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Michelle Obama gives Harmony Projects a round of applause

November 4, 2009 |  6:46 pm

Harmony Project

At a ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, a Los Angeles music program for at-risk youth received the nation’s highest honor for humanities programs.

Together with 18 other projects from around the world, Harmony Projects was awarded the Coming Up Taller Award, which recognizes programs that target children who traditionally lack access to arts and humanities resources.

“These young people don't just become accomplished singers and painters and authors,” Obama said at the ceremony. “They also become better students, they become better leaders and they become better citizens, enriching not just themselves but their communities.”

Harmony Projects provides musical instruments and free music lessons to children from impoverished families. The program aims to enroll students as early as first grade and see them through to high school graduation. 

“I’m over the moon,” said founder Margaret Martin as she celebrated with 11 students at the Daily Grill restaurant in Washington.

Of the more than 400 U.S. groups that were nominated, only 15 were finalists. Harmony Projects shared the honor with such groups as the Shakespeare Remix Program of New York City, which helps underserved youth reinterpret and perform the Bard’s works, and Keshet Dance Company of New Mexico, whose outreach program uses dance to teach literacy and math to incarcerated youth. 

Martin founded the program in 2001 after she said she had a surreal experience at the Hollywood Farmers Market. She watched, astonished, as what she described as a crew of tattooed gangsters approached her 5-year-old son, who was playing Brahms on a tiny violin, and gently placed money in his case. “That was my ‘Aha’ moment,” Martin said.

Since then, the program has grown from 36 students (funded by a $9,000 check from the Rotary Club of Hollywood) to a 750-student organization with a 300-deep waiting list and a $1.2-million cash budget.

Seventh-grader Kiana Coronado-Ziadie attended the White House ceremony to accept the award on Harmony Projects' behalf. Five years ago, she, her mother and her sister were living on the streets. She said that she was diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder and that she was forced to repeat a grade. “It was a huge mistake – they had me on meds. I was all drugged up.… I thought I was the stupidest person in the world,” she said.

Then her mother found out about Harmony Projects and enrolled her. Kiana took to the violin. “I learned about beats and sight-reading.… It helped me a lot in math and school work,” she said.

Now a student at Millikan Middle School's performing arts magnet in Sherman Oaks, she takes honors classes this year.

“I’m so thankful Harmony Projects got my confidence back. I have no limits now,” Kiana said.

--Amina Khan

Photo: Harmony Projects founder Margaret Martin and seventh-grader Kiana Coronado-Ziadie receive an award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Credit: White House