The first time Harmony Project KC was asked to play the national anthem at a Royals game, they had to say no.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, how can we miss this opportunity,’ ” recalled program manager Carmen Espinosa. “I was banging my head against the wall. Laura (Shultz) talked to Michael Stern and I talked to Michael Gordon, principal flutist with the Kansas City Symphony, and they said that playing the national anthem, even for an adult, is not that easy. There are thousands of people, big screens, lots of noise.
“If somebody needs to push these kids, that’s me, but I want to do it in a way that’s a gradual process. I can’t throw them in the pool and let them drown.”
It was summer 2016, and the Harmony Project students had two weeks’ notice before the game. But the day after Espinosa turned down the offer, she bought a copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and set to work teaching it to her group. On Sunday, Aug. 6, Royals fans can witness the students’ hard work when Harmony Project KC plays the national anthem at Kauffman Stadium.
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It’s yet another success story for the after-school program, which offers Kansas City children from low-income families free musical instruments and education.
Espinosa, a pianist who has a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Education, is originally from Peru. She was brought to Kansas City to start Harmony Project KC by Shultz, executive director of the Northeast Community Center, where Harmony Project is located. Shultz is pleased with the organization’s growth.
“We are 2 1/2 years into it now, and we’ve more than tripled in size from 33 to 140 students,” said Shultz, who also serves as executive director of Harmony Project. “We’ve not only expanded upward in ages, we’ve also expanded downward to preschoolers. What we have seen in our students is so phenomenal, it has surpassed every expectation we had.
“We found that within six months of starting the program, students’ lives were altering in a very positive way,” she continued. “Grades were going up, parents were happy, the kids were feeling safe, there were reduced after-school issues when they’re so vulnerable. And now parents and students are talking about college as if they’re expecting it instead of seeing it as a foreign idea.”
College prep has become an important emphasis for Harmony Project KC, whose original students are now entering high school. Espinosa and her staff are partnering with local universities to talk to parents and students about college readiness and help them with college applications.
“It’s much more than a music program,” Espinosa said. “It’s more about the well-being of the kids while they’re here and helping them have a better future because they were here.”
Espinosa also is excited to be adding flutes and clarinets to her string and choral ensembles this fall. A veteran teacher from the successful Harmony Project L.A., which the Kansas City program is modeled after, has been hired to teach those instruments. The goal is eventually to have a full orchestra of strings, woodwinds and brass.
Kansas City’s classical music community has also embraced Harmony Project KC. In May, the string ensemble performed with the Kansas City Symphony at Helzberg Hall.
In March, Espinosa wrote to the Royals to say the kids were ready, but she still needed to send in an audition video.
“When we made the video, I said, ‘Guys, just do your best and we’ll record it and see what happens,’ ” Espinosa said. “When they made the video I was like, ‘My goodness, I am so proud you. You’re sounding great. Whatever happens, no worries.’ So I sent the video the next day, and the Royals said you’re perfect, you’re in. When I told the kids, they started screaming. They were so excited and nervous at the same time.”
Shultz, who was invited by Yo-Yo Ma to speak at his annual arts conference in Washington, D.C., last year, said that Harmony Project KC is providing its students with life-changing opportunities.
“Our children have had so many experiences that they never would have had otherwise,” she said. “Can you imagine playing Helzberg Hall at age 8? They’re starting to think this is normal.”