The croon of cello bows fills Cedar’s auditorium lobby once more as the student cellists take their piece from the top. Instructing them is cellist and music teacher Rob Sutherland, one of 16 professional musicians teaching with HEART Music.
HEART (Helping East Athens Rise Through) music is a local organization working with band and orchestra programs in Clarke County schools. Founded in 2020 by flutist Natalie Smith, the nonprofit seeks to provide more children with the experience of taking private music lessons like the ones Smith teaches.
“I as a teacher need to get paid, but I want people who can’t afford it to be able to experience a higher quality musical life. So I’m like ‘How do I do that? How can I still get the teacher paid, and not ask the teacher to work for free, but not have kids pay?’ So that’s why I started thinking about the nonprofit,” Smith said.
Smith’s original idea for the organization was to rent a space that would help Clarke County students in school music programs by offering free or reduced price private lessons. After working with the band program at Hilsman Middle School, she realized the way to reach the most students was to go directly into schools.
“I was in there (Hilsman) one day and I was like ‘This is it. What if I figure out how to pay teachers to come to the school?’ Because all the kids are here whether your parents make $100,000 or $20,000 a year you’re in this school and you’re in this band class,” Smith said.
At the beginning of 2020 she launched the pilot program for HEART which started with only a few musicians working solely with the band program at Hilsman. Unfortunately after school shifted to virtual learning in March of 2020, HEART paused sending teachers into classrooms, but in the fall of 2020 they resumed the program by sending musicians into virtual classes.
“They (band and orchestra directors) could create breakout rooms and so I could take just the flutes in the breakout room and work with them. It ended up being really wonderful for keeping the band and orchestra programs going but it was definitely challenging for us to communicate what we need the instrumentalists to do without being physically there,” Smith said.
Funded by community donations and grants, HEART currently has 16 musicians and works with four different schools. Now that they’re able to visit classrooms again, Smith schedules these musicians to periodically go into band and orchestra classes. They spend the class period teaching students however the school music teacher requests, typically working in small groups.
“I only see them every couple of weeks but I can mess with their bow grip and make these little adjustments that are gonna make a huge difference in their sound,” Sutherland said. “I love being able to go around and make adjustments to what people are doing. They get an improvement in their sound and their eyes light up like ‘Oh wow, that’s what a cello’s supposed to sound like.’”
HEART has been working with Cedar’s orchestra for two years, sending a violinist, a violist, a cellist and a bassist to the class every other week. Smith says hiring musicians to offer small group instruction like this is a common occurrence in wealthier school music programs. HEART provides this opportunity to programs in Clarke County, and Floyd was eager to take advantage.
“It’s been incredibly helpful. Because I’m a violinist and violist and I can teach basic cello things, but as the students become more advanced playing cello it’s really nice,” Floyd said.
Smith emphasizes that giving students individualized attention is a key part of what makes HEART effective.
“I’ve worked with kids who didn’t play in class and now they do play in class. Because maybe they were embarrassed because they didn’t know the notes and they didn’t want to ask. But then we can go one on one and they don’t have to be embarrassed. They can get exactly what they need. Then they’re going to back into their classroom and they’re not going to be like professional musician, that’s not what we’re trying to do, but they can participate in class and they can feel good about themselves,” Smith said.
Senior Issavo Rushing and other Cedar orchestra students gained real world musical experience by playing in a fundraiser held by HEART. The fundraiser featured performances from local musicians and a combined symphony of HEART teachers and students.
“I learned that performances like that aren’t so stressful. It put me more at ease for any future performances that I’ll have. And it definitely got a me more used to a professional setting,” Rushing said.
It’s not just students HEART hopes to help. Smith says that one of HEART’s purposes is to offer school music teachers with encouragement and support.
“It’s great for me because everybody could do with another perspective, so it’s been really good. Also I think if you’re here every day, you get bogged down in the like ‘We never get that part right’ or whatever it is. So it’s nice to get an outside perspective on things. It’s also meant that I think our class time is being useful,” Floyd said.
Smith’s eventual goal is to involve HEART in every music classroom in Clarke County.
“But we’re trying to expand slowly so that we can be sustainable. I would like for this to be an ongoing thing for many, many years,” said Smith. “The potential of what we’re doing is really amazing because we’re not just doing a workshop once a semester or just one thing and then we’re gone. We’re there providing support for these kids week after week.”