Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Margaret Martin of the Harmony Project

Margaret Martin. Photo courtesy of the Harmony Project

"Art, when alive and well within a society, is the creative force that drives innovation and effective solutions to social problems."

What happens when you mix a little kid playing Brahms with Los Angeles gangbangers? Well, if you're Margaret Martin the result is an "aha" moment that leads to the Harmony Project, a music education program that has been nationally recognized with a Coming Up Taller award (now the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards). Recently Martin---who holds a doctorate in public health from UCLA---was honored by President Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors. But she's not resting on her laurels. Instead, now that the program is ten years old, Martin has taken on the role of Director of National Expansion, which she describes as "working with groups of people throughout the country who are interested in building Harmony Project programs in their own communities." We spoke with Martin via e-mail about her aha moment, about the daily working of the Harmony Project, and about the intimate link between arts and public health.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with/experience with the arts?

MARGARET MARTIN: I remember climbing two steps so I could reach the phonograph to put the needle down on an old 78 record to listen to “Alexander’s Rag-Time Band,” or to my sister’s 45 record of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”  I was probably two or three.

I grew up on Oahu, Hawaii, so I also remember learning to dance the hula at the age of four, and sing the hula songs.

NEA: What has been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?

MARTIN: The day I watched a group of hard-core Los Angeles gang members stop to listen to a tiny kid playing Brahms on a tiny violin in a street market on a Sunday morning: tattoos, shaved heads, over-sized clothing---and attitude. After five or six minutes, without saying a word to one another, I watched those gang members put their own money gently in the little kid’s case. I was at UCLA at the time earning a doctorate in public health focused on what it takes to make a healthy community. Those gang members taught me that they would rather be doing what that tiny kid was doing than what they were doing---but they never had the chance.

That experience changed my life and sent me diving into the research literature about music and arts education. When I completed my degree, I founded Harmony Project to connect at-risk kids growing up in LA’s high crime neighborhoods with professional musician mentors. The process builds discipline, persistence, confidence and accountability---and changes their lives.

I started with 36 kids in 2001. Today, just ten years later, our enrollment is close to 1500. Hundreds more fill our waiting lists. We’ve built 13 full-time youth orchestras across nine sites. Our kids have performed at the Hollywood Bowl and on The Tonight Show. We’ve received two Presidential awards:  the Coming Up Taller Award in 2009, the nation’s highest honor for an arts-based youth program, and this year I received the 2011 Presidential Citizen’s Medal for founding Harmony Project, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor!

But the best part is getting to watch our students develop the capacity to express themselves through music with dignity, power, and grace, then turn around and help their fellow students as peer mentors and teaching assistants. That, and the fact that over the past four years, 100 percent of our high school seniors have graduated on time (in four years) and have gone on to college, despite the fact that drop-out rates in the neighborhoods where we build Harmony Project programs exceed 50 percent. Most have been the first in their family to attend college.

NEA: Your doctorate is in public health, and you founded an arts-based community program. What’s the link between the arts and public health?

MARTIN: Within public health, we have three kinds of interventions: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary intervention takes place before anything bad happens. Secondary intervention takes place after something bad happens, to prevent the situation from getting worse. Tertiary intervention is, well, sending someone to prison would be one form of tertiary intervention.

Harmony Project is primary public health intervention at its best! In the research literature about promoting the positive development of at-risk youth, I have yet to find anything more powerful.

Harmony Project works on multiple levels. The first involves limiting students’ exposure to negative influences. Kids are at greatest risk of accident, injury, assault, abuse, criminal involvement, substance use, and predation after school hours. Harmony Project reduces our students’ exposure to negative influences by engaging them in music lessons with a professional musician mentor after school, by engaging them in ensemble rehearsals on Saturdays, and by requiring them to practice their instruments every day at home.

When it comes to daily practice, peer pressure helps a lot. In a youth orchestra, students who don’t practice make their section sound bad. Our students help each other out and work together to make the whole orchestra sound better. In Harmony Project youth orchestras (or jazz bands, salsa bands, hip-hop orchestras, or chamber groups) students learn how to be responsible members of a community. They learn to depend on one another, and they learn to be dependable.

