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A Harmonious Future

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Mar 15, 2017 8:00 AM

Bruin Margaret Martin uses music to boost the confidence and competence of disadvantaged youth.


Since 2008, 90 percent or more high school seniors who participated in the Harmony Project for at least three years went on to college. The students come from neighborhoods where high school dropout rates approach or exceed 50 percent. Photo courtesy of the Harmony Project.

On a Sunday morning in 1997 at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, Margaret Martin saw something that would change her life — and the lives of thousands of at-risk youth in Los Angeles and well beyond.

As her five-year-old son played Brahms on a tiny violin, Martin watched from a distance as a group of teens who appeared to be members of a gang stopped in front of the boy.

At first she was apprehensive, but then she realized the teens were listening and dropping money in the boy’s case.

“I was completing a doctorate in public health focused on what it takes to make a healthy community, and here were these young men teaching me that they would rather be doing what my son was doing than what they were doing, but they never had the chance.”

Martin understands how diversity can prevent people from pursuing their dreams. A domestic violence survivor, she supported herself from age 15, had her first child at 17 and spent a year in her 20s homeless with her two children, sleeping on an office floor. At 33, she enrolled at Los Angeles City College, and 10 years later she completed her doctorate at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

In 2001, with a $9,000 initial contribution from the Rotary Club of Hollywood and a small group of founding board members, Martin launched Harmony Project, a program to promote the positive growth and development of at-risk youth through the study, practice and performance of music. With mentoring from the professional musicians employed by the program, students participate in music classes and ensemble rehearsals 5 to 12 hours a week, tuition-free, until they graduate from high school.

The program started with 36 participants from disadvantaged homes in Los Angeles. Eight years later, Martin was at the White House representing Harmony Project to receive from then first lady Michelle Obama the Coming Up Taller Award — considered the nation’s highest honor for an arts-based youth program. Two years later, Martin returned to accept the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor.

Today, Harmony Project reaches 2,000 youth in low-income areas of Los Angeles designated as gang reduction zones, with affiliated programs in nine other regions across seven states. Approximately 3,000 other young musicians are now enrolled in cities that include San Francisco, Phoenix, East St. Louis, New Orleans, Miami and as far east as Hudson, New York.

In January 2016, 40 standout string students from Harmony Project Los Angeles performed on stage at the Super Bowl halftime show with pop stars Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and Chris Martin, along with Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom visit http://ucla.in/2nn7EFq.