Violinist Gregory Lewis works with the Heartbeat Music Project to help provide free music education to students on the Navajo Reservation.
Conservatory violinist Gregory Lewis is the Communications Director for the Heartbeat Music Project, which provides free music education to students on the Navajo Reservation. We caught up with Gregory to discuss his experience as a teaching artist, the value of music education in helping to preserve Navajo (Diné) culture, and how his studies at Colburn have helped in this work.
This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.
Tell us about your musical background and how you ended up at Colburn.
I’m from a small, remote city in Northern Ontario called Thunder Bay. I grew up here in a large musical family and was so fortunate that there was a wonderful violin teacher who was in the city.
After studying with Olga Medvedeva for ten years, I completed my bachelor’s degree with Oleg Pokhanovsi at the University of Manitoba in Canada. I then went on and did my master’s degree at Yale University with Ani Kavafian, and afterward ended up at Colburn for my Artist Diploma with Mr. Beaver.
It’s been a very diverse journey so far, and I’ve really enjoyed absorbing different influences, living in many different places, and seeking different opportunities each place that I’ve gone.
You work with an organization called the Heartbeat Music Project. Tell us about the organization and what that work is like.
The Heartbeat Music Project is a nonprofit organization based in Crownpoint, New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation, and through the Heartbeat Music Project, we run two different operations. We have our summer academy, which runs in May and June every summer, and we have our winter workshop during Christmas break in December every year.
Through these workshops, our children receive free music education. We provide transportation to our students, to and from their homes, and we provide two meals a day as well as snack breaks.
We seek to not only provide an education for our students, but also to break down any sort of accessibility barriers that there might be. There are many accessibility issues faced among our student body, such as poverty, lack of transportation, and the need for older students to remain home to help care for younger siblings. We’re ever seeking to continue evolving our project to meet the needs of our students beyond just the education that we provide.
How did you get started with the Heartbeat Music Project?
I joined Heartbeat Music Project in its third year of operation. It was founded by my friend, violinist Ariel Horowitz. There were few programs operating on the reservation, largely due to a lack of resources within the Navajo Reservation and a lack of support from entities outside of the reservation.
My friend Ariel decided she’d start a music education program through the Navajo Technical University, which is based on the reservation. After running Heartbeat twice and extending the length of the second program, she realized that this was valuable work that she would like to make a permanent part of her life. From there, she started building a larger team and bringing on other people administratively, which is how I got involved.
I joined Heartbeat between that second and third year as a teaching artist and as communications director for the program. Since then, our goals have been focused on expanding the program and reaching more students geographically.
What was your experience as a teaching artist like?
I really got to immerse myself in the teaching all day, every day, and it was such a humbling experience. These kids come in so eager to learn, and you can see that they feel so valued and so excited to have this sort of opportunity. Both music programs in schools and summer programs are uncommon on the reservation, so the children brought so much excitement with them each day.
Heartbeat offers new, exciting experiences for the kids, so they really came into it fully committed. Every kid worked so hard and gave it their all, and it was so inspiring to see them learn how to communicate through music and learn how to express themselves. This came naturally to so many of the students, and it was so fulfilling and rewarding for us to watch these kids really blossom in the few weeks that we had together.
Any favorite moments from teaching?
Each time that we teach at Heartbeat, on our last day together we do this huge concert where all the kids get to perform two pieces. They perform in a large group and a small group. We have 70 students, and we encourage them to invite their families, parents, grandparents, and friends.
In Navajo culture, they have these buildings called hogans, and it’s where so many sacred moments are experienced. Family moments, education, meals, and prayers take place in hogans.
We have a hogan that we perform our final concert in, and seeing over one hundred people cramped into this tiny hogan, and seeing everyone come together and celebrating the accomplishments of their children; it’s incredible and it’s so inspiring.
What do you think the benefit is for these students to learn classical music?
One of the biggest things that we’ve really tried to stay focused on is that they have their own incredible music history and their own culture with their own songs. A lot of this tradition has remained oral and is passed on through family and sung by children playing games. But because many families don’t own instruments and schools don’t have music programs, many children don’t have the opportunity to learn to read music.
So that’s where we feel the classical tradition helps, is that we help them gain the tools that they need to be able to pursue learning new music on their own, or to think, “There’s this song, this Navajo traditional song that we love. I want to see if I can play it on an instrument.”
We want to help set them up with those tools so that they can continue exploring music on their own terms. That’s where we feel that our Western classical training can help them, is to set them up to continue their own musical journeys.
How have your studies at Colburn helped you in this work?
At Colburn, I’ve been inspired so much by the sense of excellence that everyone is committed to at the school, [both] faculty and students.
I’ve really tried to apply that to my work with Heartbeat—that you don’t do anything half-committed or half-motivated, that if you’re doing it, you really decide that you’re going to give it your absolute best and use any resources you can find to contribute to your work.
Colburn has really inspired me to keep pushing through in those hard moments with Heartbeat, or those moments where the solution isn’t clear, to apply myself and figure out how we can move forward.
You helped Heartbeat apply for last year’s New Venture Competition. Any tips for students applying this year?
Tap into your community and really figure out not what you think their greatest needs are, but what their greatest needs are directly from them, and what resources you have that can help inspire them, or lift them up, or give them something that they don’t currently have access to.
Do you plan to continue teaching in the future?
Definitely, teaching is something that I’m very passionate about. I’m in the midst of submitting applications for my doctorate right now. So hopefully I’ll have lots of teaching opportunities in the future. While I do see myself holding a full-time position teaching at a post-secondary institution, I really do value experiences like Heartbeat where I use my teaching in a way that benefits the community deeply.
Something that I always want to include as part of my career aspirations is using my music outside of upper-class spheres, where we’ve got our own tradition that’s going to carry itself into the future. I want to share my music with new audiences as well, and help other people see the joy in music.