Our professional musicians provide students with supportive music-based mentoring five or more hours-a-week, year-round and tuition-free, based on family income. Through music, musician mentors help students develop discipline, persistence, and confidence; they help them build strategic thinking, good time-management, and problem-solving skills; they help them learn to depend upon their own ability to commit to a course of action and follow through to achieve successive goals at a high level;  and they help them learn to collaborate consistently and effectively with others. More than 100 of Harmony Project’s most advanced students have completed a Peer Mentor Boot Camp and now participate year-round as supervised peer mentors or teaching assistants.

The musician mentors are also role models who demonstrate the consistency and commitment they demand of their students. Harmony Project students also act as role models for one another within group lessons and music ensembles where they reinforce the consistency and commitment upon which their shared goals depend.

Our multi-year program provides an enormous amount of social support, for parents as well as students. Over time, students and parents within each site come to see and speak of themselves as members of a large, supportive family.

Brain research over the past twenty years, such as the work that has been done at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab, confirms that the consistent study and practice of music improves brain structure and function. Memory, hearing, and the ability to listen in noisy environments improve. So do students’ language skills, including the ability to learn a second language. This is particularly useful for the English language learners who make up a large percentage of our students. Thus, besides the myriad social benefits that participation affords, research suggests that Harmony Project students’ brain and nervous system structure and function physically improve through consistent study, practice, and performance of music. Research also indicates these structural changes are likely to be both positive and enduring.

We know who the most vulnerable kids are. The idea with Harmony Project is to embrace these kids at a young age---and stick with them over time. In the U.S. we tend to ignore problems until they get out of hand, and then we throw money at solutions that are too often “too little, too late.”  This is one of the reasons our economy is out of whack!  But I’m a fiscal conservative, and this makes no sense to me. Why waste money after the fact when you can create conditions that keep our most vulnerable kids safe, help them do well in school, and help keep them out of trouble in the first place?

NEA: How does Harmony Project work on a day-to-day basis?

MARTIN: Harmony Project provides a full scholarship program of music instruction, but to maintain the scholarship, students have to remain enrolled in school, they have to maintain good attendance and behavior, and they have to commit to daily practice at home. Harmony Project programs may be community-based or take place on school campuses after school hours.

Before a student may enroll, he must sign a contract in which she agrees to maintain good attendance and behavior, take good care of the instrument assigned to her, and practice for at least half an hour every day. Parents are instructed in how to best support their student’s progress as a music student and must also sign a contract in which they agree to provide positive support. (Making fun of the sounds a beginning student makes, for instance, is frowned upon.)  Parents also commit to providing a quiet, uninterrupted space for their child to practice every day---preferably in the parent’s presence.

Students start with one-hour Musicianship classes that meet two or more times per week for a semester plus a summer, and provide instruction, such as theory fundamentals, ear training, vocalization, basic notation, rhythm, percussion, and recorder. When students complete the introductory musicianship program, they may select an instrument and enroll in instrumental classes, which also meet for one hour, two or more times per week. As soon as possible, students also enroll in a three-hour orchestra development program that meets on Saturdays.

Harmony Project programs operate 38 to 40 weeks per year. Students perform before a jury at the end of each semester, and also in recitals and community concerts. Assessment is done by teachers through a semester report card and a Student Assessment tool which charts both musical development and character development, using pass, no pass or high pass alternatives.  Students use the same form each semester to assess themselves, and discuss their assessments with that of their teachers and conductors.

Based on jury recommendation, students can earn their way into private lessons. Students who receive private lessons are also required to give back to the organization, usually by working within the organization as a trained and supervised peer mentor, teaching assistant, or office volunteer.

A Social Service Coordinator organizes ongoing parent education programs and potluck dinners around holidays and student recitals. This coordinator also provides assessment and referral when social issues arise that interfere with a student’s ability to participate in the program, such as domestic violence, incest, food insecurity, or homelessness.

As high school graduation and matriculation to higher education is a program-wide goal, additional programs are provided for middle school students to prepare them for a college-prep high school program, and for high school students to ensure college readiness. Students are also assisted through the college application process, and Harmony Project’s own scholarship program helps students go on to college.

NEA: What is the effect of the Harmony Project on the young people who participate?  The professional musicians who participate?  The community?

