Skip to main content

How Music Is Saving Lives in LA

Right now, the Harmony Project is fundraising together with the Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. They have highlighted 12 gang reduction zones (areas with a high documented rate of violent gang crime) in which Harmony Project serves as an official part of the city's strategy to reduce gangs by keeping kids away from predators, and helping them develop discipline, persistence, self-esteem and accountability which will lead them to success in school and in life.
Harmony Projects founder Margaret Martin and seventh-grader Kiana Coronado-Ziadie receive an award from First Lady Michelle Obama. (Photo Credit: White House)

Harmony Projects founder Margaret Martin and seventh-grader Kiana Coronado-Ziadie receive an award from First Lady Michelle Obama. (Photo Credit: White House)

"We look at each student, not as a deficit to be fixed, but as an asset to be nurtured and developed," whispered Margaret Martin, founder of the Harmony Project, as I tried to keep pace with her determined, long-limbed stride between the classrooms of the stunning L.A. County High School for the Arts. This was early on a Saturday morning in October and, rather than high-school students gracing the halls, middle-school students from the Harmony Project were availing themselves of the futuristic building's state-of-the-art acoustics, performing classical music and jazz for their poor, mostly immigrant families.

In one room, exhilarated 'tweens demonstrated the concept of improvisation. In another, they taught their hesitant parents to play a song on their own classical instruments. Outside, a gaggle of youth beat out a heart-thumping rhythm on overturned buckets. While we buzzed from venue to venue, I noticed two things:

  • In every room, Margaret's laser-like gaze trained on the kids' reactions - what excited them, moved them, made them laugh.
  • Margaret doesn't stop for anyone.

Without her telling me, I knew she expected me to match her clip, absorb everything she told me, and eventually write about what I had seen. I was happy to oblige.

Margaret, herself a trained musician, is a woman on a mission - a decidedly successful one, as evidenced by the $10,000 Coming Up Taller award for excellence in arts education she just received from Michelle Obama on November 4, the one-year anniversary of the President's historic election.

I had met Margaret at a campaign for Tom Torlakson, who is running for California State Superintendent of Schools. Instantly, I'd wondered as to the identity of the hip, statuesque blonde standing in the corner of the host's palatial home, asking the candidate hard-hitting questions about arts education. At first, I'd thought she was a public school music teacher. In a sense, I was right. But instead of teaching 30 kids, she has, with the Harmony Project, extended access to classical music instruction and instruments to over 750 children and counting, in Los Angeles' very poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.

It all started when Margaret's five-and-a-half-year-old son, a violin prodigy, was busking on an L.A. sidewalk. He'd been playing two years already and a giant talent radiate from his tiny body, attracting a wide array of listeners. Margaret remembers how astonished she felt when a crowd of gang members approached, entranced by the little boy's music. Everything about their body language and words showed deep interest, honor and respect. They threw a few crumpled up bills from their pockets into the violin case. Margaret remembers:

I was being trained to intervene in social problems [as a graduate student in public health, with a focus on community health]. But I learned more from that moment with the gang members than from almost anything in graduate school. I had a background in behavioral science, but we were going at things in a way that was clearly not getting us the product we were seeking. From the respect those young men showed this little white kid they didn't know, I learned how important respect is, how important access is. I realized that these hard-core LA gang bangers would have given their eye teeth to have someone look at them as a precious resource, give them an instrument and five hours a week of rehearsal. A lot of these kids have no father at home. They have parents stressed out with 2, 3 jobs. We haven't created programs to engage them, while gangs are actively recruiting.

So, nine years ago, with a $9,000 check from the Rotary Club of Hollywood, Margaret founded the Harmony Project, with the vision of providing instruments and instruction to the most forgotten, disenfranchised kids in all of L.A. - a city renowned for its vast population of forgotten, disenfranchised kids. Margaret puts it this way:

We get them early. Kids start with us as first-graders and, by the time they get to be 12 or 13 . . . well, now I have one who's applying to shi-shi boarding schools on the East Coast. She lives in a gang-infested, horrible neighborhood. But she plays flute, sings in choir, is self-possessed, willing to give it a shot, knows how to present herself, how to work and achieve - all skills that are generalizeable and transferable. Music is just a vehicle for the life skills that it develops in an organic and joyful way. The kids gain a skill set that they can use as a means of social inclusion all their lives. Every body wants the musicians. If you have a party, don't you want to invite musicians? Every one wants to hang with them. They make magic.

