By Andre Carter —
After Los Angeles gang members became riveted while watching her five-year old son playing Brahms on a violin, Dr. Margaret Martin was inspired to use music to transform the lives of Los Angeles’s neediest students. In 2001 she created Harmony Project, a free music education program that provides instruments and acts as a safe haven for at-risk youth in some of LA’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.
Martin doesn’t know if any of her students have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But their neighborhoods’ score of violence, crime and poverty fit studies that connect PTSD with citizens of
Jamila Mena is an example of Harmony Project success. A resident of South Central Los Angeles, and daughter of immigrant parents, Mena’s life was transformed by Harmony Project. The program allowed Mena the opportunity to continue to learn how to play the flute, and served as a resource when she started navigating the college application process. During her time in Harmony Project, Mena participated in group lessons, private lessons and played with the Hollywood Youth Orchestra, one of the organization’s most elite ensembles.
“As a program participant I had the discipline needed to study late hours for exams and the time management to submit 17 college applications,” said the Dartmouth graduate.
Harmony Project’s success wth music education is shared by other organizations. Resounding Joy, a music therapy nonprofit, has results that show music therapy assists with symptom management of PTSD. The volunteer nonprofessional organization Guitars for Vets and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Service Research and Development unit conducted a music program that showed a 21% reduction in PTSD symptoms among the participants at the end of the six-week study.
Harmony Project students in Los Angeles range from elementary to high school, and they come from families that earn an average income of $44,000 per year for a family of four, which qualifies as below the poverty line determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. These students practice music five to twenty hours per week with professional musicians.
Mena credits her time in Harmony Project for inspiring her to believe she could go to college. “I’m beginning to reflect on what it means to be the first in my family to graduate from college,” she said, “Let alone an Ivy League institution. I look forward to attending law school in the future and being an advocate for people who have little access to resources. The Harmony Project played a role in preparing me for a brighter future and for that I am grateful.”
Martin uses Mena as an inspiration for new students. She often tells them how Mena took a three-hour bus ride from her home in South Los Angeles to Harmony classes and rehearsals. After getting her degree in geography from Dartmouth with a minor in Chinese, Mena taught English in Beijing.
Inspired by the postive impact of her program on her students’ lives, and searching for scientific answers for why her students were excelling in the classroom, Martin contacted Northwestern University, a leading researcher of the relationship between music and the human brain.
According to researchers at Northwestern, auditory ability is important for everyday communication skills such as reading, but the lack of language at home causes poor processing of auditory information in the brains of students whose families have a lower educational background. A 1995 study revealed that children from low-income families are exposed to 30 million fewer words than those from high-income familes with college–educated parents.
“The auditory-working memory is where learning happens because that’s where you make the connection and put everything together,” said Martin. “That’s where you build context. School-age children who play music have twice the auditory memory as those who do not. Musicians have to retain sounds in their minds when tuning their instruments.”
In addition to better auditory skills, Northwestern Neurobiology and Physiology professor Dr. Nina Krause reports that tests show Harmony Project students hear better in noisy environments than students not in the program. Other testing shows that higher rhythmic ability, clapping along to the beat of a sound, is linked to reading ability. Combined, these music-related skills are able to rewire the brains of children to focus and work better.
“If they are playing in an ensemble, they have to hear their parts, versus the other parts,” says Martin. “Our kids are working with college graduates who have deep vocabularies and speak in full sentences. And they are learning to read and write music to describe how they want to shape phrases in a piece.”
Martin’s theory is pretty basic. As kids develop musical proficiency, their ability to read, listen and remember improves, establashing a stronger foundation to learn. The results speak for themselves. Since 2008, 93 percent of high school seniors in the Harmony Project have graduated in four years and many have attended universities such as UCLA, Cal Berkeley, USC and NYU. Harmony Project’s success has spurred Martin to expand the program, which is now in New Orleans, Miami and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
As for Mena, her journey continues. Her goal is to attend Harvard Law School this fall.