Based at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, The Heartbeat Project brings Western classical music instruction to youth on the Navajo (Diné) Reservation. What began in 2015 with a phone call to Juilliard student Ariel Horowitz is now a burgeoning cooperative program facilitated by present and former music conservatory students, supported by professors, parents, and guest musicians. In 2018, Heartbeat marked its third annual summer workshop.
Professor Wesley Thomas, dean of NTU’s School of Graduate Studies and Research, is the senior advisor for The Heartbeat Project. The grandmother of a Heartbeat Project student, NTU graduate student Sharon Nelson sees all the participants as her children. Both have been key to the program’s inception, relevance, and dramatic growth.
Why is The Heartbeat Project important to the Navajo community?
Thomas: What I like most about The Heartbeat Project is that it exposes our children to music and broadens their views of their own world while showing them how enriching music can be. They learn something totally different that they would have never been exposed to at such an early age. My hope is that they will become curious about the role of music and its place in society. I hope that they will grow mentally and spiritually through The Heartbeat Project.
Nelson: Ariel and her group of teachers provide an opportunity for our rez kids to see musical instruments that they did not have the opportunity to play here. I am not sure that there are any violins on the reservation. Heartbeat comes along and busts that little bubble, to offer a wider worldview and perspective on musical instruments their families would not be economically able to provide.
How has the project grown?
Thomas: The project began with me wanting to provide an activity for kids during the summer when they often get caught up in television and texting. We had developed some programs for elders. We had weavers offering a class in textiles and traditional moccasins. So, the next group was the kids. Teaching them how to make bow and arrows may be a little too dangerous—and it’s really complicated to start from scratch. I thought maybe a musical instrument would be good.
I was talking to my co-director of the GALACTIC project, Amy Horowitz, and she said, “Well, I have a daughter who plays violin,” so I started exploring from there with Ariel Horowitz. We started with five students and two teachers, and now we have to contain our explosion and growth. In December 2018, we will offer the first winter Heartbeat workshop for our advanced students. For next summer in 2019, I would like to see a whole new group of beginners so that we keep reaching out on the reservation. Once people sit in and see how Ariel relates to the children, they really want to get involved, so our numbers exploded from five to fifty.
Nelson: The Heartbeat teachers will also perform at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, our nation’s capital. This will really inspire people on the reservation who have not yet heard of what we are doing.
How has it been to work with the Juilliard teachers?
Thomas: The team is wonderful in their flexibility. They go with the flow. If something happens, they adjust themselves to it. It is wonderful to see how they work together and look out for the children. They encourage the parents to participate so that we are one working unit.
Nelson: The Heartbeat teachers come from different backgrounds from us, and they arrive on the reservation with little knowledge of our culture. So, we all are learning from one another. The bottom line is that each of us break through our personal and cultural boundaries and our perspective on stereotypes. Personally, at Heartbeat I have seen that not all white people are racist. We connect with each other as people who show mutual respect for our true beliefs and way of life.
How does the program incorporate math into music education?
Thomas: The math part of Heartbeat is really fascinating because a lot of children do not embrace math. We have found a way to show them the connection between math and music, how math is used in music. I was overwhelmed at how easily the kids learned how a half note, a quarter note work, and how they are fractions and they could apply this knowledge.
Nelson: Math and music are closely related. Dr. Fowler makes the math study culturally relevant to the students’ way of life on the reservation. It helps them grasp the Western concepts when they are placed in a context of what is real life for them.
What are your hopes for the future of The Heartbeat Project?
Thomas: I dream of developing a Diné school of music that would train teachers in our traditional music and music from other indigenous global communities. The school would also offer training in Western music and theory so that Navajo musicians can utilize these systems in their own traditional music and participate in Western systems. That’s one of the future goals: utilizing and teaching indigenous peoples’ instruments, whether drums, flute, or other stringed instruments. We need to explore how these instruments might be taught.
In indigenous communities, drums and voice are often prevalent. But there are many other instruments as well. In Africa, I heard an instrument that was made from flattened out nails that created amazing sounds.
Nelson: My biggest dream for Heartbeat is that one day we will have our own chamber orchestra of Diné musicians. It doesn’t have to be a string quartet with violins; it could include bass, cello, and horn. I was talking to the executive director of the Santa Fe Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra when Ariel was performing there in November, and I shared this dream with her. I could see her mind start working!
Charlie Weber is the media director at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.