In this piece we speak with Paloma Ramos, Program Director at the Harmony Project. A violinist since age three, Paloma began performing and teaching music in the Los Angeles area in 2004. During her time with the program, the Harmony Project has grown to provide a love of music to nearly 3,000 students each year. Paloma has also toured as a violinist with numerous bands and has recorded in studio with several artists.
What is the Harmony Project?
The Harmony Project is Los Angeles’ largest music education non-profit with a mission to use music to engage youth in underserved communities. Through year-round group lessons and ensemble practices with professional teaching-artists, students are equipped with the skills to perform on their instruments, collaborate and mentor fellow students, and develop leadership skills. The program also seeks to nurture intergenerational bonds, strengthening the communities it operates in along the way.
This year, the Harmony Project in LA will serve just shy of 3,000 students at its 13 different community sites. Through its affiliate programs, it will serve approximately 2,000 additional students nationwide. Despite high levels of student transiency in its neighborhoods, it still retains 80% of its students from one year to the next.
The program works like this.
Students attend 2, 1 hour-long group practice lessons (typically after school with about 8-12 students each) and 1, 3 hour-long ensemble practice (usually on Saturdays with about 50 students) each week. A core part of the program is that all students learn to play together with peers on different instruments. All of the music instruction is provided by the Harmony Project’s network of freelance musician-performer-teachers. The program also includes the following:
El Sistema and the Community-Based Music Movement
The Harmony Project is part of a growing movement of community-based music programs that are reaching out to low-income populations. El Sistema, the most well-known of these, is a program in Venezuela that provides government funded orchestral instruction. In operation for more than 40 years, El Sistema currently supports over half a million students with free music instruction. It has proudly produced dozens of internationally recognized musicians.
To come full circle, one of its most famous students is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As part of his agreement to join the LA Philharmonic, he demanded a commitment that it support an El-Sistema style program in Los Angeles. The Harmony Project fulfilled that demand and the program has experienced dramatic growth since.
This year, the Harmony Project LA will serve just shy of 3,000 students at its 13 different community sites. Through its affiliate programs, it will serve approximately 2,000 additional students nationwide. Despite high levels of student transiency in its neighborhoods, it still retains 80% of its students from one year to the next.
Q&A with Paloma – Building Community and a Music Program
Thriving Schools: What are the minimum requirements for a school or city to become a Harmony Project affiliate? And what’s the best way for them to contact you?
Paloma: There really aren’t any! What we’ve proven with our programming is that if it’s done well, it can work in nearly any setting. Even here in LA, we work with a very wide array of schools and community centers, each of them having varying amounts of space and number of students they can host. But we’re able to design our programs around all these constraints. The biggest thing that’s necessary is a little bit of money! For anyone interested in bringing a program like ours to their community, I’d be more than happy to speak with them and help direct their inquiry to the right place (firstname.lastname@example.org)! Additionally, I’d recommend El Sistema USA as a great resource for helping cities and schools develop programs like this in their own towns and cities.
Thriving Schools: Where do you find the right musicians to work with and what kind of commitment do you ask them to make in terms of student load and time?
Paloma: I’ll start by saying that we’re really lucky because here in LA we have a large community of talented freelance musicians who also love teaching. So when we say we need a classical bass instructor, or a jazz band conductor, or a mariachi teacher, we don’t have a problem finding them. This year, we’ll have 60 teachers working for us with an additional 40 teachers serving as substitutes. And that’s because it’s really important for our musicians to pursue their individual music careers (and for our students to see them succeeding in that). We compensate our teachers at $50/hour, which is considered excellent pay for an organization like ours. I don’t recommend doing this with volunteers because I strongly believe you get what you pay for. A typical teacher works about 10 hours/week and they commit to the program for 1 year at a time. But we have many teachers who have been with us since the beginning (15 years).
Thriving Schools: What can you tell us about designing the budget for a program like the Harmony Project? What is the cost per student?
