How Anne Fitzgibbon Developed Innovative Solutions to Social Challenges
by SWAAY Editorial · 21 Apr 2021 · 20 min read
Anne Fitzgibbon is the dynamic founder of the Harmony Program, a non-profit that provides community-based musical training to underserved children with limited access to instrumental music education across New York City. Through intensive after-school programs, Harmony's students learn to read music, play orchestral instruments, and perform in ensembles across New York City, while learning valuable life lessons and gaining confidence. We caught up with Anne to talk about how she overcame challenges and transformed her interest, passion, and vision into an impactful non-profit in NYC.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in small towns in NJ and CT and moved to New York City for college because, as a musician, I was drawn to the city’s cultural vitality. What I didn’t anticipate is the education I would receive from the urban environment and the degree to which its sometimes harsh realities would influence my career in public service.
I attended a public high school in Hackettstown, New Jersey, and chose to attend Barnard College in New York City because of its exchange program with the Juilliard School and its intimate setting within a larger university. During college, my two passions were music and public service. I studied the clarinet at the Juilliard School and performed in the Columbia University Orchestra. I was also actively involved in a university-wide community service organization.
I pursued graduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School (now the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs) and earned a master’s degree in public affairs with a focus on urban and regional planning. At Princeton, I continued to engage in volunteer work, chairing the Woodrow Wilson School’s Committee on Community Service and leading an after-school tutoring program at nearby Trenton High School.
I consider myself a social entrepreneur and feel so fortunate to have found a career that models the familiar phrase, “Do what you love, and you won’t work a day in your life.” The path to my career didn’t feel obvious to me while I was charting it, but when I look back on my decisions, they weren’t random. I let my personal interests and experiences guide me, and ultimately, I was able to marry my passions for public service and music.
The clarinet was my first love, but now I’m learning to play guitar, and my lesson is my favorite hour of the week. Being a beginner musician again at this stage in my life really helps me relate to our Harmony Program students and their experiences – both the challenges and the rewards.
I love physical activity and the outdoors. I’ve been a runner for years and have run the New York City marathon three times. I also love to bike and swim; I think there is a triathlon in my future.
I enjoy drawing; it relaxes me.
And I’m an avid traveler. In the last few years, I’ve explored Norway, Japan, Chile/Patagonia, and the Galapagos Islands.
I’m the second of three sisters. My father was a public school superintendent, so education is probably in my blood, and my mother stayed at home -- or, more accurately, shuttled my sisters and me to our various activities. The greatest gift my parents gave us, apart from a stable and loving home, was the opportunity to discover and explore our interests. They also encouraged us in our efforts and taught us to aim high. As a child, it’s easy to take those things for granted, but from an adult’s perspective, I realize how valuable those gifts were. My upbringing helped shape the philosophy that drives my work: all children can succeed if we provide them with opportunities and set high expectations. I’ve seen the difference that can be made in a child’s level of self-confidence and achievement when she receives the kind of support and encouragement that might be missing at home or in school.
How would you describe yourself?
I once had a colleague describe me as “passionate and impatient,” and that might be a fair characterization, at least with respect to my work.
I’m optimistic, energetic, and persistent. I have a strong sense of fairness and have a low tolerance for critics, braggarts, and phonies.
I have always searched for purpose in my life, and I admire those who dedicate themselves, or some portion of their time, to helping others and making their corner of the world a little brighter.
What did you want to be when you grew up when you were a kid? Why?
Let’s see…a figure skater, biologist, librarian, teacher for the deaf… The only consistency among my early interests is that they were numerous, and they reflected my love of learning and variety. I think being an entrepreneur is a natural outgrowth of that state of mind.
Can you describe your career path? (Please tell the story of how you came to run Harmony in as much detail as possible. Readers are interested in how someone goes from having a dream to making it a reality.)
When I was in college, I had two passions: music and public service. For years I thought these passions were mutually exclusive and that only public service offered a path to my goal of effecting positive social change. My career would eventually prove me wrong.
After earning a graduate degree in public affairs, I accepted a position in the New York City Mayor’s Office, and what really captured my attention, as I worked on a variety of social service issues, was the scarcity of instrumental music education within the city school system, particularly in less affluent communities. I couldn’t accept that this cultural capital city of New York -- with so much talent and so many resources – could not make music education more broadly and equitably available.
