Music education empowers low-income students to transform their lives.
By Andre Carter
After Los Angeles gang members became riveted while watching her five-year-old son playing Brahms on the violin, Dr. Margaret Martin was inspired to use music to transform the lives of the cities neediest students. In 2001 she created Harmony Project, a free music education program that provides instruments and acts as a 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 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But their neighborhoods’ scores of violence, crime, and poverty fit studies that connect PTSD with citizens of urban communities.
Jamila Mena is an example of Harmony Project success. Harmony Project transformed a resident of South Central Los Angeles and the daughter of immigrant parents, Mena’s life. 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. Other organizations share harmony Project’s success with music education. 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 20 hours per week with professional musicians. Mena credits her time in Harmony Project for inspiring her to believe she could go to college. “I look forward to being an advocate for people who have little access to resources,” she said. “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 positive 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 leader in examining the relationship between music and the human brain.
According to researchers at Northwestern, the auditory ability is essential for everyday communication skills such as reading. Still, the lack of language at home causes poor processing of sensory information in the brains of students whose families have a lower educational background. A 1995 study revealed that children from low-income families learn 30 million fewer words than those from high-income families 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 University’s Neurobiology and Physiology professor Dr. Nina Kraus reports that tests show Harmony Project students hear better in noisy environments than students who are not in the program. Other testing shows that higher musical ability, clapping along to the beat of a sound, is linked to reading ability. These music-related skills 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, establishing 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.