While studies have shown that arts education programs can serve as catalysts for changing the trajectory of a child’s life, when it comes to funding for these initiatives there has been a major decline nationwide. According to Brookings, the lack of support surrounding arts programs for youth has disproportionately impacted students from historically underserved communities. Social entrepreneur Tyra Hawthorne has been devoted to addressing the issue and is using her nonprofit organization Heartbeat Music Academy as a platform to empower underprivileged youth through music and spread awareness about the importance of music education.
For Hawthorne—a Detroit, Michigan native—music has always been a central part of her life. During her childhood, she developed a passion for percussion and stayed dedicated to perfecting her craft. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, she earned a music scholarship to Grambling State University and was a part of the percussion section of the Tiger Marching Band at the Louisiana-based HBCU. The spirit of the marching bands at historically Black colleges and universities would later serve as the inspiration for Heartbeat Music Academy. In 2010, Hawthorne—a member of the United States Marine Corps—relocated to San Diego, California for her last duty station. While on the West Coast, she started a drumline program for youth at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA. After seeing the impact that the program had in the lives of the children she worked with, she decided she wanted to expand her reach and in 2014 launched Heartbeat Music Academy.
The nonprofit aims to intertwine music education with academic achievement through a variety of programs, including a marching band after-school program and an annual summer band camp. The organization works with children as young as four years old and provides them with guidance well into high school. She created the curriculum around the skills that band directors at the collegiate level look for when students audition. “I’ve always wanted to change the lives of kids through music because that’s what was done for me when I was growing up in Detroit. Music kept me out of trouble, built my self-esteem, and taught me leadership,” she told NewsOne.
For Hawthorne, launching Heartbeat Music Academy has been a journey of peaks and valleys. Three years ago, the academy was at risk of closing its doors due to the lack of funding. To save her organization, she gave up her apartment and lived inside of her academy for two years to keep it afloat. Her sacrifice was well worth it. The students that she’s trained have landed television appearances in commercials and on networks like Netflix, Nickelodeon, and ESPN. They’ve also marched in national parades. Many of the academy graduates have earned full-ride music scholarships to HBCUs, including Jackson State University and Clark Atlanta University. This summer, she hosted one of the largest HBCU-inspired marching band camps on the West Coast.
Hawthorne also launched a dance program under her organization. The young dancers have trained with the likes of Debbie Allen, Jabari Odom, and Shane Sparks. In July, she moved the academy into an 8,000-square-foot space that houses a program dubbed Preschool 4 The Arts which was designed to help prepare students for kindergarten through a curriculum that merges music and dance with regular educational topics. The organization has served over 600 children since its inception.
For Hawthorne, Heartbeat Music Academy is bigger than music and dance. Many of the children who participate in her programs are battling poverty, have experienced homelessness, are foster care youth, and have parents who are incarcerated. Going beyond the music, she has helped families alleviate their struggles by providing jobs for parents within her organization, allowing families without shelter to sleep at the academy, and making sure the fridge at the headquarters is stocked for children and their parents who can’t afford food. The program has also allowed several parents to go back to school and pick up extra hours at their jobs to create a financially stable foundation for their families.
Hawthorne is motivated by the educational impact. A 9-year-old girl with autism joined her program earlier this year and she witnessed first-hand how music has changed her life. When the youngster—who plays the trumpet—started the program she was unraveling emotionally which impacted her academic performance and after channeling what she’s been through into music, she’s excelling academically.
As far as what’s on the horizon for the organization, a docuseries that will capture how Heartbeat Music Academy has shaped the local community is in the works. It will highlight the narratives of the children and families that the nonprofit serves. Hawthorne also hopes to return to her hometown to open a community-run performing arts charter school. The core focus of all her projects will be spreading awareness about the need for music education. “People have forgotten how music makes them feel. To recreate or reimagine all of the feel-good music that we used to listen to, we have to continue to incorporate music education in our schools. Music education is impactful in the lives of children. It helps build their confidence and is an integral part of the development of leadership skills. That’s why we need to start young.”