It is right before the final student concert at Navajo Technical University, and Keeva taps me on my arm. She is eight years old.
“Miss Ariel!” she whispers. She points to the violin case in her hand, and I know she wants to squeeze in just one more round of practice before she performs. I glance around.
As the director of The Heartbeat Project, I’m responsible for seven teaching artists and fifty-five campers, aged five to twenty-two, here in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Everyone in the hogan (traditional Navajo home) is busy setting up instruments, greeting parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles who have come to celebrate the accomplishments of the students on this warm summer afternoon. It is a happy pandemonium.
I make a snap decision.
The two of us sneak back to the office. We shut the door to drown out the noise. Keeva clicks open her violin case, even remembers to rosin her bow. She puts her violin under her chin and excitedly tells me she will start with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“Deep breath, Keeva. You got this.”
Enamored with her concentration, I drift back three years to the phone call that started everything.
It was midwinter, bitter cold in New York City. I was in my junior year at Juilliard. The thoughts occupying my nineteen-year-old mind included the preparations for a major violin competition, juggling dual responsibilities as a resident assistant and student, and the inevitable mid-college existential realization that adulthood is a mere social construct. Something else had been bothering me too: my recent feelings toward classical music as a field and the privilege that we enjoy as participants. Being part of its European elitist roots and structures had begun to clash with the commitment to activism and social justice I’d grown up with.
“Hi Mom, I’m running to class!” I had answered the phone while gathering up my books. I had seven minutes to make it to music theory.
“Ariel! Hey! Listen, I’m here at Navajo Technical University. They want to talk to you about teaching music and math for Diné youth this summer. Interested?”
My mother—a former staff member and longtime collaborator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage—works on a global indigenous studies project at NTU. She presented me an opportunity to do more than just think about my privilege as a classical musician and the constraints of my field. I agreed immediately. I love kids and often imagine myself building a fulfilling career in early childhood education. The invitation from the Navajo (Diné) community to enter into their space and develop—on their terms—a summer education program serving their youth both challenged and inspired.
I first set foot in the Navajo Nation in 2016. I remember the quietness of the hogan at NTU, a sacred space of living, learning, and ritual, where we would hold the music classes. Written Diné prayers and feathers adorned the wooden walls. A circular fire pit centered the space. Dr. Wesley Thomas, dean of graduate studies, showed us around, and I was struck by his story about the impact of boarding schools on the Navajo nation—the way they tore children from their culture and family. At the same time, our first five students arrived. Their smiles and laughter filled the hogan as their families beamed at them.
By the next summer, when Charlie Weber of the Smithsonian filmed this short video, the number of Heartbeat Project students and faculty had doubled. Robertson & Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque donated violins. In the video, you will see how the Juilliard student and alum instructors filled the roles of both teacher and student. We learn as much as we give. We benefit from the guidance and support of Dr. Thomas and graduate student Sharon Nelson who laid the foundation for our work with K-12 Navajo students on the reservation.
The families of our students teach us too. We spent an unforgettable evening at the home of the Martin family. Sonlatsa Jim-Martin welcomed each of us and took us into the family hogan, where her daughters, all Heartbeat students, instructed us on the appropriate way to cleanse our minds and bodies with sage smoke. That evening, we got a closer look at Navajo culture through their lens, a gift the value of which I cannot express in words.
Each year, Heartbeat teachers learn more about the impact of colonialism and cultural genocide on the Navajo community. We are also shown their steadfast resilience. As a result, our understanding of how to juxtapose European classical and traditional Navajo music deepens. It isn’t enough that we offer students Western classical music, knowing that the form is a byproduct of colonialism. From the beginning, we referred back to the traditional sounds our students were grounded in.
We are committed to providing Diné students access to violins and guitars, foundations in music theory, and lessons on the relationship between music and math, but we are also careful to include Navajo culture specialist Emerson John who ties into our lessons traditional Diné knowledge and stories. Dr. Henry Fowler does the same with math and Diné studies, and Navajo trumpet player Delbert Anderson and singer Lynelle Logan provide models of musicians who are fluent in both European and Diné music traditions. But our Navajo partners remind us that there are deeper goals at work.
“Our reservation schools are underfunded and understaffed,” Jim-Martin remarked. “For the young people to have an understanding of music and to make that connection to different sounds and instruments and how that is related to our own cultural singing and instruments is a way to get our young people reconnected to our culture. I saw that play out beautifully at the camp.”
“Our long-term goal is to create a school of music to train teachers who would incorporate Western and indigenous music into a curriculum so that students are competent in Diné and European systems, whether it is voice, flute, drum, or violin,” Thomas added.
Looking back at the first three years of The Heartbeat Project, I am grateful for the growth we’ve accomplished and for the challenging questions that emerge. Navajo students and their families have demonstrated their enthusiasm, so how do we assist in repositioning classical music, an art form that emerges from European culture, within the context of their communities? How can we best offer indigenous students the necessary skills to enter classical music and transform it in their own way?
At the end of the 2018 summer workshop, every student performed individually in the final concert, showcasing the music they had learned in only two weeks. How was it possible the students soared so high, producing soulful sounds on the violin in such a short time? Their ability to tune in so quickly to a new music form was rooted in an understanding of their own indigenous music. Part of the answer also lies in the joyful engagement of their parents and grandparents who witnessed their achievements and supported them along the way.
The Heartbeat Project will never erase the injustices carried out against indigenous peoples. Yet it seems to me that each small step is a moment of reparation. On a personal level, it is a way I can be an advocate for change in classical music, and in the process I too am changed. The time that I spend working with Navajo students recalibrates my approach to my own musical output. Before each concert or competition, I think about Keeva, who showed up early every morning at 8 a.m. so she could practice the violin and asked for extra lessons at the end of each day. I intend to nourish and grow this work—just as it nourishes me—for as long as my Navajo teachers feel it is of value to their children and their nation.
By the way, Keeva lit up the room with her performance. I stood to the side, tearing up. We don’t know how far this work will bring us, but like music, it has a life, a language, and a joy of its own.
Ariel Horowitz is a violinist, composer, activist, and founding director of The Heartbeat Project. She graduated from Juilliard in 2017 and continues her studies at Yale University, where she serves as concertmaster of the Yale Philharmonia.