Sooke Philharmonic Maestro Normal Nelson performs with music students.

Harmony Project coming to Sooke

Young brains develop better with musical programs

Playing a musical instrument is good for the brain. Research has now shown that this is true, and two of Sooke’s foremost music teachers, Lorna Bjorklund and Anne McDougall, want to put this into practice for Sooke youngsters, particularly those who, for whatever reason, might lack support or resources.

The Harmony Project translates the new findings about brain development and music into concrete action. It has been successfully set up in urban schools in Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. This fall, Bjorklund and McDougall travelled to L.A. to see the project first-hand, and to meet with some of the teachers involved.

McDougall is the concertmaster of the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and Bjorklund is the Journey middle school music teacher, who set up the extremely successful string and band program in that school. The two have the enthusiastic backing of Norman Nelson and the Sooke Philharmonic Society.

Nelson, who has a lifetime of music mentorship, was introduced to the program through the Ernest Lieblich Foundation, which provides financial support for the Sooke Philharmonic, particularly for its work with young musicians. Nelson immediately understood the project’s potential.

“If things go through as planned, this will be the first instance in Canada of the fast-developing Harmony Project, making this American endeavour an International one — on a par with the Suzuki programme. The importance of this situation should not be underestimated,”  he stated, just back from meetings with the Harmony Project and Ernest Lieblich Foundation in California.

Youngsters who are interested and willing to make certain basic commitments can be accepted in the program as early as Grade 2. The child must agree to attend music lessons and classes, to take care of his or her instrument, and to demonstrate responsible behaviour generally. The music program stays with them throughout their school years, and when they graduate, they are eligible for university scholarships.

The purpose of the Harmony program is not to turn out musicians; it is literally to develop young brains. Of the 2014 Harmony graduates in L.A., no fewer than 97 per cent were accepted into four-year college or university programs. This is not because they were pre-selected as kids who would do well, but because, as music students in the Harmony program, they developed the ability to do well. Music develops intellectual skills that have been shown to be good for academic subjects like reading and math. Participation in the program also benefits the whole person: the kids learn how to behave in a community of musicians. People who play together must co-operate. And, of course, the pleasure of making music can give kids something to stay in school for.

The L.A. Harmony Project started out with 36 students, and now has almost 2,000. Each project varies according to local needs and resources. All projects require three partners: one is the site donor, which in Sooke is School District 62; second is the project manager and music teachers; the third Sooke partner will be Norman Nelson and the Sooke Philharmonic Society.

In L.A., there are projects that feature drums, mariachi, and choir. McDougall, Bjorklund and Nelson plan to start in Sooke with a string program At this point, they are exploring the details and are developing a budget. Instruments will need to be bought and teachers will be paid. Fundraising is just getting underway.

For more information about the American projects, go to the Harmony Project site. We will keep you posted on the program as it develops here in Sooke!