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Harmony Project Offers More Than Just Music In LA


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Sometimes when they work on a complicated story, a reporter will find a smaller story they didn't have the time to tell. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team recently reported on a study that found music lessons help children's brains process language. And after it aired, Cory said there's another part of a story that he'd loved to tell. So here is Cory with a page from his reporter's notebook.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: I focused on the science and the researcher who, for three years, flew back and forth to Los Angeles to study the brains of kids taking music lessons.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good. Now grab your mouthpiece, and let's try buzzing that.


TURNER: The kids were part of the nonprofit Harmony Project. It gives free lessons and instruments to students in some of L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods. I went there to tell the story of why neuroscientists think this kind of program is valuable at a time when cash-strapped schools are cutting music. But you didn't hear much from the many other people I talked to - kids and parents who don't need Ph.D.'s to know that playing music has changed their lives.

The hallway at Harmony Project's Hollywood offices was packed. Parents spent the hour on couches, the floor while kids too little to play an instrument put their faces to the glass practice room doors and heckled their big brothers and sisters.


TURNER: Claudia Vela was one of many moms waiting in the hallway.

CLAUDIA VELA: You know, it encourages her with school and stuff.

TURNER: Vela's daughter, Katie, was getting a trumpet lesson. How exactly does that help her in school?

VELA: Because when, you know, she doesn't want to do her homework, I'm like, OK, you don't go to Harmony Project. And she's like, OK, never mind, never mind. I'll do my work.

TURNER: I could see Katie Vela through the glass. She was having trouble playing because she couldn't stop smiling. And she's not alone.

DAMARIS MARQUEZ: It sounded really fun when I first started.

TURNER: Damaris Marquez is 15. And she took up the trombone four years ago for the fun of it. But there's more.

DAMARIS: It has helped a lot in, like, mathematics and, like, school...

TURNER: Wait, wait - trombone has helped you with mathematics?

DAMARIS: OK. So when we read notes, we have to know how to divide each note and how to count each note.

TURNER: Bet you didn't see that coming. And here's another reason she likes it.

DAMARIS: When I have a bad day, I can just blow out any note I want. Any music just calms me down.

TURNER: Stress-relief. Amir Pinkney-Jengkins is barely as big as his trombone. But he'd like to add a word, too.

AMIR PINKNEY-JENGKINS: I think it's cool.

TURNER: And the list goes on from there.

CARLA PONCE: It helps you stay focused.

TURNER: Twelve-year-old Carla Ponce plays viola.

CARLA: Teaches you that when you're older, you have to keep doing things to be better at it.

TURNER: In short - perseverance. And Kenneth Anderson, Harmony Project's choral director, would like to add one last word to our list - belonging.

KENNETH ANDERSON: I wasn't good at many, many things academically. And so when I got music, I finally felt like, oh, man, that's something I belong in, something I can do.

TURNER: Harmony Project founder Margaret Martin says all these arguments for playing music boil down to this...

MARGARET MARTIN: You don't teach music in order to make musicians.

TURNER: Any more than we teach math, she says, to make all kids mathematicians. We teach music because lessons kids learn while playing will help them in everything else they do. Oh, and it's fun - did I mention that?


TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.