Students develop musical competence and learn to perform with quality and care. They make strong connections with other students within the program and within their own family, as their participation in lessons and practice at home requires the family to work together. Students also make strong positive connections with their music mentors and conductors.  They develop learning and thinking skills that improve their character, help them make better choices, and develop their ability to work with others toward shared goals.  They also develop essential life skills, which include improved time management, better listening, improved focus to achieve goals and better self discipline, and generally improved school achievement. The students also increase their cultural understanding by making connections across racial and cultural boundaries.

The professional musicians who take part in the project are encouraged to select their own repertoire, develop their own pedagogy within the structure of the program, and have the opportunity to work with the same students for multiple years. They can also work creatively with other professional musician mentors and receive support for their projects and help with their needs. Professional musician mentors within Harmony Project are highly valued and find the program so rewarding that they tend to spend more time working with the program as time goes on. There is almost no turn-over among Harmony Project professional musician mentors.

The community (including parents and school teachers) develops increased respect for Harmony Project students and increased appreciation for the capacity of students in general. The community comes together around Harmony Project recitals and community performances, which are a source of continuing pride---and hope.

NEA: Why does arts education matter?

MARTIN: Research has shown that little kids want to learn everything, and they want to learn it now! Curiosity and academic motivation of third graders tends to be stably and predictably high. However, a robust body of literature has shown that for every year a child remains enrolled in school, intrinsic academic motivation (and curiosity) plummet. Little kids tend to arrive at school interested and eager to learn, and the things we do with kids at school tend to very efficiently extinguish that interest.

Shirley Brice Heath from Stanford University accidentally discovered a stunning exception. In a ten-year longitudinal study of young people involved in 124 after school programs throughout the country, Heath found that arts-engaged youth were profoundly different from their non arts-engaged peers. They engaged in more “if, then” sentences, were more strategic in their thinking, were more deeply engaged in the process of their own learning, and were more collaborative in their process. Heath determined that arts programs produced a more powerful and enduring pro-social impact than any other kind of after-school program, including programs that focused on sports and academics and those with a community service focus, such as scouting and 4H.  This was particularly the case with students from low-income homes, who tended to self-select into arts-based programs in higher percentages than other programs when arts programs were available.

Thus, arts education---far from a “frill,” appears to be the foundation by which students may be engaged in the process of their own learning over time. As we have demonstrated within Harmony Project, a supportive program of after school music education is particularly effective at engaging students from low income homes for whom access to a comprehensive sequential music education within most public school systems is no longer available.

NEA: What is the role of the artist in the community?

MARTIN: Artists remind and inspire the rest of the community that the most elegant solution to any problem is to “out-create” it. Effective solutions are creative at their core. In a rapidly changing world, creativity may be the most valuable asset anyone can possess---and the ability of the artist (and the inventor) is the bar by which creativity itself is measured. Artists demonstrate the transcendent nature of art, and the discipline and habits of mind by which creative ability and communication may be generated, elevated, and enhanced.

Artistic freedom guarantees individual freedom, as artists are those within a society with the capacity for expansive, novel thought. It is through the eyes and work of the artist that innovations are achieved, great progress is made, and the finest efforts of mankind are realized.

Artists make the most effective role models for disadvantaged youth. Everything in the life of a child growing up in poverty drives home one lesson hard:  that they, and everyone they know, are at the effect of powerful others. But healthy communities don’t just “happen,” they are created by citizens who work together toward shared community goals. Healthy communities thus depend on being populated by citizens who see themselves as creative people, rather than as victims---people who are able to bring about positive change in their own lives and within their community. Regular consistent contact of disadvantaged children with artist mentors may be, therefore, the most effective and reliable way to improve conditions within a low income community, as this process develops creative capacity within the student, engages the student in the process of their own learning and development, and builds effective citizens.

NEA: What is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

MARTIN: Communities must be responsible for celebrating resident and visiting artists, and for creating opportunities for artists to inspire innovation and support new generations of artists, wherever they may be found.

Communities must learn that education in the arts is the foundation upon which all other education, if it is to be successful, must be built, as it is through the arts that students build confidence in their own creative capacity, develop the habits of mind necessary for success in school and in life---and it is through the arts that students may be most successfully engaged in the process of their own learning and development.

NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?

MARTIN: “Art Works” means that art, when alive and well within a society, is the creative force that drives innovation and effective solutions to social problems.


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