More than a decade ago, Margaret Martin was at a farmers’ market in Los Angeles when she saw a group of swaggering gang members with shaved heads give money to a little boy playing Brahms on his violin. “Those gang members were teaching me that they would rather be doing what the child was doing than what they were doing, but they never had the chance,” Martin told Josh Aronson of the PBS NewsHour. So in 2001, Martin established the Harmony Project, a non-profit providing low-income Los Angeles youths with instruments and at least five hours of instruction per week. The program now helps more than 2,000 students with stunning results.
In the neighborhoods the Harmony Project serves, on average 50 percent of students do not graduate from high school, and 80 percent of black and Latino students do not read at grade level. This year, students in the Harmony Project graduated at a rate of 93 percent.
Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University conducted a study that demonstrates even more clearly the profound effect music education is having on these kids. She selected a group of 80 youths from a gang-ridden L.A. neighborhood, and assigned half of them to the Harmony Project, while the others waited a year before enrolling. The group taking music lessons showed a marked increase in language comprehension, gains the second group didn’t begin to make until they also started music lessons. It’s possible, Kraus thinks, that music education may enhance a child’s neurological development enough to help those who perform below grade level catch up. “Early sustained music learning is actually the frame upon which education itself can be built for low-income kids,” Martin said. That’s music to our ears.