooted in the study of how certain forms of enrichment might affect deprivation, such as poverty or hearing loss. Kraus performed a longitudinal study of 80 students (40 were controls) from LA’s “gang zone neighborhoods” for three years. The resulting data is just now being released in peer reviewed journals, but it clearly suggests that ongoing music education of the type provided at Harmony Project fundamentally remodels kids’ developing brains. It improves communication skills (hearing in noise, auditory working memory, etc.) and it changes the way the brain processes information. These indices form the biological ingredients for literacy. Fundamentally altering them improves academic performance, particularly for disadvantaged students. “After two years [of music training], we’re seeing really robust indices of enhancement,” states Kraus. “The scores of students in the Harmony Project increase over time,” she added. The scores of those not in the program decreased. Research has repeatedly shown that the education gap between rich and poor widens over the first four years of schooling. The Harmony Project changes that trajectory.

As another data point, a research study conducted by a UC Berkeley graduate student reported that 90% of Harmony Project students demonstrated improved focus and discipline, which translated into improved academic performance, self-esteem, and family communication.

The items that differentiate Martin’s program from other school-based music programs—the commitment to the child for his or her entire childhood, the depth of the musical training, year-round instruction, paid professional musician teachers, and a research-based approach—are the reasons for its remarkable success.

Demand to replicate the program has been high. Harmony Project, which moves forward only in partnership with others, has programs in Ventura, one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one in New Orleans, and a dozen in Miami. What they share is a long-term commitment to providing tuition-free, year-round, research-based music training. How that looks differs quite significantly from site to site. In Los Angeles, lessons are held at three different kinds of sites: community centers, school-based programs that draw students from the surrounding community, and simple after-school programs. In other areas of the country, it might be run in partnership with a local symphony orchestra, a university music school or a freestanding community center. Martin’s goal is to have Harmony Project in under-resourced neighborhoods throughout the country, and that goal is a primary focus of the organization’s board of directors.

Even in Los Angeles, the individual sites can look quite different. The largest program is run in collaboration with the LA Philharmonic, the City of LA Parks and Recreation department, and Friends of the Expo Center. At this site, serious musicians sign up for lessons four or five days a week and perform in at least one of three orchestras or ensembles. The program in Hollywood partners with LA City College to provide concurrent enrollment for middle and high school students in the program. In addition to orchestras, this site has two concert bands. Harmony Project partners with a host of other organizations, including the LA Unified School District, the Boys and Girls Club and the Herb Alpert Foundation, to run programs at 15 additional sites in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

Martin’s extraordinary work has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, ten years after starting the program, Martin was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Obama.

“I’ve come to the point now that I trust her vision more than I trust my own,” said Tony Silbert. He was referring to elements of Harmony Project that Martin pushed for, amid some reticence from her board: the need to do research about how quality music instruction affects the brain, national expansion, and an academy for high-achieving students to serve as mentors. Martin secured a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for her vision of a mentor program. Four years later there are about 60 students, identified by the teaching artists as exhibiting leadership potential, who serve as mentors. After training in a summer-long boot camp, they teach one to four students in weekly lessons for the entire year—a profound responsibility. And, as Martin understood so well, they gain invaluable interpersonal experience, the fundamental satisfaction that comes from helping others—and an immense sense of pride.

Martin has been described as charismatic, passionate, and driven. The force of her personality is a big reason for the success of Harmony Project (it also provided her the fuel to secure the rights to and write a musical [words, lyrics and score] based on Gone with the Wind, and get it produced on the stage in London’s West End in 2008). As board member Tony Silbert tells it, “You step into Margaret’s vortex and you’re caught!” The thousands of children who have learned a passion for music and, along the way, have rewired their brains for the better, might argue that that vortex is a great place to be.

Nonprofit Nutshell: Harmony Project, established in 2001, offers free music education and ensemble playing for youth in under-resourced communities. Highly qualified teaching artists teach thousands of children at more than a dozen sites in Los Angeles and communities around the country. Harmony Project commits to each child year-round for his or her entire childhood. Students are given an instrument and they study, practice, and perform for hours every week. Longitudinal scientific research shows that Harmony Project’s music training is fundamentally re-wiring the brains of the participants. In areas where dropout rates reach 70%, the graduation rate for Harmony Project students is more than 90%. By providing positive youth development and a sense of belonging, the program is also effectively keeping kids from joining gangs.

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