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The Harmony Project

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By Ajay Singh

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 PM


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Gang members with shaved heads and tear-shaped tattoos on their faces aren't exactly a welcome sight, especially if they're identically dressed and moving around in a "pod." And it's bad news indeed if they should happen to stop right in front of you, hands deep in the pockets of their extra-baggy blue trousers.

Margaret Martin M.P.H. '93, Dr.P.H. '98 was aghast when she and her 5-year-old son Max ran into just such a group in the Hollywood Farmers' Market eight years ago. It didn't help that Max, a musical prodigy, had attracted quite a crowd playing Bach minuets on an expensive violin. A pile of money lay in his violin case. "The hair went up on the back of my neck," Martin recalls.

As Max's music swelled, the half-dozen gangsters slowly pulled out all the money they had in their pockets—and gently put it into his violin case. "I started to cry," Martin says. "Clearly, they were honoring what this little white kid was doing. I wish I could have hugged each one of them and given them a better opportunity in their lives."

The Playing's the Thing

Find out more about the Harmony Project and its amazing work with music. Log on to harmony-project.org, where you can learn about the power of music through a seven-minute video that will introduce you to the Project's executive director and some of its remarkable students.

If it weren't for that remarkable encounter, Martin might never have dreamed of helping underprivileged children, who all too often become gangsters like those who heard Max play. In 2001, 18 months after the Farmers' Market incident, artin launched the Harmony Project, a nonprofit organization that has been providing year-round music scholarships to underprivileged students in the Los Angeles area.

Over the years, the Harmony Project has grown from 35 students and an $80,000 annual budget to 300 kids and a budget of nearly $500,000. More than 100 young musical hopefuls are on the program's waiting list. (With donations from individuals and organizations, the program targets students early in elementary school and sticks with them until they graduate from high school.) The Los Angeles Philharmonic provides free concert tickets to Harmony students and recently partnered with the nonprofit to help with its outreach efforts. There's another key reason behind the creation of the Harmony Project: Martin's passion for public health. A public health professional is trained to look at unhealthy communities and ask, "What can we do to make them healthy?" says Martin. For the most part, this requires developing and implementing public health interventions in everything from drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancy to gang involvement, homicide and domestic violence.

"These are all tertiary interventions, and somebody has to do them," explains Martin, herself a battered teenage mother who single-handedly raised three children and didn't get a chance to attend college before she was 33. "But programs of primary prevention that embrace and nurture our most vulnerable children from an early age provide the greatest rewards."

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Why else would dozens of families drive their kids to the Hollywood United Methodist Church on Highland and Franklin every Saturday morning for music lessons? (One family drives four siblings from distant Hesperia, a four-hour round trip.) Clearly not just because the Harmony Project produces musicians—it develops character as well. An astounding 92 percent of the program's scholars report improved school performance and 96 percent report improved personal behavior, says Martin, adding: "Families say they are much closer and involved in their children's lives."

The study, practice and performance of music teach children personal discipline, time management and incremental skills-building, not to mention the value of working individually and collectively. But above all, Martin has discovered that music teaches kids about diversity—because they learn about the beauty of different instruments and sounds.

"Kids from any racial group in this city kill each other," she says. "In our program, they make music together."

Part of the Harmony Project's mission is to develop "ambassadors of peace, hope and understanding among people of diverse cultures, backgrounds and beliefs." In a place like Los Angeles, this means empowering children in impoverished communities because, says Martin, "our problems won't be solved by someone who has lived on the Westside all their lives." Harmony scholars receive borrowed musical instruments and 100 hours of group and private lessons collectively every week. To qualify for the program, a student's family income must be below the federal poverty level—the income of a family of four, for example, must be below $38,200.

Each student is selected after a rigorous interview process in which "we emphasize this program may not be for you because it requires a lot of hard work," says Martin, adding: "The eagerness and interest have to come from the child—not the parents." What's more, parents must sign a contract, pledging to provide a space at home where their child can play music without any distractions such as television.

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Margaret martin M.P.H. '93, Ph.D. '98

Martin closely monitors students' progress. "See that boy climbing the stairs?" she said one Saturday, in a break during music lessons at the Hollywood church. "He was a troublemaker. There were three such boys. I told them, ‘I'll take your instruments back.' One boy left. The other two have been here six years and are thriving."

One of those kids, a seventh-grader named Bryan Garcia, is a violinist in the Harmony Project Orchestra. He has resolved to keep practicing because, he says, he "always wanted to play something for fun in my life [and] the violin feels almost like a half-guitar." Bryan wants to be a scientist, an inspiration he derives from another fiddler—Albert Einstein.

Martin's dream is to replicate the Harmony Project in inner cities around the world. Her vision isn't all that far-fetched, at least not financially.

"It takes $10,000 to arraign and $30,000 to incarcerate one juvenile in this country," she says. "With $40,000, you could give private lessons to 40 kids for a year or class lessons to 80 kids. Do the math."

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