This Grammy-Nominated Teacher Is Using His Classroom To Prepare Students For The Rest Of Their Lives

New Orleans’s Keith Hart, who is nominated for The Grammys’s Music Educator Award, explains the transformative power of music education.

February 10, 2017
This Grammy-Nominated Teacher Is Using His Classroom To Prepare Students For The Rest Of Their Lives Keith Hart and his students.   Courtesy of Keith Hart

As music and art programs continue to face cuts in school systems around the country, the programs that do persist continue to provide evidence for the long-lasting positive effects of arts education for students. In New Orleans, musicianship is a centuries-old craft that holds together neighborhoods and communities, and the city’s schools have played an invaluable role in that tradition.

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Keith Hart, a native of the Treme neighborhood and the director of the music program at KIPP Believe College Prep Middle School in the Hollygrove neighborhood, sees music education as a fundamental aspect of his students development. Mr. Hart, who founded the music program at KIPP Believe 11 years ago, is one of ten music educators from around the country who has been nominated for The Grammys's Music Educator Award, which highlights the role teachers play in the lives of their students and in developing the artists honored each year at ceremony.

Speaking to The FADER on Thursday, Mr. Hart explained the role music education played in his childhood and the continued importance of music education in creating well-rounded students.

When did your love of music begin and what inspired you to go into music education?

I was inspired to play music in seventh grade by a gentleman by the name of Herman Jones. I remember in middle school, in band class at Charles J. Colton, Mr. Jones gave a speech about attitude. I remember from that conversation still to this day, he would say that your attitude and your choices define you. He would say that intelligence is not fixed. Everyone can actually become intelligent through your effort.

This one student that comes into mind required a lot more attention. He had a reputation for fighting. One day, Mr. Jones was giving one these famous speeches, and he had this way of making you feel like you could actually take on the world. After this speech, this big, strong guy started crying. I couldn’t believe that he was able to engage the toughest boy in school and touch his humanity in a way that made him change. And he really did change. From that day forward, I remember saying to myself, That’s what I want to do. I want to teach. I want to inspire. I want to transform.

Why do you think music education is so important for youth, particularly in the city of New Orleans?

It’s important for a number of reasons. The first is this idea of “the whole child,” balancing the right and left sides of the brain. Two is that music is actually academic. There’s a high set of standards to adhere to that you can measure and show progress from infancy to mastery. And three, it actually gets into intangibles such as grit, independence, interdependence, what it means to be a collaborative producer. For music, the success of the whole hinges upon every single person in that group doing his or her part. For it to land well on its audience, it has to be 100 percent correct, not 99. When you engage in that sort of rigor and expertise, it actually shapes you as a person. You’re able to transfer those tools to any subject area, which I think is very powerful.

To be a kid in New Orleans, you actually grow up in an environment where, instead of something telling you, “Try harder,” or “be great, or “make good choices,” you had engage for yourself. You know what it feels like to be able to go from not being able to play a note to actually producing a note. The things they are taught, they experience. It’s contagious throughout the neighborhoods and throughout the city. Everyone plays music, not for the sake of becoming a musician, but for the sake of becoming a rounded person.

Were there musicians in your family? What was the attitude towards music education during your childhood in New Orleans?

I followed my oldest brother, who was what they call a natural. But more importantly than that, the neighborhood I grew up in, which is the Treme area, is rich in heritage, community, and intellect. There’s a place called Circle Food Store, which still exists, and every Sunday, the teachers who taught me at school and the community would come together to have these meetings. We were just kids playing around, but I clearly remember watching how they conducted themselves and the things they talked about: this idea of community and what it means to serve. We would hear this economy of language being passed around while we were playing or throwing the football.

I was in a class there called “The Talented Ten,” meaning you were ten of the most influential kids that were kind of handpicked to continue the legacy of education. I didn’t really know that then, but looking back I’m like, “That’s what they were doing.” They taught us what it meant to be a tradition-bearer — someone who lives the values of the community. And it was our job, me and these nine other boys and girls, to continue this. So when you become educated, you must come back and help bring up the roses in the concrete.

For students who may be dealing with trauma, do you see the music program as a therapeutic activity?

The hardest struggle for most of my students that I’ve observed is belief — trying to teach them and help them connect with things they can’t see. In spite of what they may be looking at, the world can actually make sense. No matter what they’re going through right now, this is not the way it’s always going to be. You can change your situation.

In class, we read a lot of rich literature and then we play the music from those works. And when you’re able to engage in that, it stimulates their imaginations and we can then have conversations that can help them make sense of their lives and start to generate solutions. That piece in and of itself helps with trauma. When they’re able to name, and talk through, and identify those problems, it has healing power.

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