I developed a pilot project called the Harmony Program to train musicians to teach children in need. The concept was born of my background in both music and community service. I knew musicians were hungry for the training and teaching opportunities, while families were eager for music instruction they could not have otherwise accessed or afforded. I wrote a simple proposal that captured the program’s mission and goals, approached partners to help promote the opportunity, developed application materials for participants, secured some private seed funding, and within months, we had students coming to music lessons from all five boroughs of the city.
I fell in love with the work immediately, having found a purpose that was deeply and personally meaningful to me.
But the story doesn’t end there.
I left City Hall, incorporated the Harmony Program as an independent nonprofit, and then found myself juggling jobs to incubate the organization and support myself in such an expensive city. This was the most difficult period for me professionally. Starting the program was easy; ensuring its quality and sustainability was another matter. I was multitasking poorly and dissatisfied with the impact we were having on our students. The program met only once a week, our location was inconvenient for many of our families, the quality of our instruction was inconsistent, and student progress was slow.
My situation was untenable. I knew I had to make a dramatic change and either go “all in” with this effort or pull the plug. I chose the former. I moved to Venezuela in 2007 to study “El Sistema," a world-famous youth orchestra system and model of social change through music. A friend of mine had told me about El Sistema when he had seen it featured on 60 Minutes in the year 2000. He knew their mission and model would inspire me and recommended I take a look. I had waited a few years to follow his advice, but eventually, I called up CBS, ordered a VHS tape of the segment, and was riveted by what I saw – a vision of music’s potential to shape young lives and entire communities. El Sistema was training hundreds of thousands of young people – many of them from desperately poor circumstances – to play music at the highest levels. At the same time, El Sistema was instilling in them the habits and skills to support their futures as contributing members of their communities. Within one year of that viewing, I had applied for and been awarded, a Fulbright Fellowship to immerse myself in their model.
With my rusty Spanish and my life condensed into two suitcases, I arrived alone in Caracas with a small grant to support myself, a temporary place to stay, and a single point of contact. Venezuelans have a lot of colorful expressions; one of them describes well how I felt on arrival: “como cucaracha en baile de gallinas.” (Like a cockroach in a dance of chickens.) I had stepped into a completely different world, and it is no exaggeration to say it changed my life’s trajectory.
Throughout that year, I traveled across the country visiting their musical centers, called “nucleos,” teaching my own classes of clarinet students, and interviewing and observing administrators, staff, students, and parents to identify tenets that I could adapt to meet the needs of communities in New York City. I traveled, sometimes in an armored vehicle, to barrios without electricity or sanitation services and often arrived to the sound of orchestras, spilling from windows into the dusty streets.
What inspired me most was hearing El Sistema’s visionary founder, Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, express a dramatically broader view of music’s place in the world than I had ever heard articulated and seeing, firsthand, the manifestation of his ideals. He spoke of music as an agent of social development “because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.” He compared the training of young musicians to the training of young citizens in ways I think I knew intuitively but had not fully appreciated until then. In Venezuela’s poor barrios, where students had little else in their lives but music, the orchestra became a single source for so many necessities in life that most of us have the luxury of taking for granted like security, identity, companionship, beauty, and joy.
...music as an agent of social development because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.
My time in Venezuela transformed my perception of music’s importance. In fact, it convinced me that music was not only an agent of social change but perhaps one of the most effective.
When I returned to New York City, I changed nearly everything about the Harmony Program’s early model: we moved our programs directly into the communities we served to increase access; we went from weekly to daily instruction; we immersed children in ensembles where so much rich social learning takes place, and we developed a formal system of teacher training to improve instructional quality.
Over the past 12 years, the Harmony Program has served over 1,200 students, provided over 400,000 hours of instruction, grown from a single site to 12 locations across four boroughs, and opened doors for our students to opportunities that would never have been accessible to them otherwise.
What is the Harmony Program?
The Harmony Program is a nonprofit organization that I founded to expand access to music education across New York City. Our approach is unique because we bring our services directly into under-served communities to facilitate access; provide 5-12 hours each week of instruction to build healthy habits and life skills through regular practice; immerse students in ensemble experiences because there is so much rich, social learning that takes place within the microcosm of an orchestra; and provide formal professional development training to our teaching staff to ensure quality instruction in the classroom. These elements support our goals for our students of musical proficiency, healthy social development, and academic achievement.
We are committed to the long-term success of our students and take great pride in seeing them advance from beginner group lessons to competitive study and performance programs, such as the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Juilliard Prep, and selective public schools for the performing arts, among others. Many of our students and alumni have had the opportunity to share a stage with musical luminaries like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Bell, and Joyce DiDonato. The value of these experiences cannot be overstated as they provide our young people with musical inspiration as well as a powerful sense of self-confidence and belonging within a community of musicians.
