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Detroit kids make music in Motown

A young girl plucks out notes on the violin
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Kennedy Craig learned to play "Twinkle Twinkle" on the violin at camp this summer.

No doubt you’ve heard by now about Pokemon Go!. It was all the rage this summer. But we did manage to find a group of kids who put down their smartphones and picked up something much more old school.

Seven weeks ago, Kennedy Craig had never held a violin in her hands, let alone play one. But here she was, seven weeks later, plucking out "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on a pint-sized violin. She likes the instrument so much she wants "to get one for Christmas!"

Around the corner in another rehearsal room, nine-year old Micah Williams says he made it his mission this summer to learn how to play "Twinkle Twinkle," "Hot Cross Buns," and "Heart and Soul" on the piano, his "favorite" instrument. But until this summer, playing piano was something only other kids got to do.

"You see artists playing an instrument that you always wanted to play," says Micah, "but your parent didn’t put you up to play an instrument."
So he learned it here, at a music camp in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, where nearly half the residents live below the poverty line, and things like private music lessons are a luxury most can’t afford.
But for eight weeks in the summer, they can.

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That’s because this music camp is free for the 81 kids who signed up (roughly 75 stuck with it for the duration of camp). Four hours a day, five days a week, the kids at the Brightmoor Arts Camp study voice, violin, cello, guitar, piano or percussion. They spend the hot summer months immersed in the music of Bach, Beethoven and ... Barney, for the littlest musicians in the group.

"Everybody's not going to love music, we know that. But if we can get one kid exposed to it who loves it and wants to do it for the rest of their life, that's incredible."

Ben Greenberg is a drummer who helps run the music camp. He acknowledges that not all the kids are going to love playing music, "but if we can get one kid exposed to it who loves it and wants to do it for the rest of their life, that’s incredible." And, he says, the camp provides "a safe, loving environment for kids for four hours a day, and we see the value in that as well."


This is the second year for the music camp. Greenberg’s friend Sam Saunders is the guy behind the whole thing. It grew out of a program called Seven Mile Music that Saunders started when he was a piano major at the University of Michigan School of Music. He and some other music majors load up a van with instruments and drive to Detroit twice a week during the school year, and five times a week in summer.  


"So a lot of these children have this intensive summer program, and then the entire rest of the year they have weekly lessons," explains Saunders. They also let some of the kids rent out instruments so they can practice at home. The idea, says Saunders, is to "really turn them into trained musicians, and not just have a summer camp and nothing else."


To help embed Seven Mile Music – the school program and the summer camp – and get buy-in from the neighborhood, Saunders teamed up with Semmeal Thomas, senior pastor at City Covenant Church in Brightmoor. He’s been active in the community for years, and recently turned a shuttered charter school into a community space called Mission City, where he offers tutoring and mentoring services to folks in the neighborhood, among other things. The one thing they didn’t offer? Music classes.


Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
For many students at the camp, this is the first time they've ever played an instrument

So when Saunders asked Thomas if he could use the church as home base for music camp in the summer and lessons during the school year, Thomas says it was an immediate yes, the kids would love it. Thomas, a fan of singing and the arts in general, says the camp "gives them a tremendous amount of confidence once they see that they can master something that they never did before."


Promisse Hasan, 12, isn’t thinking about any of that. Right now she’s just trying to nail a Stevie Wonder song before the big end of summer concert the campers are putting on tomorrow at the Artist Villagein Detroit.

She says sure, camp’s cool because you get to learn about music and the things you didn’t know, like notes, rhythm and pitch. But for Promisse, the best thing about camp is getting to have fun and hang out with your friends. Oh, and rocking some Stevie Wonder in the heart of Motown is pretty cool, too.


The Brightmoor Arts Camp end-of-summer concert is Thursday, August 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Artist Village on Lahser Rd in Detroit, rain or shine.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.