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Composing a Brighter Future

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“Most of our students are heading toward professional degrees. For them, poverty is over.”

MARGARET MARTIN (MPH ’93, DRPH ’98) WAS WALKING THROUGH THE HOLLYWOOD FARMER’S MARKET on a Sunday morning in 1997 when she witnessed a scene that would change her life — and in turn, the lives of thousands of at-risk youth in Los Angeles and well beyond.

Martin watched from a distance as a group of teens who appeared to her to be members of a gang stopped in front of a small boy playing Brahms on a tiny violin. The child was Martin’s 5-year-old son.

Initially apprehensive, Martin quickly realized she was witnessing something remarkable. “They just stood there, as my son moved from one piece to another,” she recalls. “And after a few minutes, I watched them take out their own money and lay it gently in my son’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 was no stranger to the adversity that prevents many people from pursuing their dreams. A domestic violence survivor, she supported herself from the age of 15, gave birth to her first child when she was 17 and spent a year in her 20s homeless with her two children, sleeping on an office floor. At age 33 she enrolled at Los Angeles City College and 10 years later she completed her doctorate at the Fielding School.

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 are engaged in music classes and ensemble rehearsals 5-12 hours a week, yearround, tuition-free, until they graduate high school.

Margaret Martin receiving Presidential Citizens Medal.

The program started with 36 participants from disadvantaged homes in Los Angeles. Eight years later, Martin was at the White House representing Harmony Project as it received the Coming Up Taller Award from First Lady Michelle Obama — considered the nation’s highest honor for an arts-based youth program. Two years after that, 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 (including San Francisco, Phoenix, East St. Louis, New Orleans, Miami, and Hudson, NY, among others), bringing the total enrollment to approximately 5,000, and counting. In January, 40 standout string students from Harmony Project Los Angeles performed on stage at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show with pop stars Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and Chris Martin, along with Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Martin credits her Fielding School education with informing her approach to starting Harmony Project. “As an academic, I wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t research-based,” she says. In developing the blueprint, Martin drew from a RAND study on the elements of arts-based programming that promote pro-social behavior in youth. These elements continue to serve as part of the blueprint for Harmony Project:

Allow participants extended participation. Among members of Harmony Project’s 2016 graduating class, the average length of time in the program was seven years.

Provide complementary services beyond the arts programming. Harmony Project counsels students to enroll in academic courses that can help them become college-eligible, provides parenting education and referrals to social services, offers scholarships to graduating seniors who qualify for Harmony Project’s own scholarship program and assists students in applying for additional college scholarship awards.

Provide youth mentorship opportunities. Beyond the mentorship provided by the musicians, advanced students are trained to mentor their less-advanced peers.

Promote accountability through regularly scheduled performances or presentations. Students demonstrate their learning in frequent recitals, as well as other public performances in front of family and peers.

Dr. Margaret Martin, Harmony Project Founder, with the Los Angeles Class of 2015.

Harmony Project now stands on its own as a successful arts-based program for at-risk youth. Since 2008, 90 percent or more of the program’s high school seniors who participated at least three years in Harmony Project went on to college — this, Martin notes, from neighborhoods where high school dropout rates approach or exceed 50 percent. Graduates include two Fulbright scholars.

In search of a scientific explanation for the striking academic success of Harmony Project participants, Martin contacted Dr. Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Kraus agreed to partner with Harmony Project on a randomized controlled study of the program’s long-term neurologic impact. Publishing a series of journal articles beginning in 2014, Kraus and her colleagues have presented neurological evidence that two years in the program “remodeled” the children’s brains in ways that significantly improve their cognitive function. “The research from the Kraus lab shows that our kids are changing their own brains,” Martin says. “Music training within Harmony Project enables our students to overcome the negative neurologic impact of poverty and adverse life events on their capacity to learn.”

Martin believes these success stories have powerful implications for public policy and public health. In addition to academic successes, she points to the positive social network maintained by the participants, as well as the confidence, accountability, and agency Harmony Project fosters.

“We are consistently achieving outcomes that everybody wants, and we believe it’s because we have tripped over a Rosetta stone,” Martin says. “Most of our students are heading toward professional degrees. For them, poverty is over.”