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Heartbeat Music Project lands $500k grant to continue music education program on Navajo Nation


Executive director emphasizes life skills, growth that participants are taught

FARMINGTON — There is no question that Sharon Nelson, the executive director of the Heartbeat Music Project based at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, would be thrilled if one of the students her nonprofit organization serves went on to get a music degree in college and launched a career performing in a symphony orchestra somewhere.

But Nelson, who is also an assistant professor of Diné culture at NTU, refuses to fall into the trap of gauging the success of the Heartbeat Music Project by those kinds of outcomes.

The measuring stick she prefers to use has much more to do with personal growth and expanded horizons than it does with college degrees and professional advancement.

"In Western society, you measure how many children reach college," she said. "Here at NTU, the way we measure our success is the way our children are becoming confident and acquiring a skill they would have never had access to otherwise."

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In other words, the goal of the Heartbeat Music Project — which was presented this week with a $500,000 grant as a winner of the Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator Awards — isn't to produce future concert pianists or cellists for symphony orchestras in the region. It is to expose the children it works with on the Navajo Nation to new experiences and new people while providing them with an enhanced sense of their self-worth.

The Lewis Prize for Music, founded in 2018 by philanthropist Daniel R. Lewis, presents four Accelerator Awards each year. The awards include a $500,000 grant designed to provide multiyear support that enables organizations to make sustained progress toward ambitious community change initiatives that are aligned with The Lewis Prize for Music's values and vision, according to a press release.

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Nelson said she believes that one of the reasons the Heartbeat Music Project was chosen for an award is because it has embedded Diné culture into its program, which pairs promising young music students with accomplished teacher-artists for personal instruction on such instruments as flute, drums, guitar, keyboards, clarinet, violin, cello and oboe.

While program participants are learning how to play the instrument, they are being exposed to Diné musical traditions and storytelling alongside classical music. That strategy of combining the familiar with the unfamiliar helps make the experience more inviting for participants and gives students a solid footing in both cultures.

Nelson said she is always delighted to see the reaction of Native students in the program each year when they are taken to see a symphony orchestra perform in Santa Fe.

"They're just blown away," she said. "After that, they take (their musical studies) more seriously. They've seen the level it can take them to. Rather than this being just a summer program, it's taken very seriously."

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The Heartbeat Music Project is designed for students ages 7 through 18. Nelson said that while the program features a strong measure of Diné culture, it is open to all students, regardless of tribal membership or race.

It was launched in 2016 as a two-week summer program with just 15 students, but it doubled in size in its second year, then doubled again by 2018, prompting the need to turn some applicants away because they simply couldn't be accommodated. A one-week winter session was added to the program, adding to the amount of time each year students could spend working directly with their teacher-artists.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the program has operated in a virtual fashion, with students and instructors working together for 30 minutes to an hour two to three times a week.

But Nelson said the lack of broadband Internet access across the Navajo Nation has made that operating model a challenge. Some families have to travel miles to access an Internet hotspot, and students sometimes have to absorb the lesson in a parking lot rather than the privacy of their home.

Nelson hopes the $500,000 Lewis Prize for Music grant will help change that. Program officials hope to work with a company that stations temporary towers on remote parts of the Navajo Nation to serve as Internet hotspots, thus making the program accessible to more students.

She also said it is likely some of the money will be spent on providing transportation to students across the reservation to the NTU campus once the pandemic is over and the program has returned to an in-person format.

Much of the rest of the funding will go toward paying the artist-teachers, who come from all over the United States. Nelson said the program features instructors from the Julliard School in New York City, as well as others from Yale and renowned musical institutions in Michigan and Florida. Farmington jazz bandleader Delbert Anderson also is a teacher-artist in the program.

Nelson acknowledged the program sometimes has struggled to find the money to pay those teacher-artists in the past, but the grant that goes with the Accelerator Award will ease much of that burden.

She said the program has developed an excellent reputation in a short amount of time, with many of the instructors saying they get as much out of the experience as their students do. Most of them have no experience with life on the Navajo Nation before they travel to NTU for the summer and winter sessions, and Nelson said they often make a point of telling her how meaningful the time they spend there is to them.

Other tribes in the region already have taken note of the program. Nelson said officials from the Laguna Pueblo have asked the Heartbeat Music Project to operate a similar program on their pueblo, while representatives of other groups in the Page, Arizona, area have expressed interest.

The fact that the Heartbeat Music Project is generating that kind of attention — and drawing a $500,000 grant in just its sixth year of existence — helps validate its effectiveness, Nelson said. But the real test comes in the responses of the students it serves, and she sees with her own eyes how the program is changing lives.

"Now, those walls are broken down," Nelson said of the notion in some Native circles that classical music is elitist or belongs only to white culture. "(The students) can be anything they want to be with these instruments."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.