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New York Arts Program Brings 'Harmony' to Low-Income Students

NewsHour with Jim Lehrer | PBS
February 24, 2012
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: an arts program that is changing lives in the nation's public schools.

More than 50 schools have adopted a music education curriculum based on a system developed in Venezuela.

The NewsHour special correspondent for education, John Merrow, reports on the Harmony Program in New York City.

JOHN MERROW: Here in New York City, it's not hard to find an elegant black-tie fund-raiser where guests pay $1,000 or more to enjoy a live orchestra, sip champagne and hobnob with celebrities like Placido Domingo.

Affairs like this happen almost every night. What is really special about this evening is what is going to happen about an hour from now. Fourth- and fifth-graders from two low-income public schools in New York City will be performing, conducted by the great Placido Domingo.

For these 35 kids, this will be a night to remember.

For some, the journey began here at Public School 129 in Harlem.

WOMAN: You get this sound?

STUDENT: Yes.

STUDENT: Yes.

WOMAN: Can you please a C and then play a D?

Again, can we help her? What can we do to help?

JOHN MERROW: This two-hour trumpet class is part of a music program called Harmony that serves 80 mostly low-income children in New York City.

It provides free instruments and daily music lessons for children in third through sixth grade. Any student who is able to attend the after-school program may apply. Most who apply are accepted.

Harmony is an independent organization funded mainly by private donations. It was started in 2008 by Anne Fitzgibbon.

ANNE FITZGIBBON, executive director, The Harmony Program: We're trying so hard to serve the children who are least served in the city, children who wouldn't otherwise have the chance to discover something positive in their lives and to discover the positive things about themselves through music.

JOHN MERROW: The students at PS-152 in Brooklyn are doing the same thing.

For many, like Julian Deshommes, it's the highlight of the day.

JULIAN DESHOMMES, student: Sometimes, it's hard not to smile. Like, every time when I come -- when I finish school and I come into Harmony, when I just hit that first note, it makes me smile. And, sometimes, it's -- I try to hide that smile, but I can't, because it's -- it's amazing.

JOHN MERROW: It's a big commitment, a two-hour music class every day, plus practice on nights and weekends, at least 500 hours of practice during the school year alone. The 300 hours of group instruction that Julian is getting for free would ordinarily cost thousands of dollars.

GARDY DESHOMMES, parent: I don't think I would have been able to afford this. He's getting free violin lessons for three years. And he's playing excellent. Every child should have this opportunity.

JOHN MERROW: One of the goals of the program is to encourage students to become self-motivated.

LUENN RAMKISSOON, parent: She practices on her own. She comes home, she plays. She'd come home and tell me, we learned this note. We know how to write music now, mommy. We can do this, we can do that.

And it's amazing.

LEXY RAMKISSOON, student: I still need help with this part. These notes are kind of hard. These on the G-scale.

I can't imagine my life without music, especially on my violin. Me and my violin is, like, best friends.

JOHN MERROW: Most of the children in the program live in challenging neighborhoods. Some have stressful home lives. Harmony provides a safe and supportive environment to develop their talents.

Christian Alonzo is one of Harmony's 22 music teachers.

CHRISTIAN ALONZO, music teacher, The Harmony Program: In orchestra, you listen to not only yourself, but you listen to the person next to you. So you are sharing your sound. You need to realize that you're playing with other people. You're making music as a whole. And you're not just playing for yourself, okay?

JULIE DESBORDES, music teacher, The Harmony Program: One, two, three.

JOHN MERROW: Julie Desbordes a professional musician, has been with Harmony for two years.

JULIE DESBORDES: We use music as a tool to teach them how to listen to each other. They have the sense they belong to something. And I believe that, at any age, it's very important and it makes you feel good to go through life when you feel you belong to something.

Let's go, Jordan. You can do it. Let's go. Let's go.

Jordan Clark-Platt, one of Julie's students, has struggled academically.

JULIE DESBORDES: Big, big crescendo.

JUDITH STURGIS, teacher: I think the playing of the instrument has given him more self-confidence in terms of reading: Well, if I can read musical notes and symbols, words shouldn't be that bad.

JOHN MERROW: Judith Sturgis is Jordan's reading teacher.

JUDITH STURGIS: She is blossoming, and I think the music program is part of it.

JOHN MERROW: Students in The Harmony Program are more likely to attend school regularly and tend to do well. I met up with the kids during a rehearsal.

Raise your hand if are you good in school. Oh, come on. If I looked at your report cards, what would it say?

That the kids are getting top scores does not surprise Placido Domingo.

PLACIDO DOMINGO, musician: Music is mathematics. Everything, it goes into numbers.

A bar can have four, eight, 16, 32 and 64, depending on the speed of the notes. But once you are playing, once you are singing, that disappears. The mathematics stop, and it comes all the feeling.

JOHN MERROW: Harmony is modeled on a highly successful music education program in Venezuela. It's called El Sistema, and it's helped hundreds of thousands of the country's neediest children.

For 36 years, El Sistema has inspired children to stay in school by giving them free instruments and three to four hours of music instruction every day.

PLACIDO DOMINGO: This education, it has been just not only good for music, but good for society and good for all these kids, and they will never dream to be musicians that they are.

JOHN MERROW: With funding provided by the government, El Sistema helps to support the country's 130 children's orchestras and 288 youth orchestras.

Gustavo Dudamel, one of the more celebrated graduates of El Sistema, is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The program has produced scores of accomplished musicians, but that's not the primary goal.

ANNE FITZGIBBON: In Venezuela, they will refer to their program not as a music program, not as a cultural program, but as a social program, because, first and foremost, that program is about developing the child. It's first about the child. It's second about the music.

JOHN MERROW: Fitzgibbon would like to reach more children with Harmony, but across the country, funding for music and arts programs is tight.

ODELPHIA PIERRE, teacher: Everyone is so focused on the tasks, the reading, the math, that I think somewhere along the line, we think, well, you know what, they don't really need art. They don't really need music.

ANNE FITZGIBBON: What I want people to understand is that music is so much more profound than just standing on the stage and blowing air through a horn. It's about learning to commit yourself to something and learning that if you invest your time and your efforts in something, it's worthwhile, that something really positive will come out on the other end.

WOMAN: Hi, everybody.

JOHN MERROW: Tonight, the Harmony students are learning just how far music can take them as they meet their conductor, Placido Domingo.

PLACIDO DOMINGO: I'm so proud of and happy to be with you today. And what is one of the most beautiful things that we have in common, of course, is music. And how lucky, how lucky you are.

They are just wonderful kids. And I would like to hear them play, you know? And it will be -- I know at what level they might be, but you might be very surprised, you know?

I think they have a beautiful life in front in them with music.

(MUSIC)

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: The event raised $160,000 for Harmony, about a quarter of its annual budget.

But, for these young musicians, the highlight of the evening was their turn in the spotlight, a rich reward for years of practice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Venezuelan program El Sistema has come under scrutiny recently because of increased governmental control.

We have more on our website on the debate when politics intersects art. You can also find links there to several related Learning Matters stories, including a podcast of John's interview with Placido Domingo.



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