She emphasizes that "initial catalytic support," like that of the Rotary Club is essential, and difficult, for a burgeoning non-profiit to find. "[The Harmony Project] was just an idea 9 years ago. But ideas can have power when you put action behind them. I tell our supporters that youth have powerful ideas. What happens when you put action and support behind them?"

Today, the Harmony Project receives about $1.2 million per year, supporting seven different full-time youth orchestras with students from more than more than 60 schools. Half of the funding comes from private donors and foundations, the other half from the partnerships with the LA Philharmonic (and its Youth Orchestra LA or YOLA),* LA Unified School District, and LA City College - all of which help the Harmony Project obtain rehearsal rooms, venues, instruments and other resources.

Right now, the Harmony Project is fundraising together with the Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. They have highlighted 12 gang reduction zones (areas with a high documented rate of violent gang crime) in which Harmony Project serves as an official part of the city's strategy to reduce gangs by keeping kids away from predators, and helping them develop discipline, persistence, self-esteem and accountability which will lead them to success in school and in life.

The Los Angeles DA's office has put in an official request to Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez' office to introduce music programs in two new districts. 17 more public schools (4 middle, 13 elementary) have recently requested programs, hoping to develop pipelines between middle and elementary schools, and then on to high schools - at which point, city-wide instruction happens all in one place, at LA City College. LAUSD, through their Beyond the Bell after-school system, have offered to cover one-third of emerging program costs, but Harmony Project must raise the other two thirds. "With enough sponsorship, we can roll the programs out in the most troubled parts of our city," Margaret Martin says. "That's what we're working hard to find funding to do."

Leslie Cardenas, front, and Sara Flores rehearse as part of the Harmony Project in this 2007 photo. (Photo Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)

Leslie Cardenas, front, and Sara Flores rehearse as part of the Harmony Project in this 2007 photo. (Photo Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)

In the past few years, Harmony Poject has managed to offer $5,000 scholarships to all students going on to 2- or 4-year institutions of higher education. The students must have remained enrolled in the music program for at least 3 years, have graduated from high school, gained entrance into college, and written an essay about their plans. As long as each student maintains a C average or better in college, he or she will continue receiving their scholarship for the duration of their matriculation. Last year, three students won the scholarship. This year, it was nine. "We are blessed that we have a donor who has agreed to fund 200 such scholarships," says Margaret. Those are good numbers.

One not-so-good number is Los Angeles' high school dropout rate of 57.1%. However, kids who stay in the Harmony Project all the way through school, graduate at a rate of 100%.* Every child must show the program administrators all of their report cards. "Discipline, focus and time management are required for music. They transfer to school work," Margaret continues. Furthermore, "you have your on crew and cohort. Kids mentor one another [and encourage each other to do better.]"

In addition to administrative, artistic, financial and peer support, the kids benefit from rigorous, research-based educational and sociological methodologies:

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

One of the key factors in the success of our program is that we commit to our children over their entire childhood. We stick with them until they graduate from high school and we commit to helping their transition to higher education. Some kids come from homelessness and great upheaval in their lives - this is the one source of stability for some of them. We transcend [the challenges of] schools, communities, homelessness and other kinds of upheaval. We offer them a supportive, positive, consistent experience. They will continue to grow in ways that help them to develop their own talent and abilities. And become their best self.

But don't just take Margaret's word for it. One girl, whose initials are A.D., writes in an essay about her experience as a Harmony Project kid:

I come from one of the most poor neighborhoods in L.A. because of having Having [sic] an Autistic [sic] brother I suffered from many thing [sic] anxiety, Depression [sic], thoughts of suicide, and low-self esteem [sic] and sometimes I suffered severe Panic [sic] attacks, I thought I would have what I had for my whole life . . . Music has really turned my life around . . . I have found harmony in the art of choir. I don't take choir like just lessons to entertain me but I take it as my sanctuary. I am glad and proud of being in the Harmony Project.

Another student writes, "My school work has improved tremendously. My classes have risen to a higher level. My community enjoys the way I play my instruments. My family is proud of me because I am accomplishing something no one in my family has ever done . . . the Harmony Project is the best thing that could have ever happened in my life."