What led you to create it?
While working in the New York City Mayor’s Office on education policy, I became aware that many of the city schools were not providing students with instrumental music education. I found it profoundly unfair that so many students should be deprived of the benefits of music-making, especially in a city as culturally rich as New York. As a musician myself, I was aware of how much talent resides in this city, and that got my creative juices flowing. My solution was a simple one: train musicians to teach children in need. Musicians would benefit from the training and employment opportunity, and students would benefit from the instruction.
I became aware that many of the city schools were not providing students with instrumental music education. I found it profoundly unfair that so many students should be deprived of the benefits of music-making, especially in a city as culturally rich as New York...
Have you always been interested in music? From where did your music interest arise?
My parents were the catalysts for my musical career. They were not musicians themselves, but they had a love for classical music and played it often. My sisters and I had piano lessons when we were small. We chose instruments to study at school in the fifth grade and had weekly private lessons as well. My older sister played the flute, my younger sister played trumpet, and I chose the clarinet.
When you’re young and learning to play an instrument, you do it because it’s fun. You’re not thinking about all of the learning, socializing, and self-discovery that’s taking place at the same time. That’s what makes music-making both appealing and transformative. I recognize now how fortunate I was to have had musical opportunities at school and so much encouragement at home.
Have you always been interested in education?
I am the daughter of an educator so I guess you could say it’s in my blood. My father was a public school superintendent who often spoke of teaching as “the noblest profession.” In our household, education was paramount.
I didn’t plan to pursue education professionally, but in retrospect, it was a constant theme in my life. In college, I volunteered at a drug rehabilitation center in Harlem, preparing adults for their GEDs; in graduate school, I established a tutoring program for struggling students at a nearby high school; in the New York City Mayor’s Office, I worked on education policy; and ultimately, I found my greatest satisfaction in creating a music education organization.
Can you tell readers a bit about the current state of affairs in terms of arts education in public schools? What cuts have been made? How have they affected kids and schools? Please provide some stats that will help readers understand what is happening in this arena.
At one time, the New York City public school system had a robust band and orchestra programs. During the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, many of those programs were cut. Since that time, instrumental music programs have not been fully restored, and the impact continues to be felt most acutely in less affluent communities and communities of color. What’s more, the National Endowment for the Arts tracks changes in access to childhood arts education and has found accessibility declining most dramatically among African-American and Latino children.
The pandemic has exacerbated this situation with its devastating financial impact on the city. In response, the city budget this year cut 70 percent from the Department of Education’s budget for arts education services in middle and high schools and 11 percent from the Department of Cultural Affairs.
These cuts disproportionately affect communities in need, communities already under-served by these types of programs, and this reality can have lasting effects on students and the “achievement gap” because the study and performance of music, in particular, has been shown to promote in children improved behavior, academic achievement, healthy social development, and long-term success.
How did you go about starting the Harmony Program? That is, how did you work with government officials, schools, etc.?
The key to the success of the Harmony Program has always been the development of strategic partnerships with government agencies, schools, community-based organizations, cultural institutions, and corporations.
I created the Harmony Program as a pilot project while working in the New York City Mayor’s Office which gave me a helpful platform for contacting partners and prospective funders. I worked with colleagues at the Department of Education to gather data necessary to document the need for the program. I contacted colleges and conservatories for their feedback on our proposed model of teacher training and found them eager to share their expertise and refer their students for workforce preparation and employment. I worked early on with the New York City Housing Authority to promote our program among residents of their public housing developments. In fact, the name of my organization was originally an acronym for “Housing Authority Resident Musicians of New York.”
After returning from Venezuela, I brought the Harmony Program into a partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY) to help incubate our growing model. Their central office and network of colleges across the city provided us with office space and educational resources. Today, the Harmony Program is fully independent, but we continue to partner with public schools and community-based organizations to bring our work into the communities we serve. We collaborate with cultural organizations, including the New York Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, and Young Concert Artists, to expose our students to excellence in both study and performance. And our corporate partners, the Warner Music Group, the Royalty Network, and others, help us create opportunities for artistic collaborations, student mentoring, and career pathways in the music industry.
What was it like seeing the Harmony Program up and running for the first time?
