Harmony Project: Music education program ‘changes the lives’ of underserved children


Photo credit: Rico Mandel Harmony Project Ventura

Harmony Project Ventura students perform for an audience at one of their three annual showcases. The Harmony project has eight affiliate locations outside of Los Angeles county.

Margaret Martin had a life-changing experience when a group of Los Angeles gang members approached her 5-year-old son, who was playing his violin at the Hollywood Farmers Market. When the “dangerous-looking” men took a moment to listen and place money in her son’s violin case, the Harmony Project founder said she knew that music could change the lives of impoverished children.

“I don’t come from a religious background, but [this moment] for me — it was like the heavens opened and God spoke, and I was called to this work,” Martin said. “I knew that those gang kids and anyone connected to them would never be likely to have the chance that my son had, to learn to make music well, and in the same moment, I knew, as completely as I had ever known anything, that that was just wrong.”

After this revelation, Martin founded The Harmony Project, a non-profit organization that, according to its website, “provides students K-12 with continuous, high-quality music instruction” through tuition-free, group and private music lessons. The organization “support[s] [their] students every step of the way to achieve their goals throughout their entire childhood.”

Photo credit: Sarah Wass
On October 20, 2011, Margaret Martin received the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama for founding Harmony Project. The Presidential Citizens Medal is the second-highest civilian honor the U.S. government bestows.

But according to Martin, the work the organization does is more than teach children to play an instrument.

“Harmony Project is really not a music program,” Martin said. “It’s a mentoring program that uses music to engage, challenge and mentor kids throughout childhood.”

According to Martin, Harmony Project first located their programs in Los Angeles’ gang reduction zones, which are geographically limited areas between 1.5 and 4 square miles where levels of violent gang crime are at least 400% greater than the city average. At the time, high school dropout rates were close to 50%. Martin had conducted research at UCLA that showed that even students from neighborhoods who do graduate tend to graduate at least four grade levels behind their more advantaged peers. But when more than 93% of Harmony Project students were graduating high school and more than 95% of graduates were going to college, Martin, who has both a doctorate in public health and a master of public health degree from UCLA, was curious to understand how music education impacted students’ brains.

Photo credit: Rico Mandel Harmony Project Ventura
Three young boys play wind instruments at the Harmony Project’s Ventura site. Harmony Project serves over 3,500 children in Los Angeles County.

“I kept asking myself what the heck was going on,” Martin said. “I’m a social scientist, and there was nothing in the social science literature that could explain what we were seeing, so I started bothering a lot of people for help understanding what was going on with our students.”

Soon after, Martin began working with Dr. Nina Kraus from Northwestern University’s auditory neuroscience lab to create a research proposal. After receiving funding and preparing for a year, four neuroscientists from Northwestern came to Los Angeles and performed neurologic assessments on 80 second-grade students. After re-assessing the children for two years, the neuroscientists found a significant improvement in brain function of impoverished kids due to music education.

“In 2013, this lab published a study that identified a neurologic profile of poverty in kids,” Martin said. “That little kid is bringing that significantly precise brain into every other classroom, into every job interview, into every social interaction and into every encounter with a law enforcement officer throughout her or his life.”

With program hubs throughout Los Angeles County, Harmony Project serves 4,000 students from under-resourced communities across an area of over 120 square miles. Harmony Project is a non-profit, tuition-free program; therefore, the organization is sustained through fundraisers, volunteers and other donations. According to Chief Advancement Officer Natalie Jackson, those who support Harmony Project are not just supplying musical instruments for students, but are impacting the future of the communities where the program is based.

“For me, I think that all cities, especially the cities that we consider underserved, are like little ecosystems. So if they are unhealthy or their needs are not being met, it will eventually filter out into the other ecosystems,” Jackson said. “By supporting Harmony Project, I feel as if you are giving to kids who don’t have the same access and resources that maybe their neighbors have an opportunity to succeed.”

Harmony Project student Amy Madrigal, a senior who attends Leuzinger High School and plays the violin, said that music lessons taught her more than just how to play the violin. 

Harmony Project founder Margaret Martin poses with students graduating from the program. The Harmony Project provides K-12 students with tuition-free, “high quality” music instruction.

“The Harmony Project has helped me in the ways that my family couldn’t support me or in the ways my school has overlooked the details that matter in a kids life,” Madrigal said. “It pretty much just gave me an outlet for anything I needed, and it’s really great.”

The music classes also foster an environment where, according to Madrigal, students of all ages are able to “connect” with one another.

“Most of my friends are through the Harmony project. It’s funny because everyone at my site is younger than me. My best friend is a junior and he plays the trumpet, and I’m a senior that plays the violin,” Madrigal said. “It’s funny and amazing how you can make friends with a 7-year-old and you can cry about a movie that you both watched. You really connect with everyone.”

Harmony Project offers music lessons to students from kindergarten through 12th grade, but it also offesr other opportunities for learning leadership skills along with tutoring, college workshops and scholarships for graduating seniors. And although Harmony students who face socioeconomic challenges may experience big changes in their life, the Harmony Project is a “constant.” 

“The cool thing about Harmony Project is that once you’re in our program, we stick with you until you graduate high school,” Jackson said. “We are one of the few constants in [students’] lives. You may lose your house due to foreclosure and you may change schools, but the family that you have at Harmony Project stays intact.”