Harmony Project: “Talent has no zip code” in this Phoenix youth orchestra

Diogo Pereira directs Harmony Project Phoenix. Behind him (from the left) are Haley Garcia-Daugherty (13), Michelle Calderón (13), Quertzaly Ferrales (13) and instructor Mariam Marino. Photos by Rick D'Elia.
Diogo Pereira directs Harmony Project Phoenix. Behind him (from left) are Haley Garcia-Daugherty (13), Michelle Calderón (13), Quertzaly Ferrales (13) and instructor Mariam Marino. Harmony Project performs with MusicaNova Orchestra on Friday, Sept. 16 at South Mountain Community College. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

Something wonderful is happening in a small room in downtown Phoenix. Students from four Title 1 schools are unpacking their flutes, tuning their violins and cellos and warming up to play in an orchestra that’s making a big difference in these kids’ lives.

It’s all part of the Harmony Project, which launched in Los Angeles in 2001 and began a year and a half ago in Arizona. For the kids, the lessons are free, but the experience is priceless.

Diogo Pereira is the Harmony Project Phoenix director. Born in Brazil, he knows the value of music from his own experience.

“Music was my tool to help to go through all the different situations in life,” says Pereira, who holds a doctoral degree from Arizona State University. “For these kids … I see that music has been helping a lot emotionally and socially, which results in better grades and better family engagement.”

The program is currently offered in four Phoenix schools — Pan American Charter School, Southwest Elementary School, Ignacio Conchos Elementary and the Salvation Army Phoenix Citadel. There are 101 students, ranging in age from 6 to 13, participating in Harmony Project. By the end of next year, Pereira hopes to see that number climb to 150.

It’s a real possibility, given that the program has caught the attention of Sen. Bob Worsley of Arizona’s Legislative District 25, who is pushing for its inclusion in all Mesa public schools.

Benefits beyond music

From left: Haley Garcia-Daugherty, Michelle Calderón and Quertzaly Ferrales during a practice session.

Michelle Calderón and Haley Garcia-Daugherty, both 13 and from Phoenix,  attend Pan American Charter School. They enrolled in the program when it was first offered at their school, and both play the violin.

“Ever since I was in first grade, I always wanted to play the violin, even though I really didn’t know about the instrument,” Michelle says. “When I heard about this program, I thought I’d better take this chance. So I took it.”

Haley shyly acknowledges she hadn’t been doing great in school, but she says playing the violin has helped her do much better.

“I think I’m able to manage time well, focus more on my studies now, because I was not that good at it [before],” Haley says. “I’m better now — like really good! I get [on the] honor roll and principal’s list and [things] like that!”

Haley’s mother, Kendy Daugherty, agrees. But she adds it’s not just Haley’s grades that have improved; so has her overall outlook on life. After practicing for months, hoping to be chosen to lead the orchestra in its performance last May at the Mesa Arts Center, Haley was given the honor.

“The day that she was told that she was concertmaster, she felt so joyous, because she knew that she had worked hard enough to do that,” Daugherty says. “That was a glimpse of what she could do with her life when she set a goal.”

The progress the young musicians made was nothing short of incredible, she says.

“I heard the first practices. I was able to be there from the beginning, [and] I thought, ‘Oh no, this might not work,’” Daugherty recalls. “And then I was sitting there at the concert, and they were playing so amazing. I couldn’t believe it. All I could think of [were] those first screeches.”

Diogo Pereira with Isaac Mejra (11) and Paola Torres (11) during a practice session.

Sound instruction

During the school year, the students in the program practice four to six  hours per week, getting an average of 144 hours of music instruction. The teachers are true professionals, Pereira says, and dedicated to their students.

“We try to keep the same curriculum that they would receive at any other music school in the country,” he says. “The violin teacher grew up in a similar program in Venezuela and now is giving back by teaching, and the cello teacher has a bachelor’s degree in music education.”

