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From Mozart To Mr. Rogers: Literacy, Music And The Brain

A class for beginning flutists, crammed into an office building boardroom, labor over "Hot Cross Buns." It's part of Harmony Project, a nonprofit program offering music lessons in a wide range of instruments — flute, trombone, trumpet, oboe, violin, cello, drums — to kids from some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. The instruments are provided, and the lessons are free.
Annie Tritt for NPR
A class for beginning flutists, crammed into an office building boardroom, labor over "Hot Cross Buns." It's part of Harmony Project, a nonprofit program offering music lessons in a wide range of instruments — flute, trombone, trumpet, oboe, violin, cello, drums — to kids from some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. The instruments are provided, and the lessons are free.

These students attend classes at Harmony Project's headquarters in Hollywood, Calif. The walls are thin; a few of the windows barely close. At 5 o'clock, staffers simply surrender their offices to the kids and their teachers. Forrest Powell, left, and his trumpet students are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in one office-turned-practice room.
Annie Tritt for NPR
These students attend classes at Harmony Project's headquarters in Hollywood, Calif. The walls are thin; a few of the windows barely close. At 5 o'clock, staffers simply surrender their offices to the kids and their teachers. Forrest Powell, left, and his trumpet students are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in one office-turned-practice room.

Student Cinee Hong eagerly waits for flute instructor Kathleen Ellingson's attention. Ellingson, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, says when she's not teaching kids at Harmony Project, she's giving private lessons or working in the office of a local flute repair shop.
Annie Tritt for NPR
Student Cinee Hong eagerly waits for flute instructor Kathleen Ellingson's attention. Ellingson, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, says when she's not teaching kids at Harmony Project, she's giving private lessons or working in the office of a local flute repair shop.

Ellingson, the flute instructor, is a big believer in the power of stickers to help her students remember where to place their fingers.
Annie Tritt for NPR
Ellingson, the flute instructor, is a big believer in the power of stickers to help her students remember where to place their fingers.

While Harmony Project students head into their practice rooms, the second-floor hallway fills with parents and siblings who wait for an hour — reading books, playing video games, or entertaining each other.
Annie Tritt for NPR
While Harmony Project students head into their practice rooms, the second-floor hallway fills with parents and siblings who wait for an hour — reading books, playing video games, or entertaining each other.

Esmeralda Martinez, center, demonstrates good trombone posture. Her practice room is an office and storage room by day which requires the kids to squeeze in between filing cabinets, folding chairs and stacked instruments.
Annie Tritt for NPR
Esmeralda Martinez, center, demonstrates good trombone posture. Her practice room is an office and storage room by day which requires the kids to squeeze in between filing cabinets, folding chairs and stacked instruments.

Trumpet teacher Danny Levin gets a laugh out of Katie Vela, left, and Andres Lopez, right, as he demonstrates what their chins should not be doing while playing.
Annie Tritt for NPR
Trumpet teacher Danny Levin gets a laugh out of Katie Vela, left, and Andres Lopez, right, as he demonstrates what their chins should not be doing while playing.

Around 6 o'clock, the beginners retreat to the hallway, rejoin their parents and siblings, and head home for dinner and homework. The kids are expected at lessons two to three days a week and to practice daily.
Annie Tritt for NPR
Around 6 o'clock, the beginners retreat to the hallway, rejoin their parents and siblings, and head home for dinner and homework. The kids are expected at lessons two to three days a week and to practice daily.

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LA Johnson/NPR

From Mozart To Mr. Rogers: Literacy, Music And The Brain

From Mozart To Mr. Rogers: Literacy, Music And The Brain

Welcome to our sand box.

For months now, the NPR Ed Team has been playing with what we like to call "long listen" ideas — worthy stories that we can't tell in three or four minutes.

Some ideas don't hold up. The ones that do make it here, including this little adventure to a one-room schoolhouse in the Colombian Andes and this strange tale of two men, separated by an ocean and united by a stolen laptop.

For this week's long listen, I sat down with my Ed Team co-conspirator, Anya Kamenetz, to talk about one of my favorite subjects: brains. Specifically, how children learn to read and what can be done to help struggling readers.

It turns out, two of my all-time favorite literacy stories (at least from the past two years) began with the work of one researcher: Northwestern University neurobiologist Nina Kraus.

First, Kraus found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn't just get better at playing the trombone or violin; playing music also helped their brains process language. Consonants and vowels became clearer, allowing the brain to make sense of them more quickly. This heat map speaks volumes:

The study's set-up was as remarkable as its findings. While Kraus and her Northwestern lab are based in Evanston, Ill., she studied the brains of kids affiliated with the Los Angeles-based Harmony Project, a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities. So she and her team traveled to L.A. regularly, luggage full of scalp electrodes, and sat down with her subjects right there in the group's Hollywood offices.

To be clear, simply playing Mozart for your kids will not have the same effect. It's still a fine idea. A little Mozart never hurt anyone, but Kraus found that the benefit comes from playing the harpsichord, not listening to it.

The Harmony Project study pairs nicely with this story that popped up last summer. This time, Kraus and her team developed an auditory test that can be given to children before they're old enough to read but that can predict, with remarkable accuracy, future literacy trouble. The test is a feast for the ears which my crack producer, Sami Yenigun, recreated for the radio when the story first aired on Morning Edition.

As you'll hear, the basic idea of the test is to measure how faithfully children can hear and catalog speech sounds. Kraus says that a child who has trouble processing language at 3 years old will likely struggle to read later on and that a simple, early-warning test could be a powerful tool to help children before they fall behind in school.

Now that you're done reading, let the listening begin!

Related reading:

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