Anne Fitzgibbon is the Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Program, a nonprofit organization that provides young people from underserved New York City communities with free, intensive musical training with the goal of supporting their healthy social development and academic achievement. She founded the organization while working as a policy advisor in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration and was awarded a year-long Fulbright Fellowship in 2007 to study “El Sistema,” Venezuela’s world-renowned national youth orchestra system. She holds a graduate degree from Princeton in Public Affairs, an undergraduate degree from Barnard College and studied clarinet at the Juilliard School.

During her tenure with the Harmony Program she has raised millions of dollars in financial support, developed strategic partnerships with the New York Philharmonic, Warner Music Group and the City University of New York and collaborated with music icons Plácido Domingo, Joshua Bell, Wynton Marsalis, and Paquito D’Rivera on Harmony Program projects and events.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Anne Fitzgibbons at her home in New York for this Conversation about her important work, especially in the time of COVID-19.

STAY THIRSTY: Harmony Program's 10th Year Anniversary logo included the watchwords: "Access, Innovation & Excellence." How did you settle on these three principles to be the guiding spirit for Harmony Program's work and what have they meant to you in your life?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: Access was my initial focus when I founded the Harmony Program while working as a policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office. I was struck, at that time, by the scarcity of instrumental music programs in the city’s public schools, particularly in less affluent communities, and found myself in the right role, at the right time, with the right preparation to address what I considered an unacceptable inequity. I drew on my personal experiences with music and community service to develop a pilot project that tapped the city’s rich human and cultural capital and directed those resources where they were most needed. Innovation characterizes the way we have challenged traditional approaches to music education that continue to exclude too many children, especially those in need. What distinguishes our model is bringing instruction directly into the communities we serve, recruiting teachers who are passionate about both music education and community outreach, developing strategic partnerships with organizations that value our mission, and providing instruction that is unusually intensive and of high quality. Excellence is a hallmark of our approach because it communicates to our students our belief in their abilities to succeed and, importantly, drives them to discover that fact for themselves.

Growing up, one of the greatest gifts my parents gave my sisters and me was the freedom to explore our interests. For me, that included team sports, figure skating, drawing, and music. Access to varied activities was a critical means of molding our identities, and I value those experiences to this day. Another theme in our household was high expectations. I can remember how often I would roll my eyes when my father would study my report card, deconstruct my basketball game, or suggest an ambitious goal of some kind. What I came to realize, only in adulthood, was that my father was dreaming bigger for me than I was for myself because he believed in me. Young people need adults to guide them toward their potential and sometimes even carry a dream for them a while, until they can grab onto it for themselves. These are just a couple of influences – along with a dash of middle child syndrome perhaps – that have wired me to think independently and thrive on applying creativity and persistence to challenges, particularly where fairness and justice are at stake.

STAY THIRSTY: As the Founder and Executive Director of Harmony Program, the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic must have fallen squarely on your shoulders. How are you navigating your nonprofit organization through such uncertain times?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: Over the past few months our work has felt more urgent and important than ever. At the risk of overusing the words “access, innovation, and excellence,” they provide a helpful framework for the approach we have taken to being effective during this crisis. And when I say “we,” I mean my Board members, administrative staff, and teachers who have nimbly adjusted to working from home and keeping our operations running despite the obvious challenges.

Our primary focus has been on ensuring continued access for our students and employment for our teaching staff. When the City’s schools were closed back in mid-March, and our students were quarantined, we knew that preserving their sense of continuity and community would be as essential as their music lessons. Toward that end, we began surveying our young musicians and their families, via phone and email, and in multiple languages, to assess their needs and availability to participate in remote classes. At the same time, we were concerned about our teaching artists, many of whom were suddenly without the income they typically draw from active performance careers. We committed early on to honoring our full contracts with our teachers and, within the first two weeks of quarantine, provided them with the technology training required to engage our students while physically distanced.

Harmony Program - 10th Anniversary Gala Documentary

Our next priority was to create innovative programming to make access possible under such unusual circumstances. For our students, that meant flexible schedules, video-based lessons, rich content, and classes tailored to their specific instruments and proficiency levels. For our teachers, that meant immediate and increased professional development training so they could quickly broaden their skills, create new lesson plans, and meet their mandatory annual training requirement earlier in the year to qualify for supplemental compensation.

I am sure this is all sounding much more methodical than it felt; we had to pull all of this together as quickly as possible while trying to preserve the quality of our services. We developed three strategic partnerships that helped a great deal with the strength and variety of our programming. With the New York Philharmonic, we designed a composition workshop that produced our students’ first original work, “Transitioning,” a powerful expression of their feelings about the pandemic; our students performed its premiere along with five Philharmonic musicians on Friday, June 26 th. We teamed up with Young Concert Artists whose gifted musicians produced a series of video-based performances and targeted lessons drawn from our curriculum. And, the music company, Quaver, provided us with supplemental online music theory and appreciation resources. Also, I cannot overstate how grateful I am to our staff and teachers whose dedication to our students never wavered in the face of this crisis.

