Alumnus receives $500,000 for music education program

The Heartbeat Music Project, which provides music education to Navajo students, is the recipient of the Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator Award



Six years ago, Ariel Horowitz MUS ’19 ’20 was a junior at Julliard studying violin performance when she learned she had the opportunity to lead a short music education summer camp for Navajo students. In January, she received a $500,000 accelerator award from the Lewis Prize for Music to pursue the musical and educational ambitions of the project.

Founded in 2016 by Horowitz and based in Crownpoint, New Mexico, the Heartbeat Music Project, or HMP, provides free music education to students from nearby Navajo communities. Accomplished musicians teach students aged 5 to 19 to play the instruments of their choice. Instructors teach students music theory and encourage them to play traditional Diné, or Navajo melodies and songs.

“The gift we just received from the Lewis Prize is so amazing,” Horowitz said. “There are so many barriers to accessing a music education in a very rural Indigenous community that has historically been oppressed, marginalized and unfunded.”

HMP offers a two-week summer camp and a one-week winter camp. Students receive free transportation to and from home, two meals, and snack breaks.

Music teachers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some come from classical music or jazz departments of schools and conservatories across the country. The other instructors are local and native musicians from the Navajo community.

Although students only participate in the program during the summer and winter, they can keep an instrument at home year-round to practice, thanks to a private donation in early 2021 that enabled HMP to provide students almost all the instruments typically found in a classical orchestra. or jazz band.

“We would like to expand our instrument library even further if we can,” Horowitz said. “Specifically, we’d like to find more non-classical, non-jazz instruments – native instruments too.”

Additionally, the HMP coordinates free virtual lessons when camps are not in session. However, many budding Navajo musicians lack access to a stable internet connection. Some students drive for hours to get free, stable Wi-Fi for virtual music lessons. With the new award, Horowitz and the rest of HMP want to change that and overcome some of the barriers preventing students from pursuing music.

Additionally, the HMP hopes to expand the overall reach of the program. Currently, the HMP can only serve the eastern portion of the Navajo Reservation, located in New Mexico. They would also like to provide students who live further afield in Arizona with access to a music education.

“We want a lot of the money to be spent on student learning,” said Sharon Nelson, HMP executive director and Diné assistant professor of culture, language and leadership at Navajo Technical University. . “We hope to be able to reach other areas of the reservation, including other tribes.”

Along with music lessons, rehearsals and workshops, Nelson, who is Diné herself, teaches students about Diné culture as part of the program. She noticed that many students were disconnected from their grandparents due to language and cultural barriers and wanted to bridge the intergenerational gap and help students connect with their community and culture. Nelson hopes students can combine the skills learned in music lessons with lessons about Diné culture and traditions to crystallize their identity.

“One of the things we want our kids to be is to become holistic,” Nelson said. “We want them to be self-centered and at peace with themselves, so we’re giving them the tools to do that using Navajo cultural teaching.”

The program operates in a tricky intersection. According to HMP Deputy Director Gregory Lewis MUS ’27, Western music has been reserved for wealthy whites for most of its history. Horowitz further noted that Western music was widely disseminated by imperialism – the same structures that have continually oppressed the Navajo people as well as other Indigenous communities in the United States and around the world.

“Early on, Sharon told us that it was really essential that we teach the children to play Diné songs on the instruments and not just Western music,” Lewis said. “She didn’t want them to learn music if it didn’t mean learning their own music and preserving their own culture.”

HMP hopes to recontextualize classical music and help students approach music with new techniques and perspectives. Music, they believe, should not have a hierarchical power structure. Instead, the program tries to give students resources and let them express themselves however they want.

The Lewis Prize for Music seeks to bring about positive social change by funding non-profit organizations to provide high quality music education to students. The Accelerator Award given to HMP is the Lewis Prize for Music’s highest monetary award.

Adam McPhail | [email protected]

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