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Harmony Project KC is turning Kansas City kids into musicians who earn college scholarships

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Harmony Project KC seniors Vanessa Guillen Macias and Darianna Reyes Marquez earned scholarships to attend college.

Harmony Project KC started at Kansas City’s Northeast Community Center seven years ago, with 33 low-income students getting free instruments and music lessons every week. Now more than 260 kids are in the program — and a few are gearing up to graduate.

When Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School outgrew Kansas City's Northeast Community Center at 544 Wabash and moved out in 2014, it provided an opportunity to create something new.

"It was an empty campus with so many possibilities in front of it," says the community center's executive director, Kyla Pitts-Zevin, who's been with the organization since 2018.

They asked the community for input, Pitts-Zevin says, and heard there was a need for after-school educational programming for kids.

And that’s when the center's former executive director, Laura Shultz, found Harmony Project in Los Angeles.

The music education program in California started in 2001 with a focus on low-income families. Students in the program with free musical instruction earned better grades in school and were more likely to attend and finish college.

Harmony Project KC launched in 2015, providing free instruments and music lessons for kids in the city’s historic Northeast. The program, now with four locations, is one of about eight Harmony Projects across the country.

It begins with months of training: listening to music, learning to read it and taking care of an instrument.

Students — as young as five and as old as 18 — take classes two to three times a week, after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on Saturday mornings.

Harmony Project KC teaching artist Alyssa Bell, an adjunct professor of high strings at William Jewell College, leads viola students through practicing a series of scales.

The Northeast Community Center’s roots date back to 1908 as an Italian Mission, a settlement house for immigrants.

The center’s current site was built in 1940 and first offered English, citizenship, and cooking classes, as well as healthcare.

"So there’s a long history of welcoming and acceptance on our campus," said Flor Lizbeth Cruz Longoria, a student and family advocate at the community center.

"The only thing that has changed is who the community of immigrants is," she says. "We started with Italian and now we’re primarily Latinx immigrants and first-generation students."

Cruz Longoria also heads up the Path to College Program and helps students with their scholarship applications.

"A lot of our students have been thinking about college from a very young age," she said. "They come here with very concrete ideas and plans for what they want their future to be."

Vanessa and Darianna 2.jpg
Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
During a Tuesday class at the Northeast Community Center, Darianna Reyes Marquez and Vanessa Guillen Macias take notes on their sheet music.

Vanessa Guillen Macias, a senior at East High School, started taking viola when she was 12.

"I would say confidence, definitely," she said when asked what she's learned from the program. "And leadership skills."

Darianna Reyes Marquez, a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, also plays viola and joined the program when she was 14.

"It's given me like a sense of routine and structure," she said. "They have a schedule, so I like that, I know what I’m going to be doing throughout the week."

Both students are Hispanic Development Fund scholars — and college-bound.

Guillen Macias plans to attend the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.

"I feel like I’ve gained an extremely big passion which is music," she said. "This program helped me meet new friends. And it's like a second home basically for me."

"I'm sad I'm leaving," she added.

Reyes Marquez will be a little farther from home at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, with a full-ride through QuestBridge.

"I’m definitely pretty nervous because I’ll be leaving behind a lot of friends and my parents obviously," she said, "but I’m pretty stoked about it, too."

Both plan to continue their music studies in either performance or theory and composition. The graduating seniors will also have an opportunity to show their skills one last time at Harmony Project KC’s spring concert — along with 134 other budding musicians.

Harmony Project KC’s spring concert takes place on Saturday, May 7, at 10:30 a.m. at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, 4747 Flora, Kansas City, Mo. The finale of the program: a world premiere of “Looking for Harmony" in honor of founder Laura Shultz, who stepped down last year.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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