Of course, in addition to all of these efforts, my mind remains preoccupied with concerns for our future beyond this period, given so many uncertainties. We have chased nearly every funding opportunity available to us and are pleased to have started our eight-week virtual summer camp on Monday, June 29th. As for the fall, we are knee-deep in contingency planning, as it is still too soon to know what to expect from the upcoming school year. 

Harmony Program All Stars Performance

STAY THIRSTY: You have said that music should not only be part of a well-rounded education, but also an essential one. What brought you to that realization and how does it play out in communities with limited access to musical instruments and training?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: My view of music as a powerful educational tool was shaped, in large part, by the year I spent studying Venezuela’s famous national youth orchestra system, “El Sistema.” José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema’s visionary founder, opened my eyes to the rich social learning that takes place within the microcosm of an orchestra. That is, when children practice music, they also practice the very skills they need to be successful in life – listening, communicating, leading, supporting, creating, collaborating. In short, they learn to be contributing members of a community.

Maestro Abreu believed “music must be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.” And, all over that country, I witnessed the embodiment of those ideals in the students and teachers of El Sistema. Even in the most devastated barrios, students relied on their youth orchestras for stability, learned to work constructively toward a common purpose, and discovered comfort, beauty, and joy within the repertoire.

More recently, I have begun to explore the science behind music’s impact on the human brain, and its findings have made me into a veritable missionary on the subject of music’s educational value. I will spare you the reading and summarize bluntly: music-making engages every known area of the brain and can improve its form and function. Studies have long shown positive correlations between music and math, reading, language acquisition, coordination, executive function, behavior, and mental health. Now, thanks to neuroimaging, these changes in the brain can be observed and analyzed.

There is much more research to be done, but with such compelling evidence of music’s benefits, I question why more of us are not demanding that the study of music be available in all of our schools. Today, musical training is most accessible among students who already have every educational advantage, while in under-performing schools, music education is often limited or sacrificed at the altars of remediation and test preparation.

I consider music a secret weapon that is woefully underutilized. If we are serious about narrowing the achievement gap in our schools, we have to make music education a priority.  

STAY THIRSTY: You received a Fulbright Fellowship in 2007 and studied the "El Sistema" orchestra system in Venezuela. What motivated you to choose that program to study?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: I moved to Venezuela in 2007 to immerse myself in what was – and remains – a uniquely compelling and effective model of music education and youth development. What drew me to El Sistema’s model and continues to captivate me is its capacity to do what so many arts organizations struggle unsuccessfully to do, and that is to go both broad and deep with its reach and impact. El Sistema serves hundreds of thousands of children, many of them from dire social circumstances, and immerses them in a supportive community of musicians, developing their sense of self-worth and training them to play in youth orchestras across that country and with some of the best ensembles in the world.

The goal of my Fulbright Fellowship was to identify specific tenets of this renowned model that could be adapted to meet the needs of my organization and our families in New York City. While I arrived in Venezuela with immediate, practical concerns about instructional methods, management structure, scale, and sustainability, I took away with me so much more. I grew to understand the way in which music and the orchestral experience can be a source of so many of the necessities in life that children everywhere need to thrive – namely, community, security, and identity.

El Sistema redefined for me what it means to be a music educator, reset my goals and expectations, and led to a sea change in my organization upon my return. All of what distinguishes the Harmony Program’s model today – our social mission, teacher training, community-based programming, intensive instruction, and ensemble learning – are direct outgrowths of my year in Venezuela. 

STAY THIRSTY: During the pandemic, how has Harmony Program modified its activities and how have the students responded? If the pandemic goes on for several years, what plans do you have to strengthen and expand your efforts?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: Since the New York City schools closed on March 16th, we have transitioned entirely to remote learning, added private instruction and “office hours” for supplemental one-on-one support, introduced Google Classroom to improve scheduling and other logistics, and offered flexible opportunities to maximize engagement. We have also developed special projects that feature world-class artists, introduce students to different musical genres, and develop new skills, from drumline to composition.

In general, our students have adapted to these new modes of learning, and we are seeing increasing numbers of participants in our programming every week. However, we are still working to engage all of our students, to whatever degree possible for them and their families. Persistent impediments include instruments trapped in locked-down school buildings (we are now purchasing new instruments for some students and sending them directly to their homes), limited screen access in crowded households, and competing school (and now summer school) commitments. 

Harmony Program Violinist

I have been determined to make a virtue of this difficult reality, and indeed, we are learning from this experience in ways that will serve us going forward. We are prepared to continue virtual lessons and have adopted technology platforms such as Soundtrap, Zoom, and Google Meet, among others, that will become staples of our approach in the years ahead. We have discovered the benefits of video-based teacher training which allows for greater participation and reduces costs. And we have been reminded of the necessity of our parent and community networks, upon which we will increasingly rely to inform our planning and improve communications.

