A cacophony of sound spilled from a hogan on the Navajo Technical University campus as a group of Navajo students joined in concert with a pair of rising violinists.
Students ranging in age from 7 to 16—all novice performers with xylophones, tambourines and recorders—kept time with two visiting musicians from The Juilliard School in New York City. The result: a sound as unique as the circumstances.
“It’s not often that we get students from Juilliard on the Navajo reservation,” said Wesley Thomas, a professor in the university’s School of Diné Studies, Education and Leadership. “What we have here is the Juilliard School of Music’s Navajo extension.”
The university for five days played host to the inaugural “Heartbeat Project,” a weeklong course funded by a community engagement grant from Juilliard and designed to combine math and music skills in the classroom. Led by Ariel Horowitz and Leerone Hakami, both violin performance majors at Juilliard, the program attracted children and teens from Crownpoint, New Mexico, and nearby communities.
Inside the hogan, or eight-sided traditional Navajo dwelling, students sat on cushions around a fire pit and learned the basics of music: counting beats, reading notes and identifying rhythms.
“Really, you can’t separate math from music,” said Hakami, who coined the name of the program. “In this program we use both. The beat is the technical aspect, the math part. The melody is the heart and soul, the artistic part. So together we have the heartbeat of life.”
Horowitz and Hakami covered a white board with quarter notes, half notes, dotted half notes and whole notes. They led students in a series of exercises that challenged their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills. The women, who spent the week living on campus and receiving a primer in Navajo culture, had three ultimate goals for their program: teach the students to play a song, expose them to the arts and boost their understanding of math as a skill that is applicable to daily life.
“Experiencing art and music can change someone’s life, and we really wanted to share our passion for the arts,” Horowitz said. “But math is applicable everywhere, so the two concepts go hand in hand.”
The program targeted students in elementary school who are just beginning to tackle math concepts like multiplication and division. Horowitz and Hakami asked the class to think of musical beats like a pizza cut into eight slices. Two slices are equal to a quarter note while six slices would make a dotted half note.
“It’s hard,” said 9-year-old Cadence Joe, from Standing Rock, New Mexico. “We have to use math problems to learn music.”
Nine-year-old Kyran Tso, from Winslow, Arizona, said he hoped to use his new skills when he starts fourth grade in the fall.
“I’m not sure how I’ll use the dotted half note,” he said. “But I know how to play one on the xylophone. I know how to read notes and answer the math questions.”
The program ran two hours per day for five days. At the end, students performed an impromptu concert for the university community, accompanied by Horowitz and Hakami.
“Our whole goal was to expose kids to things that are not normal occurrences here on campus or this community, not to mention the Navajo Nation,” Thomas said. “We’re using opportunities like this to move the whole university and surrounding community forward.”