November 14, 2017

Sights and Sounds of Project Harmony

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Walking into the building of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, the faint sound of tapping greets my ear, and I easily find my way to the source of bustle: approximately two-dozen children, drumsticks in hand, happily clanging along to a midtempo beat. If there was ever a time that you could feel excitement, this was it. Looking around the room at children ages seven to nine, it’s hard to believe that this group of students had just ended a full school day. This is Project Harmony — an outreach program in the Montclaire neighborhood that sees social transformation through music as a way to foster future generations of leaders, artists, creators, and thinkers.

I enter the room and see two crescent-shaped rows of students listening intently as their teacher, Drew Skinner, begins to drum a beat on an overturned bucket.

Adagio!” someone shouts. Their instructor offers congratulations and begins to play a new beat, this one slightly more complex than the one before. The room is then silent for the first time as the children ponder what they’ve just heard. Realizing that he has stumped his students, Mr. Skinner taps the beat once more. There is a pause again, and then, “Allegrissimo!

Whether they are right or wrong in selecting a tempo from a list of over 30 is not the point. Close enough is an answer that the students accept as recognition of their contribution to the group’s experience. The rough quality of the group is not surprising, given most students’ lack of previous experience; what is surprising is how quickly they’ve embraced the Project Harmony program and its lessons, taught through the fundamentals inspired by El Sistema programs that have come before, such as learning through collaboration and immersion.

Looking around, remnants on the chalk board from a previous lesson on musical notes serve as a reminder, not only to the class but also to me, that the children sitting in the room are building up their musical knowledge from the ground floor at Project Harmony. Glancing at the list of classical tempo names that any beginner might struggle with, I remember that there are no shortcuts to these lessons — a fact which the students gladly accept.

Peering next into the string music lessons, there is a different yet complementary energy present in the room. There is no indication that this class of students has been studying violin, viola, or cello with teacher Deb Chandler any longer than they’ve been drumming, yet the refined way that they carry their instruments — and carry themselves — tell me that in the two months since this program’s beginning, instrument lessons have permeated through the students to foster development in skills far beyond the ability to play music.

One child is eager to share with his peers that he’s ready to play. “La violin!” is what he chants. When the lesson is done and the students prepare to switch classrooms, this group heading to the room of rhythm and beats next, Ms. Chandler ends the lesson, and the students take a bow, signaling a job well done indeed.

Project Harmony is a partnership with the Charlotte Symphony and funded, in part, by Culture Blocks. For more information about Project Harmony, click here.

Blog written by Trey Gibson