When 50 kids play a concert at the Plaza Library this weekend, it'll be one of the first public performances of a new program that provides free music education to low-income kids in hopes of improving their long-term academic performance.
Harmony Project KC started in January after Laura Shultz, the executive director of the Northeast Community Center, looked for new programs after the Scuola Vita Nuova charter school moved out of the center. Shultz heard about Harmony Project, which began in Los Angeles 15 years ago and has served thousands of kids, collaborating with Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Lab to track their progress.
"We had seen the research about music, music education, and what it does for children, particularly children living in poverty," Shultz says, so she went to Los Angeles in early 2014 to check out the program.
"I was sold. I got to interview children who had been in the program for 15 years, who were graduating and going on to college, and they came from some of the roughest backgrounds you have ever heard of, in the middle of the gang district in LA."
Schultz came back and raised money to buy high-quality instruments, hire a dozen teachers – most of them professional musicians, or with doctorates and masters’ degrees in music therapy and music education — as well as a full-time program manager.
Carmen Espinosa moved to Kansas City from Boston, where she'd earned a master's degree in international education policy at Harvard, to run the program.
"It’s not only to teach them music and have them make hopefully beautiful sounds," Espinosa says, "but also help them expand their brains, make them listen better in a classroom because they’re listening to each other in an orchestra setting, and transfer all of this hard work to their lives as well."
To stay in the program, the students have to stay in school.
"We follow them until they graduate from high school," Espinosa says. "And we will hopefully help them with college scholarships as they move on."
Before all that, though, they have to get through their first semester.
When they got their instruments in August, before they could even pluck strings, the kids had to learn much more basic things: how to put the case on a flat surface before opening it; how not to let anyone else touch it, especially little brothers and sisters.
By the end of the first hour, though, they were learning music.
“I learned how to do the strings and do what the letters are," said ten-year-old Kevin Torres. "There are G-D-A and E, and G is the lowest and E is the highest."
Torres had also learned a little self-confidence.
"I felt nervous. I thought I was going to be horrible but after I conquered my fear, I think I’m going to be very great.”
By October, they were still learning how to pull their bows up and down. It was hard to believe they'd be ready to give a public concert in December, but violin teacher Selene Hernandez was confident.
"They’re doing great so far," she said, "and I know that they love being here."
And by the first Saturday rehearsal in December, they were playing entire verses of "Jingle Bells" and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
For their end-of-semester concert on December 12, Kansas City composer AJ Harbison wrote an original piece of music called "Fanfare for the Common Kid" (the title's a riff on composer Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"). If the promise of Harmony Project KC holds up, fifteen years from now maybe they'll be composing their own music.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
Harmony Project KC's Ensemble Concert, 2:30-3:30 p.m. at the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza Branch, 4801 Main, Kansas City, Missouri.