Daugherty, who has heard those teachers perform, shares Pereira’s view.

“They are very humble about it, but when they sit there and play after the classes, I get to sit there and listen to how amazing they are, and that is definitely very valuable to have such high-quality teachers,” she says. “It’s just a blessing to have that.”

During the summer, Pereira opted for something different than orchestral instruction — the students learned to play mariachi music.

“It is funny because [many] of the families, they know how to sing the  songs, and the kids are learning for the first time now,” he says. “These are songs their parents grew up singing, and it’s so beautiful to see the parents are helping the kids to learn the songs now.”

That feeling of community is a big part of the Harmony Project. Although the instruction and instruments are free, each student and parent is expected to give back in some way. The students often will perform in nursing homes; the parents sell tickets to performances and start car pools — anything to help. In giving back, Daugherty says she has seen the bonds strengthen among participating families.

“At first it was very formal,” she says. “Now, it’s like, ‘Hi. How’s your family? How are you doing?’ This family might be in need, this is happening with this family, everybody is trying to give back and share, so it becomes a community.”

The Harmony Project is a Tanner Community Development Corp. project; the downtown Phoenix nonprofit hosts its summer rehearsals, which are held at participating schools during the school year. Harmony Project is funded by grants and support from the Mesa Arts Center and the Phoenix Community Development and Investment Corp., as well as other foundations, private support and the schools that pay to participate.

Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project.
Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project.

Founded in LA

The Harmony Project was the brainchild of Margaret Martin of Los Angeles. Martin was completing her doctorate in Health Sciences at UCLA when an unexpected encounter changed her life and eventually the lives of thousands of young people.

Visiting a farmers market, she stopped to listen to a young child playing Brahms on a tiny violin. She says a group of tough-looking teenagers also stopped to listen. She watched as they followed the child from spot to spot at the market where he continued to play.

“The talent of that 5-year-old child so impressed them. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I watched those [kids] pull out their own money and put it in his violin case,” Martin says.

“In my studies, I was focusing on what it takes to make a healthy community. Those [tough kids] were teaching me that they would rather be doing what that kid was doing than what they were doing, but they never had the chance. I was crying.”

From Martin’s insight, the Harmony Project was born in LA a year later.

“It didn’t just work, it worked like thunder. Eight years later, I was at the White House receiving the highest honor in the nation for an arts-based program from Michelle Obama,” Martin recalls.

Proven results

Martin is most proud of the results of her music-education program as cited by researchers at Northwestern University.

“The auditory neuroscience lab found a significant improvement in cognitive function of students who participate in Harmony Project for two years or more,” Martin says. The improvements found included precision in how the children’s brains captured sound and better listening, focus and literacy — specifically improved reading at grade level.

In Los Angeles where it all began, Martin says the proof of the positive impact is there for all to see.
“Since 2008, more than 90 percent of Los Angeles Harmony Project high-school seniors who have participated at least three years not only graduated from high school, they have gone on to college, including prestigious universities such as Tulane, Cornell and Dartmouth,” she says.

The Harmony Project is in more than half a dozen cities in Los Angeles County and nine other cities across seven states, reaching a total of 3,300 students. Martin expects that number to skyrocket in the coming years.

Pereira does as well, comparing it to the group he helped start in Brazil.

“It began with 37 kids playing on a basketball court, and now they have 22,000 students, and they’ve played for Pope Francis,” he says.

His vision for the project and its students reflects the program’s slogan: “Talent has no zip code.”

Friday, Sept. 16: “An Evening with the Stars” — a Harmony Project and MusicaNova Orchestra performance

Professional members of the MusicaNova Orchestra join 80 young musicians of Harmony Project Phoenix for a night of beautiful music. 7:30pm. $25. Proceeds go to the Students Transforming to Achieve Radiant Success. South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center, 7050 S. 24th St, Phoenix. southmountaincc.edu or mcccdf.org/colleges/smcc/stars-event/