City kids play together in ‘Harmony’

An organization is developing the musical talents of young New York City students who would not ordinarily be exposed to music education.

The Harmony Program provides free music education to elementary students in select public schools. Children who are interested in the program apply by submitting an essay on why they want to study a musical instrument. Once accepted, they choose an instrument from the brass, woodwind, string, and percussion families. Participants receive daily music lessons, instruments, books, supplies, and opportunities to attend cultural events.

Anne Fitzgibbon, founder and executive director of the Harmony Program, traveled to Venezuela in 2007 on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the famous National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, known as El Sistema. Impressed by its commitment to social change through music, she returned to New York.

Her primary goal was to design a program that uses music as a means to help children grow into healthy, well-rounded, and productive individuals. In addition to fostering social development, the Harmony Program encourages learning through ensemble playing, creates a supportive community for program participants and families, and demands a serious commitment to daily music study.

The Harmony Program prioritizes serving schools in high need areas, as well as those that do not offer formal band or orchestra. Equally important to the selection process is the partnership of a dynamic and cooperative principal who believes in the value of music education. PS 152’s principal, Dr. Rhonda Farkas, recognizes how the Harmony Program enriches the educational experience of the students in her school in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

“It has benefited them in exponential ways,” said Farkas, “by lifting their confidence levels, boosting self-esteem, enhancing cooperation and collaboration, self-direction, flexibility, adaptability, productivity, and responsibility.”

I recently visited PS 152’s after-school program, listened to the students play, and heard what they have to say.

The kids — taught by college- and graduate-level music students trained by the Harmony Program — were enthusiastic and ready to learn, even after a long day of school.

Instructor Patrick O’Reilly taught his young drumming students how to identify notes and rests, rhythms and patterns, repeats and loops. There was a strong sense of group learning and peer teaching in the intimate class of four. Sebastian, a fifth grader, took a break from the snare drum to help a classmate identify the down beat from a series of notes on the board. He was patient and kind, and continued to support her until she played the music correctly.

The kids expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the program.

“When I have a bad day, the music and my friends make me happy,” said Mia. “The two go together.”

Fifth-grader Theresa added that playing music is not only fun and exciting, but it helps her to focus and concentrate, too.

“I think it’s going to help me on the [English Language Arts] exam,” she said.

Sebastian agreed and said learning to read music has helped him improve in math.

Cassandra recalled that the Harmony Program brought made it possible for her to perform with one of the most famous musicians in the world. “Playing with Placido Domingo was awesome!” she recalled. In January, Cassandra was one of 35 young musicians chosen from the Harmony Program to perform at the gala celebration honoring the tenor and conductor. The maestro conducted the orchestra of fourth to sixth graders.

“Making music as a part of an orchestra is an important part of the program, because it requires children to respect their places as members of a community and to understand the rules, structure, and organization that govern that community,” explained Harmony founder Fitzgibbon.

Lexy, a violinist, joined the Harmony Program in second grade. Now a fifth grader, she also had the opportunity to play with Domingo. Lexy recalled the experience with excitement, but quickly shifted her focus to the Harmony Program itself.

“Music allows me to express my feelings,” explained Lexy, whose favorite pieces of music are Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and “The Magic Flute.” “I’m so grateful that it is a free program. Otherwise, I would not have the opportunity to play an instrument.”

When I entered the woodwind group’s practice room, the students were in the middle of learning a new, challenging Bach piece. They struggled persistently until the end, then immediately asked their teacher if they could play “The Magic Flute,” which they had been practicing for the past few months. They performed it with joy, confidence, and pride. The young musicians’ talent amazed me, but I was even more impressed by their dedication and respect for the music-making process.

The Harmony Program teaches more than music. It develops important skills necessary for children to succeed in many areas of their lives.

Principal Farkas explains, “It offers our children the tools, resources, and experiences that have helped facilitate and drive the knowledge, complex thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity required for the college and career outcomes needed to succeed in the 21st century.”

For more, visit harmonyprogram.cuny.edu.

Laura Varoscak-DeInnocentiis is a mom, teacher, and freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to New York Parenting Media and has won several editorial awards from Parent Publications of America. Varoscak holds master’s degrees in fiction writing, education, and psychology. Visit her webpage at www.examiner.com/parenting-in-new-york/laura-varoscak for more articles on Brooklyn parenting.