An instrumental leader
Howard Banchik will tell you there’s a lot more to music and learning to play an instrument than meets the ears.
The co-founder of real-estate investment firm Westwood Financial Corp. in Los Angeles and member of University Synagogue in Brentwood credits learning to play music as a child with helping him succeed in life.
“Learning to play music is a microcosm of life. You start off with an instrument and at the beginning you can hardly get a sound but a squeak and a squawk, and it’s horrible,” Banchik said. “You set a goal, you practice, practice, practice. You reach the goal, then you and your teachers say, ‘OK, now you have to reach the next goal.’ So it’s just like life, you’re always setting the bar a little higher.”
Banchik grew up in the San Fernando Valley and now lives in Brentwood. He began learning the saxophone at age 12. Although he adored music and had always wanted to play the saxophone, it didn’t come easy — he found he had to practice hard to get the sound he wanted.
The practice paid off. Banchik played in musical groups at high school and went to CSUN to study music, graduating with a teaching credential. After that, he became a professional musician for 15 years, playing at college graduations, bar mitzvahs and other events.
Now 75, Banchik has for more than a decade been a driving force behind the Harmony Project, a local nonprofit that teaches low-income youth how to play music. The program has received numerous awards, including a Presidential Citizens Medal for its founder, Margaret Martin, and been featured in major news media such as the Wall Street Journal, PBS and National Public Radio.
Banchik joined the board of the Harmony Project in 2002 and became chairman a year later, after he was introduced to it while serving on the board of the Fulfillment Fund, an educational organization that helps disadvantaged youth. Immediately he was drawn to the idea of teaching young people not only how to play music and be part of music ensembles, but also the accompanying skills that could help them break out of the cycle of poverty and become successful adults.
“It’s not about how good a musician they are at all. It’s more the life skills they’re learning with the study of music,” Banchik explained. “It helps with discipline, responsibility and cooperation. When you’re playing in an orchestra, you just have to cooperate, show up to rehearsals on time, show up to lessons on time, take care of your instrument. At the same time, it builds up a lot of self-esteem because they have to do performances.”
Under Banchik’s direction, the Harmony Project has grown from serving just 36 children in 2002 to reaching 2,000 low-
income students throughout Los Angeles today, he said.
The project, which has affiliate programs in Ventura County and in five other states, provides free instruments, mentorship, and private and group music instruction at venues around the city. Participants have the opportunity to join chamber ensembles and orchestras.
Harmony Project Associate Director Natalie Jackson credits Banchik’s passion, business acumen and fundraising skills with moving the organization to where it is currently. Although he is no longer chair of the board — he handed over leadership in 2013 — he continues to serve as chairman emeritus. She said his wife, Jackie, also has been an instrumental fundraiser for the project.
“You can’t really get another Howard Banchik, so he’ll be chair forever,” Jackson said. “His knowledge and expertise and his ability to understand people and understand our program — it’s amazing.”
Banchik is far more than a leader and fundraising figure behind the scenes, Jackson said. He frequently attends classes and rehearsals, stopping in to listen, offer suggestions and chat with the kids. When he attends performances, he’ll serve food and help with the cleanup and folding up the chairs, she said.
“The kids love him,” Jackson said. “He talks to everyone. He’s just really helpful and loving. It’s just wonderful to watch.”
The benefits of Harmony Project’s work with students have been confirmed by research. A brain study of the program’s students by neuroscientists at Northwestern University confirmed that children who study music gain improved critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, are able to focus better, and improve their performance in reading and math.
In 2007, Banchik established the Harmony Project’s Banchik Scholarship Fund with a $1 million gift from his family. The fund offers $5,000 college scholarships to graduates of the Harmony Project who are accepted to college or an accredited vocational school. Many of the recipients are the first in their families to pursue higher education. In 2014, the fund gave out 37 scholarships, and there are plans to distribute about 50 scholarships in 2015, Banchik said.
“Some of them really have had very dysfunctional families, abusive families, everything you can imagine, and then you look at these kids and they pull themselves up and they’re graduating and going to college,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, that’s where all the satisfaction comes from, to know you’ve provided a future for these kids.”
Banchik has served in a number of other leadership positions locally as well, including as past president of University Synagogue and board member of the Fulfillment Fund for 14 years. In November, he was named Outstanding Philanthropist by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Los Angeles Chapter.
The businessman said he believes helping others is a duty, one that he enjoys.
“If people like myself — who have good health, financial resources — if we don’t do it, who should do it?” Banchik said. “I think that’s a responsibility that we have when we have good fortune in our lives. We have to help those who are not as fortunate as we are.”