Recently, nine dedicated students earned their place at an event that would have been the highlight of anyone's life. Five of the Harmony Project's best violinists and four of its best cellists were invited, with Margaret Martin, to the White House to receive the Coming Up Taller Award and to perform for the First Lady of the United States of America. "I dissolved when Michelle Obama began to speak," said Margaret, who seems a pretty tough person to ruffle:

I just dissolved. She articulated every way in which these youth arts programs can transform at-risk kids' lives. She knows how little support we get. And then her voice hardened, 'Which is why it is important that we make you welcome in this house.' The kids were so amazed. It was sort of surreal. Never in their wildest dreams could they imagine that they would be invited to participate in an event at the White House. They couldn't believe the access their instruments provided them. It shook their world. They asked themselves, 'What else is possible?' and were talking about plans for college.

A program as successful as the Harmony Project grows quickly. Today, it has twice the students it had only three years ago. However, in a time of economic crisis, when public and private benefactors alike are cutting back drastically on their giving, administrators of a successful program must remain vigilant about maintaining their upward momentum.According to Margaret, Steve Venz, Head of Music for LAUSD, announced that the school district must reduce its budget by 450 million additional dollars over the next couple of years, which will result - unless a change in plans occurs - with 50% of over 700 elementary arts teachers losing their jobs - saving the system only a little over $14 million. In 2011-12, LAUSD intends to cut the other 50% of the arts teachers, eliminating all arts programs in all school districts within two years.

"This is the 2nd largest school district in the nation," Margaret expounded. She went on to explain the backward fiscal thinking behind arts education budget cuts:

Arts programs keep kids in schools. When kids drop out of schools, schools lose apportionment from the state, so they lose money and the community gets the additional burden of uneducated kids loose in the community with nothing to do, who fall prey to drug dealers, gang members and sexual predators. It's really a false economy that the esteemed managers of our state government have painted themselves into this corner and are seeking to solve their problems at the expense of our kids. And it's never at the expense of kids from affluent homes, is it?

Instead of investing in our most vulnerable kids to make them the leaders we need to improve our community, we ignore them, we push them away and then when they get in trouble, we lock them up. It doesn't make sense, and fundamentally, it's not cost-effective. I'm a fiscal conservative and it's a waste of money and it's a waste of talent and lives. Violence knows no zip code. We get what we pay for when it comes to our communities. When we don't invest in our communities, well you see what we have . . . It's actually cheaper and more effective to address and head off problems while they are developing than try to deal with them after they'd developed. We just don't tend to think or work that way in this country. But if we play our cards right and are able to deliver our programs, perhaps we will be able to deliver a sea change in that regard.

With a national award, rapidly replicating music programs that still allow room for local identities and methodologies, and a partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its international sensation musical director, Gustavo Dudamel* - Margaret Martin and the Harmony Project are well on their way to contributing to a sea change in how our nation thinks about the value of arts education.

Still, in this economic climate, even a successful program like the Harmony Project must fight hard to hold on to its funds, to say nothing of raising more for its necessary expansion. The program must prioritize where to spend its precious budget. "Most of our funds go to pay our teachers because the magic happens between the students and the teachers, that relationship building over the years," says Margaret. "By committing to the kids, we're demonstrating what commitment looks like and, over time, they learn to commit to themselves. It's not rocket science. It's pretty basic stuff."

If you would like to see 50 violinits and 50 cellists from the Harmony Project perform in a thrilling hip-hop youth orchestra, conducted by famed composer and arranger, Diane Louie of American Idol fame, you can attend their open-house rehearsal day, coming up on Saturday December 12, from 10-Noon at 2303 S. Figueroa Way, Los Angeles, CA 90007 (off Figueroa, just north of USC). Take the 110 to Adams Blvd. Exit, building straight ahead across exit off ramp.

  • *I first learned about the Harmony Project, at least a month before I'd met Margaret or even knew of her existence, when I was writing a piece for the Americans for the Arts' Arts Education Blog and the Huffington Post about Maestro Gustavo Dudamel and the Youth Orchestra LA.
  • *Dudamel had held, as a condition of his coming to work with the LA Phil, that he get to help low-income kids learn music. The LA Phil was able to grant his wish because Margaret Martin - who'd never heard of Venezuela's El Sistema from which Dudamel emerges - when she founded the Harmony Project, already had a program in place with which the orchestra could collaborate.

Lucia Brawley

Lucia Brawley is an actress and activist, based in Hollywood, California.

Published originally on Huffington Post. Republished with the author's permission.