PICTURED: Genesis Longines, now a second-grade student at Sheridan Way Elementary, has played with the Laby Harmony Project for three years. Photo submitted

By Mike Nelson

Forget the hills. It’s the homes of hundreds of Ventura County school children in under-resourced communities that, over the past decade, have come alive with the sound of music.

Credit the Laby Harmony Project, an outreach program of New West Symphony (NWS), which brings not just music education but professional musical training to young people who, because of financial circumstance, might not have had the chance to play a musical instrument or develop their musical ability.

“Just the possibilities for helping these kids create an impact and make a connection in their community makes this worthwhile,” said Anne Case, project director. “And there are so many benefits — social and emotional development, cognitive development, improved self-esteem — that come from offering music opportunities to younger kids.”

On April 18, Laby Harmony Project marks its 10-year anniversary with a virtual celebration that will pay tribute to the students and the teaching artists — including NWS members — who provide over 2,000 hours of training each year.  

Starting in 2011 with 20 students, LHP currently serves more than 160 children in grades K-12 through a multi-year continuum of rigorous after-school music training. All program components — including instruments, instruction and books — are free, funded by NWS and its donors.

Traditionally, LHP’s primary focus is younger children (grades K-3) from Title 1 schools in Ventura County, but it has grown in scope each year. The 2020 class included four high school seniors who had been with the program from the start.

Initially, students receive instruction in playing the recorder, singing and note reading. After a year they can choose an instrument, and by middle or high school students can pursue different tracks: performance, creative (composition) or connective (creative writing for expression that includes a student leadership component).

“Many students stay with us multiple years,” said Case, “and we have some amazing teachers, mentors really, who work with kids year after year.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s LHP program is all online. “That can be a challenge in reaching the families we want to reach,” said Case, “because some are not as comfortable with technology as others. And some parents talk about the depression their kids have, and a lack of motivation.

“So we get creative, making videos for example, doing small and large group instruction, integrating arts and wellbeing workshops into its curriculum. And the students and teachers have responded well. Providing both structure and a creative outlet, both personal and musical growth opportunities, makes a difference in helping kids deal with their challenges.”

For some students, explained Case, LHP offers the chance to see their friends in class, an opportunity to connect with people. For others, “it’s a chance to express what they are feeling by channeling that into writing a song or a poem. Others want to connect with their community and make an impact, like collecting food for the poor. And for the little ones, it’s just exciting to get an instrument and learn how to play it.”

Participating teachers find they receive as much from working with the students as they share.

“Teaching at Laby Harmony Project has been an absolute privilege,” said trombonist and brass instructor Charles Brunson. “I have witnessed so much growth in my students and am inspired by their perseverance to do well in uncertain times. I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching our creative musicianship class, in which we’ve tackled the subject of creativity in unconventional ways.” 

In her role as LHP director, Case has been inspired by the work of the late Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan educator-musician-activist who in 1975 founded El Sistema, a publicly financed music education program that has taken root worldwide.

“He started with 11 kids in a Caracas garage,” noted Case, “and it grew into a social engagement program, reaching kids who didn’t have access to music. And that kind of work really clicked for me.”

A native of Washington who earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Oberlin College in Ohio, Case worked in similar outreach programs before becoming director of LHP three and a half years ago. She is currently finishing a master’s in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in music therapy through Massachusetts’ Lesley University.

“I see Laby Harmony’s mission as very similar to El Sistema’s,” Case said. “There are some great music programs in the public schools, but music lessons are very expensive and out of reach for a lot of kids. So anything we do to increase equity in music education, especially in a pandemic when disparities are even greater, is worthwhile.”

The Laby Harmony Project’s 10-year celebration will be held on Sunday, April 18, at noon. For information on tickets and sponsorship opportunities, visit https://bit.ly/30pByh6 or contact Stephanie Wilson at 805-435-2775 or swilson@newwestsymphony.org.