What concerns me more than the short-term is the next few years because the full impact of this crisis on our work and that of the city’s educational and cultural communities is still unfolding. We already know the financial consequences have been devastating. The new City budget has cut 70 percent from the Department of Education’s budget for arts education services in middle and high schools and 11 percent from the Department of Cultural Affairs. These cuts are likely to disproportionately affect communities in need, communities already struggling with the painful realities brought by the pandemic. All I can say with certainty is that the Harmony Program will evolve, as we have in the past, in whatever way necessary, to continue to fulfill our mission.

STAY THIRSTY: How has the Harmony Program impacted your students' later lives, their educations and their careers?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: Music education is a long-term investment, so beyond the initial joy of putting instruments in our students’ hands for the first time, we support their continued development with audition preparation, scholarships, guidance, and a community of teachers, artists, and peers.

With every year we see increasing numbers of students auditioning successfully for public schools for the performing arts (e.g. LaGuardia High School), competitive ensembles (e.g. LA Philharmonic’s Take a Stand Festival Youth Orchestra), selective summer camps (e.g. Interlochen Summer Arts Camp), prestigious preparatory programs (e.g. Juilliard Prep), and, just within the past two years, college music departments. We also partner with the Warner Music Group and the Royalty Network to develop mentoring programs that connect our students to a diverse array of artists and introduce them to careers in the music industry.

From year to year, in addition to tracking our students’ musical progress, we assess our students’ development socially and academically. Consistently, our students show growth across a range of social indicators that we believe are critical to their long-term success, such as self-confidence, persistence, and an openness to trying new things. With respect to their academics, early results of a long-term study suggest our students have stronger school attendance and better reading and math scores than their peers.

In general, my view is that if our young musicians take from their time with us a love of music, lifelong friends, a desire to learn, and a belief in their potential, we will have fulfilled our mission.

Harmony Program Youth Orchestra

STAY THIRSTY: Your students have played at Carnegie Hall, in Mexico City and with such icons as Plácido Domingo, André Previn, Joshua Bell and Wynton Marsalis, among many others. Which one performance stands out most in your mind and why? How do such accomplished musicians feel about working with your students?

ANNE FITZGIBBON: Hearing our students on the stage of the Museo de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, performing alongside hundreds of students from across the Americas, under the baton of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, reigns among my favorite moments. The timing of our participation in the Encounters/Encuentros Festival, at Gustavo’s invitation, coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Harmony Program and represented the perfect bookend to my return from Venezuela a decade earlier. Our students’ performance in Mexico was an inspiring reminder of how far they had come (literally and figuratively) from their first music lessons in their city schools and how music was opening up the world to them, as I had always dreamed it would. I had tears in my eyes through more of that weekend than I care to admit!

The musical luminaries you mention (and Gustavo should be included in that list) have been so generous to our students over the years, not just with their talents but with their genuine interest and encouragement. Our collaborating musicians have understood that their achievements are less important to our students than their efforts to engage them, relate to them (musician to musician), and make music with them. Those seemingly simple interactions establish a level of trust so essential to the learning process and signal to our students that they are proud members of a community of musicians.

STAY THIRSTY: You studied clarinet at Julliard, and you hold a graduate degree in Public Affairs from Princeton. Today you are a nonprofit pioneer in music and arts education supporting the academic and social development of underserved youth through the study and performance of music. As you look back over the past twelve years, what achievements are you most proud of and what things have you yet to accomplish?

Anne Fitzgibbon

ANNE FITZGIBBON: I take great pride in the community the Harmony Program has established, and marvel at what can be achieved when caring and capable individuals dedicate themselves to a cause. The Harmony Program was born of savvy Board leadership, supportive donors, visionary school principals, civic-minded musicians, creative community partners, tenacious staff, engaged parents, and eager students, all working collaboratively to further our mission – year after year. I cannot express how grateful I am to work within this community of people who believe in the powerful importance of music and have made a meaningful difference in so many young lives as a result.

More specifically, I am proud that we have modeled an unconventional approach to music education; that we have developed a system that has broken down barriers to access for children across four boroughs and Long Island; that we have built a network of remarkable educators whose careers we guide toward social as well as musical purpose; that our students are creating a more diverse and democratic future for the genre of classical music; and that we have thrived over more than a decade and will emerge from this crisis with much more yet to achieve.

After all of these years, I still get excited about what lies ahead for us. The Harmony Program will continue to expand our reach so that children in every borough have local and affordable options for music study. We will see growth in our teacher training program through partnerships with other cultural and educational organizations and the creation of a robust online library of courses and resources. We will formalize our network of alumni and increase mentoring, internship, and career pathways for them. And, finally, on a larger scale, we will advocate for the realization of a long-overdue, city-wide system that offers every child a comprehensive education that includes music.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.