A holiday gift that lasts a lifetime

A friend of mine recently asked me to suggest some piano etudes he could give his son for Christmas – something to help improve technique.  His son is an excellent musician – Macro of music score for backgroundwith an advanced degree in oboe from a major music school.  He has recently bought a piano and now wants to become a better pianist.

As I was thinking about composers and music to suggest, I also thought about how many of us take for granted things like music lessons or buying sheet music or scores.  My parents had very little money when I was growing up, but my mother was determined that her children would have piano lessons.  Those early music lessons awakened a lifelong passion for music, which was strengthened by my elementary school music teacher.  Mrs. Clark was a dynamic presence in our daily music classes!  Yes- daily classes.  Music was a regular part of the curriculum, something increasingly rare in elementary schools these days.   She was talented, creative, a visionary, a motivator – she inspired us to want to do our best musically.   And she produced knockout school musical productions that brought the entire community together. 

But what about all of the children who grow up in impoverished households – whose parents cannot afford music lessons and who have no access to music in schools?  We know that music classes are increasingly being cut for budgetary reasons, even though the cognitive benefits of studying music are increasingly becoming more recognized.   (And I will blog about those cognitive benefits after the new year.)

At this time of year, we are often inundated with appeals from charitable organizations for year-end donations and catalogs from major aid organizations containing a variety of items we can buy to support the work they do domestically and abroad.

But the foundations and organizations that support music don’t tend to have catalogs, and they don’t tend to have mass mailing lists either, so I’m going to write about a few organizations who could use our support, not only at holiday time, but throughout the year – because nothing  has the potential to have a greater influence on a student’s life than involvement in the arts.

The Give A Note Foundation was created in 2011 by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) to nurture and strengthen opportunities for music education throughout the country.  They have provided more than $1.2 million in grants to schools to support and strengthen music education programs, have developed partnerships with business leaders to help influence support for music education, and have conducted national awareness campaigns to highlight the importance of music education.

This past year, the Give a Note Foundation partnered with 21st Century Fox to provide grants for 20 schools across the country.  Students, parents, and the general public were invited to nominate “Music Education Idols,” music educators in their schools who had made a real difference in students’ lives, as my elementary music teacher, Mrs. Clark, did in mine.  The schools of the winning music educators received grants to help fund their music education programs.  The video below speaks to the passion, excitement, and confidence that inspiring music educators generate in their students.

And speaking of inspiring music educators, if you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the wonderful 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, with Richard Dreyfuss in the title role as a professional musician who wants nothing more than to write one great piece of music.  Life intervenes, mr-hollands-opushowever, and he instead becomes a high school music teacher who has a profound effect on the lives of generations of students.  (If you haven’t seen this film, you should. It’s a “feel-good” movie about the power of music and inspirational teaching.)  Michael Kamen, the composer who wrote the soundtrack, was committed to music education, and in 1996, started a foundation named after the movie, The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

The Foundation provides musical instruments to underfunded music programs across the country.  They have worked with over 1400 music programs and donated $20 million worth of musical instruments.   You can donate band and orchestral instruments or make a financial donation to help students who would otherwise not be able to learn and play music in school.



Education through Music (ETM) works with inner city schools in the New York area that lack resources to develop school music programs.  They also provide advisory services to schools and organizations throughout the country.  ETM partners with underfunded schools, hiring and providing ongoing training for qualified music teachers.   Their goal is to provide music as a core subject for all children, and they use music education as a catalyst to improve academic achievement.  Founded in 1991, the organization is now partnering with 48 schools that serve nearly 27,000 children.

Violinist Joshua Bell can be seen with ETM students in this video.


There are dozens (hundreds?) of studies that demonstrate the cognitive advantages of learning a musical instrument, and I will blog about some of them in the new year.  The ETM program provides just one example.  Students in longtime ETM partner schools score higher on the New York State English Language Arts and Math exams than their peers in non-ETM schools, and the majority of students in ETM schools say that music class has improved their creativity.

And then there is Harmony Project.   Founded in 2001 by Dr. Margaret Martin in Los Angeles, the program currently serves over 5000 students in LA.  The LA program, the original Harmony Project,  has been so successful that it has inspired 10 affiliated programs across the US reaching thousands more students, and the entire network is the Harmony Project of America.  Partnering with school districts, law enforcement, colleges, cultural institutions, and parks and recreation departments, Harmony Project of America serves and mentors students in neighborhoods and schools with the fewest resources.  The program provides instruments, lessons, orchestras for the students, field trips, concerts, and college scholarships.

In many neighborhoods in LA, fewer than 30% of residents have a high school diploma.  But with a dropout rate of 50% or more in neighborhoods served by Harmony Project, 97% of Harmony Project seniors with at least 3 years participation have graduated from high school and gone on to college. Over 1/3 of graduates are pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math).  5 have completed graduate school, 2 are Fulbright Scholars, and one has been named a Gates Millenium Scholar.  Not bad for a program that has been in existence only since 2001.

Harmony Project founder, Dr. Margaret Martin, wanted to find out more about the striking success of the students in the program, so a few years ago, she approached Dr. Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab.

Dr. Kraus and her colleagues began a multi-year collaboration with The Harmony Project, and their research findings can be accessed here.  But in short, Kraus and her colleagues found that music classes have benefits for the developing brain.  Previous research had shown that there are differences in the brains of children who grow up in disadvantaged backgrounds.  But Kraus showed that musical training alters the nervous system and helps to offset this gap.  They found that students in the program, over the course of two years, showed larger improvements in how their brains processed speech and showed stronger reading and language skills than students who were not in the music classes.

The video below is from the PBS NewsHour and contains interviews both with Dr. Martin and with Dr. Kraus.


If you’re reading this blog post, you no doubt value music.  The children in all of these programs also value music and are excited about learning an instrument and being able to make music.  Perhaps we can help provide opportunities for more children to learn music by supporting one or more of these organizations!!

Warmest wishes for a New Year filled with music!


Note:  The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, The Harmony project, and Education through Music all have the highest 4-star rating on Charity Navigator.  The Give a Note Foundation is not rated by Charity Navigator, but it was honored as a 2016 top-rated nonprofit by GreatNonprofits, a leading provider of user reviews about nonprofit organizations.