I remember vividly seeing eight cello students tearing up and down the hallway of a Brooklyn elementary school on their first day of the Harmony Program, dragging their expensive instruments behind them! Three weeks later, those same students were sitting attentively in their seats, with proper posture and bow holds, making music. One of those very cello students graduated not long ago from the La Guardia School for the Performing Arts. I still experience a giddy feeling when I watch our students pick up their instruments for the first time because I know the potential those instruments can unlock. It never gets old.
What would you say is the greatest challenge you have faced in getting Harmony up and running?
Starting the Harmony Program or any new venture is not as difficult as sustaining it. The challenge lies in believing strongly enough in your mission that you can overcome the obstacles that stand between where you are and the long-term realization of your goals. It takes dedication to your vision and an ability to tune out the skeptics, including your own sometimes loudest and harshest inner voices.
How has COVID-19 changed your model and how have you had to pivot?
With the arrival of the global health crisis of 2020, the Harmony Program had no choice but to reinvent itself to meet the needs of its community. In the early weeks of the pandemic, we moved quickly to train our teachers in remote learning technologies and provide our students with uninterrupted instruction online to make sure they continued to progress musically and feel supported by our community.
Once we had addressed our immediate concerns, we began to experiment with our programming to help maximize participation. We offered additional teacher training online, made our class schedule more flexible, initiated organizational partnerships, generated original content, and even created a new series of online beginner music lessons we call “Harmony at Home.” This year-long series in music fundamentals put music education within reach of children everywhere via YouTube and featured a diverse array of prominent artists, composers, and conductors, including Joshua Bell, Anthony McGill, and Thomas Wilkins. I’m pleased to share that much of what we learned throughout this period will outlive the pandemic and continue to strengthen our organization and programming.
What is the happiest surprise you’ve had as Harmony has come to life?
From the very start, I’ve been pleased and grateful that the Harmony Program’s mission has resonated with so many. Our work is a collective effort, and building our community of supporters, partners, and participants continue to be a pleasure and a privilege.
Do you feel like music is a vital part of the growth experience? The human experience?
This pandemic year has forced us to consider our essential needs, and I would argue music is among them. What a powerful reminder this global crisis has been of music’s capacity to calm and comfort us, to entertain and distract us, and to inspire and unite us, even when socially distanced. I believe music is inherent in all of us, and as the great mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato recently explained to our students, “helps us access corners of ourselves” in a way that very few other subjects can and points us toward beauty, truth, and our shared humanity.
Is this how you imagined your life?
I don’t think I ever had a particular vision for how my life would unfold. My mother reminded me recently that when I was a child I wanted “to make a difference and be remembered.” I am sure what that meant in my 8-year-old mind is different from what it means to me now, but when I visit music classes and witness the daily victories of our students over boredom, insecurity, or loneliness, I feel a great sense of satisfaction.
What are your hopes for the future – personally, professionally, societally?
I would like to challenge myself creatively and take a crack at writing songs to perform on guitar, which is something I have never done.
I love to engage with young musicians and encourage them to think entrepreneurially about their futures and career options. I hope to do much more of this in the future.
I aspire to carry on the legacy of Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu by continuing to give voice to his broad understanding of the power of music and to help musicians and non-musicians alike arrive at a deeper understanding of music’s value to society and importance in our classrooms.
I also plan to find new opportunities to share my personal story of founding the Harmony Program, in an effort to inspire others to pursue their dreams. I am a passionate believer in the potential each of us has to bring about significant change in our communities.
This has been a brutal year for performing artists, and my hope is that society emerges from this pandemic period with a renewed appreciation for the richness the arts bring to our world and that our artists can take the lead in helping us heal from so much suffering and loss.
My longer-term hope is that we return music education to its rightful place within our classrooms. Research continues to show us that music-making nourishes young people in so many ways, from supporting their physical dexterity and language acquisition to their executive function and mental health. Indeed, neuroscientists assert that playing a musical instrument stimulates and strengthens nearly every known area of the brain. With findings like these, we have a responsibility to make the study of music available to all our children.
What advice would you give other women about turning their dreams into their realities?
Develop a network of trusted advisors and actively seek their advice and expertise. Be sure to cast a wide net; you might find your best resource outside your own field of interest.
Believe in yourself. Critics are everywhere, even inside us. Learn to discern between criticism that leads to self-awareness and self-improvement and criticism that is simply distracting and dispiriting.
Be persistent but flexible in your pursuits. Nothing is achieved without resets and setbacks. It’s your reactions to those tests that define your level of success.