Let’s take a deep breath and talk about what’s right with the world.
Like Harmony Project KC.
Northeast Kansas City may have a reputation for crime and poverty, but the Harmony Project is changing children’s lives for the better there through music.
Started in January 2015 with 33 students, the Harmony Project provides instruments and six hours of weekly music instruction to children from low-income families.
The program’s organizers say all of this attention is already showing results with higher grades and more stability in the lives of 60 students.
Some of those student musicians will perform a piece by Antonin Dvorak alongside four brass players from the Kansas City Symphony Sunday at the Kansas City Museum.
Finding the program
When Scuola Vita Nuova charter school outgrew its space in the Northeast Community Center and moved to a larger campus two years ago, the center’s executive director, Laura Shultz, wanted to replace the school with something just as meaningful for Northeast Kansas City families.
After reading and researching the demographics of the area and speaking with parents, she realized parents’ biggest concerns were crime and the need for educational opportunities and after-school and weekend activities for children.
“I heard about Harmony Project in Los Angeles, and it was along the lines of what I thought would help the children, but I had no idea it would actually cover all three of those issues,” Shultz said.
Harmony Project founder Margaret Martin overcame teen pregnancy, domestic violence and homelessness to earn a doctorate in public health from the University of California, Los Angeles.
She started the first Harmony Project in Los Angeles in 2001. It provided instruments and tuition-free music lessons to thousands of the city’s most vulnerable children.
Her program paid off. Besides earning better grades in grade school and high school, Harmony Project students are much more likely to attend and finish college.
Martin has done remarkable work closing the achievement gap between poor children and those from more affluent families. In 2011, she received the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation’s highest honors, for founding the Harmony Project, which now has programs in Miami, New Orleans and Tulsa, as well as Kansas City.
Shultz spent three days in L.A. with students who were graduating after six or seven years in the program.
“All were receiving scholarships and all were going on to college from a high crime area in L.A.,” Shultz said. “I thought this really sounds like the right thing to do in Kansas City, and I started digging around and getting valuable information from the UMKC Conservatory, from Michael Stern (the Kansas City Symphony’s music director) and William Jewell College, and many of them are now on our advisory board.”
Shultz hired Carmen Espinosa to run the program and hired a lot of part-time teachers as well.
Espinosa is originally from Lima, Peru. She’s a classical pianist who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States, but after returning home to Lima, she was dissatisfied.
“I come from a developing country, so I always wanted to give kids who don’t have access to music the opportunity to do so,” Espinosa said. “One day I woke up and said, ‘No, I have to do something else. This is not what I want to do the rest of my life.’ ”
Espinosa says she wanted to start a music program for disadvantaged youth but didn’t know how to go about it. So she returned to the United States and received a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. It was at Harvard that she heard Martin give a lecture on her research with Harmony Project.
“I met her and she told me somebody in Kansas City wants to start a program because they have a really nice community center surrounded by schools, but they don’t know what to do,” Espinosa said. “So she put me in touch with Laura, and then I came to Kansas City to meet her, and Laura offered me the opportunity to start Harmony Project in Kansas City.”
As program manager, Espinosa’s hands are full. She hires the teachers, recruits the students, talks to the parents and makes sure all of the policies and procedures and budgets are taken care of. She also oversees the distribution of instruments.
In spite of her workload, Espinosa speaks with energy and enthusiasm about her plans for the future.
“I have 60 kids now, and I plan to have approximately 80 by August,” she said. “Now we have children from 25 different schools, and most of our kids live or study here in the Northeast. Our rule of thumb is that 75 percent of our kids need to belong to a family whose income is below the poverty level. The other 25 percent can be kids who don’t belong to those categories, like home-schooled kids. The idea is to have kids from different backgrounds, but you give the opportunity to the ones who need it the most.”
After an introductory four months of musicianship when the children are taught how to listen to and read music and basics such as rhythm, they learn how to take care of an instrument and their responsibilities for it. Then they are given an instrument of their choice and they start.
The programs are held at the Northeast Community Center three times a week: after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on Saturday morning.
“It’s a solid six hours,” Shultz said.
On a recent hot Saturday morning, 30 students were rehearsing for their Kansas City Museum performance in the Northeast Community Center’s cool auditorium.
The children come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Mexican, Senegalese, Guatemalan, Somali and Vietnamese, but together they produce a sound that is indeed harmonious.
Kansas City’s classical music community has enthusiastically embraced the Harmony Project. Stern has been an ardent supporter from the beginning, and other Kansas City Symphony musicians have shown their support by giving lessons. There have been workshops with Kansas City Young Audiences, and local artists, like guitarist Beau Bledsoe, have paid visits to the children.
Mara Gibson, an associate professor and academy director from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, and Ian Coleman, head of the music department at William Jewell College, are both on the advisory committee.
“Just recently the Harriman-Jewell Series brought one of their visiting artists, the wonderful French cellist Edgar Moreau,” Shultz said. “They’re finding it’s a great partnership to bring their artists over to us before they perform on the Harriman-Jewell Series.”
The concert Sunday will be an opportunity for the Harmony Project’s children to take a bow. After they perform the opening selection with the Symphony musicians, the brass quartet will continue with a concert of music by Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa and Charlie Parker. Families are invited to bring blankets, chairs and food, and food trucks will be available.
Espinosa says she was especially drawn to Harmony Project because it’s research-based, “which is different from a lot of other music programs, and I really love that.”
Espinosa and Shultz want results and they’re getting them. They’re able to track their students’ academic progress because they have access to all of their report cards. Like the students of Harmony Project L.A., the children in Kansas City are showing marked improvement.
“Research says that learning to play a musical instrument for at least two years literally changes the structure of the brain,” Espinosa said. “It makes you a better learner, a better listener, a better reader. It increases your focus and discipline. This is a social program that uses music as an instrument to bridge the academic achievement gap, to give these kids a sense of community. I can’t tell you how many birthdays are celebrated here on Saturdays. It’s like their own little family. It’s been really wonderful.”
▪ 4 p.m. Sunday, June 26. Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd. Free. To learn more about Harmony Project KC, visit harmonyprojectkc.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.