In 2019, Natalie Smith knew she wanted to do two things: find a new job and help people through music.
It was at this time that the first conception of HEART Music, or Helping East Athens Rise Through Music, was born, a non-profit organization aimed at providing free music education to schools in eastern Athens. Alongside her husband, Brian Smith, Natalie initially considered setting up a stand-alone music studio east of Athens. They wanted to settle down to give music lessons with their flutist and guitar skills, respectively.
The Athens couple specifically wanted to make music education free and accessible for children attending schools in eastern Athens, such as Cedar Shoals High School, Hilsman Middle School and Coile Middle School, where education music is not widely affordable for all students.
“We wanted to be able to erase more than just the financial barrier. We wanted to be close to schools, so the kids could walk there after school, ”Natalie said. “So we started to think, what if we did an after-school program?” It didn’t really work out, so we thought, let’s go straight to the classroom during the school day where the kids are.
It was then that Natalie and Brian’s plan came to fruition, and they began teaching music lessons and hiring other instrument musicians to teach music in the classrooms of these public schools.
The early stages of the pandemic
Natalie and Brian have both been professional musicians living in Athens since the late 1990s. While there they met other local musicians in town and musicians from the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. . Through these relationships, the couple were able to hire talented musicians to teach in the classroom through HEART Music.
“Here we are helping as many people as possible with one organization. We help teachers who actually teach [music] in these schools, ”Natalie said. “We support their program by providing high quality musicians to all of their students, not just those students who can afford music lessons.”
Even before HEART Music became what it is now, at the end of 2019 Natalie was helping students at Hilsman Middle School with their district honor band auditions during music lessons, while Brian was helping the Hilsman Middle School. Music Director of Clarke Central High School giving lessons to the student guitar program.
After working at Hilsman, Natalie asked the Music Director if she could bring in more musicians to teach the students, thus laying the groundwork for an early pilot program of HEART Music. For two months, Natalie, as a flute teacher, was also able to bring in saxophone, clarinet and French horn teachers.
But then the pandemic happened.
The hub of online learning has disrupted all aspects of children’s school life, including their lessons with musicians from HEART Music. Natalie and Brian decided not to continue with HEART Music classes for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, due to the confusing and unprecedented nature of the time.
“We thought a lot about how we were going to reorient our entry into schools,” Brian said. “We said, you know, we do all these family reunions and stuff on Zoom, maybe we could set up something like that in schools.”
Like many other aspects of their daily lives, Natalie, Brian and all the other musicians at HEART Music have started teaching students through their school’s virtual classroom options.
“We brought in all of our teachers this way, and it worked really well,” said Brian.
As it currently operates as a non-profit organization, with Natalie as the Executive Director, HEART Music is hiring around 16 musicians to provide free virtual music lessons in various instrument fields to students at four public schools in Athens. HEART Music is able to pay musicians through donations, grants and sponsorships from individuals and businesses in the community.
HEART Music has organized fundraising events to support itself financially, such as a jazz ensemble performance for a socially distanced crowd at Hendershot’s Coffee Bar in early February. There will also be a virtual silent auction in May, as well as an outdoor concert at the White Tiger Gourmet, to raise funds for the organization.
“It’s quite expensive to run our program because it’s important for us to pay our musicians well,” said Natalie. “Almost 85% of our budget goes directly to teachers.”
Another expense, Natalie said, is the ability to pay musicians well and pay them regularly. Natalie and Brian, more importantly, want to provide consistent music lessons to students in Athens public schools, and so they need to pay musicians consistently to teach those lessons.
“A great thing for us is to have consistency and to build trust and a relationship with the students,” said Natalie. “Having a workshop in one school at a time can be fun, but it’s not deep learning, it’s not deep support and it won’t get kids where we want them to go.”
Natalie said the reason HEART Music exists is definitely not to make money. She said she was not paid for her work as a general manager and was primarily interested in emboldening the community as a whole.
“Community donations return to the community by raising the levels of creativity and meaning of music in Grades 6 to 12,” said Natalie. “Then these students reintroduce their talent into the community through performance, creative effort, and simply being well-rounded citizens. It creates a real cycle of support, and that’s the way to really have a thriving community.