Six years ago, Ariel Horowitz MUS ’19 ’20 was a junior at Julliard studying violin performance when she learned of an opportunity to lead a short summer music education camp for Navajo students. In January, she received a $500,000 Accelerator Award from the Lewis Prize for Music to further the project’s musical and pedagogical ambitions. 

Founded in 2016 by Horowitz and based in Crownpoint, New Mexico, the Heartbeat Music Project, or HMP, offers tuition-free music education to students from nearby Navajo communities. Accomplished musicians teach students aged five to 19 how to play instruments of their choosing. The instructors educate students in music theory and encourage them to play traditional Diné, or Navajo, melodies and songs. 

“The gift that we just got from the Lewis Prize is so amazing,” Horowitz said. “There are so many barriers of access to getting a musical education in a very rural Indigenous community that has been historically oppressed, marginalized and defunded.” 

The HMP provides a two-week summer camp and a one-week winter camp. Students are given free transportation to and from their homes, two meals and snack breaks. 

The music instructors come from a variety of backgrounds. Some hail from classical or jazz music departments from schools and conservatories across the country. Other instructors are local and Indigenous musicians of the Navajo community.

While students only participate in the program during the summer and winter, they can keep an instrument in their home all year to practice, thanks to a private donation in early 2021 which allowed the HMP to offer students almost any instrument typically found within a classical orchestra or jazz band. 

“We would love to build our instrument library even more if we can,” Horowitz said. “Specifically we would love to source more non-classical and non-jazz instruments — Indigenous instruments too.”

Additionally, the HMP coordinates free virtual lessons when the camps are not in session. However, many aspiring Navajo musicians do not have access to a stable Internet connection. Some students drive hours to get free, stable WiFi for virtual music lessons. With the new award money, Horowitz and the rest of the HMP want to change that and overcome some of the obstacles preventing students from pursuing music. 

Also, the HMP hopes to expand the program’s overall reach. Currently, the HMP is only able to serve the Eastern portion of the Navajo reservation, located in New Mexico. They would like to provide students who live further away in Arizona with access to musical education too. 

“We want a lot of the money to be focused on student learning,” said Sharon Nelson, the executive director of the HMP and an assistant professor of Diné Culture, Language and Leadership at Navajo Technical University. “We hope to be able to reach out to other areas of the reservation, including other tribes.” 

Alongside the musical lessons, rehearsals and workshops, Nelson, who is Diné herself, teaches students about Diné culture as part of the program. She noticed that many students were disconnected from their grandparents due to linguistic and cultural barriers and wanted to bridge the intergenerational gap and help students connect with their community and culture. Nelson hopes that students can combine skills they learn in music classes with lessons about Diné culture and traditions to crystallize their identities. 

“One of the things that we want our kids to be is to become holistic,” Nelson said. “We want them to be centered with themselves and to be at peace with themselves, so we give them the tools to do that using the Navajo cultural teaching.”

The program operates in a delicate intersection. According to HMP assistant director Gregory Lewis MUS ’27, western music has been reserved for wealthy white people for most of its history. Horowitz additionally noted that Western music was widely disseminated through imperialism — the same structures which have continuously oppressed the Navajo people along with other Indigenous communities in the United States and around the world.

“From the beginning, Sharon told us that it was really critical that we are teaching the children how to play Diné songs on the instruments and not just Western music,” Lewis said. “She didn’t want them to learn music if it didn’t include learning their own music and preserving their own culture.” 

The HMP hopes to recontextualize classical music and help students approach music with new techniques and new perspectives. Music, they believe, ought not to have a hierarchical power structure. Instead, the program tries to give students resources and let them express themselves however they would like.

The Lewis Prize for Music seeks to make positive social change by funding non-profits to provide high quality music education to students. The Accelerator Award given to the HMP is the highest monetary award of the Lewis Prize for Music. 

Adam McPhail | adam.mcphail@yale.edu

ADAM MCPHAIL