Paloma: The number is $1,500/student and that includes a full year’s worth of programming (including the summer). Again, keep in mind this would be different for other communities because their musician rates could vary dramatically (our musician instruction is about 60% of budget). And because we’re a large program, we incur additional expenses related to program staff, office expenses, and more.
Thriving Schools: Another major expense must be the instruments you provide. What can you tell us about providing instruments to children on a cost-effective basis?
Paloma: You’re right, we do provide students in our program with instruments. And it’s inspiring to see students who’ve graduated from the program still using their Harmony Project instruments in college. To do this, we’ve created relationships with several suppliers. For instance, we have a good relationship with Eastman – some of the instruments they provide us are donated, some are slightly damaged (but still usable), and some we pay full price for. We also receive a lot of instrument donations. And I would say smaller programs can be really successful with doing their own drives (because there are people out there who have their garages full of instruments and are looking to give them away). If you’re only looking to serve 20 kids or so, you might be able to get most of them that way. And as long as instruments are serviced every year, they can be pretty darn durable.
Thriving Schools: How do you fund a program like the Harmony Project?
Paloma: For most of our history, we were primarily funded by individual donors. Recently, however, we’ve been successful in shifting that mix and now over half of our revenues come from private foundations. Another 20% of revenues come from partners (like the LA Philharmonic) and the last 30% from existing individual donors.
Thriving Schools: What have you learned about connecting with donors and foundations in committing to funding programs like this?
Paloma: First, recognize that a lot of people still need convincing about the importance of music education. And what’s great about this is there’s a lot of new research that (click on research link) discusses the neurological benefits of music – you listen better, follow directions more easily, etc. And when you think about foundations, that’s the type of research that’s really drawing people in right now.
Additionally, our funders also appreciate the fact that that we have a commitment to our students through high school. So if you’re a 7-year old who’s starting music with us, we’re going to have a relationship with you that lasts over 10 years. And that level of commitment – that you can help students receive scholarships in music, that they’re coming back to peer-mentor younger students, and that they’re staying in the program for years at a time – seems to be resonating with our funders. Of course, this takes a long time to establish, but if you say that you’re building a long-term program for students and the community, that matters.
I think the unique and beautiful thing about our program is the value that’s put on second chances. We really try to keep our students! If they’re having a really difficult time with their instruments or a really hard time with something going on in their lives, we’re going to try to help them.
Thriving Schools: We noted above that the Harmony Project is able to retain 80% of its students from one program year to the next. How are you able to do that given the high transiency rates in the neighborhoods you operate in?
Paloma: We make it a priority to work with the students and families in our program. Wanting to quit your instrument is something that all of us musicians have gone through, but we had someone who convinced us that we should stick it out. That being said, it’s not for everybody. Some people are dancers and some people should be running track. As long as students have a passion and they’re moving toward it, we’re totally okay with them leaving the program. But if a student says I’m really tired and I have too much homework, we don’t really let them quit! We have 2 social service staff members and we’ll bring both the parent(s) and student in and figure out what’s happening. We’re almost always able to find a way to help our students stick with it!
Thriving Schools: Can you leave us with any stories that you’ve heard from your musicians that shows how the Harmony Project is making music come alive for its students?
Paloma: I think the unique and beautiful thing about our program is the value that’s put on second chances. We really try to keep our students! If they’re having a really difficult time with their instruments or a really hard time with something going on in their lives, we’re going to try to help them. For instance, one of our instructors was telling me about one of our other students just the other day – he plays the oboe. And she said that he won’t speak, he’s super shy, and she doesn’t know what’s going on with him. But we’re confident that he wants to be here. He takes the bus to come to lessons, he comes all by himself, and no one is forcing him to come. And we’re confident that it’s just a matter of time before he opens up and plays something really beautiful. Again, we believe in giving our students those second (and third and fourth) chances!