Paige Pfleger: Bringing music education back to Detroit's kids

By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published March 31, 2015

When 11 University of Michigan students walked through the doors of Woodbridge Community Center, a chorus of elementary schoolers greeted them with cheers, shouting “They’re here! They’re here!” as they ran down the hall.

The University students are part of a club called Seventh Mile Music, which gives free after school music lessons to kids in Detroit’s Woodbridge and Brightmoor neighborhoods.

University alum Sam Saunders was inspired to start the club nearly two years ago. He grew up in a low-income town in West Virginia, and participated in a similar music program when he was younger. The program helped him realize his love of music, which led him to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance to pursue a degree in piano and composition with the help of a scholarship. Without his music program, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

When Saunders came to Michigan he was instantly impressed with the University’s resources and the wealth of talent in SMTD. He learned that the funding to Detroit Public Schools’ music programs had been cut, and wondered why one couldn’t help the other.

That’s when Seventh Mile Music was born.

“I just thought it was such a shame that an entire generation of kids in Detroit were getting no exposure to the arts, especially because African Americans have had such a huge impact on the arts, they’ve kind of cultivated our musical style,” Saunders said.

The student volunteers with Seventh Mile Music travel to Detroit twice a week using University transportation. They rent instruments and meet with the kids after they get out of school for their music lessons. The kids pick an instrument that they are interested in out of the instruments that the University students can teach, like drums, piano, guitar, banjo, cello, violin and more.

In a colorful classroom in the Woodbridge Community Center, LSA sophomore Michael Payne teaches one little girl to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the cello. Payne began teaching with Seventh Mile Music last year. He was most worried about not having any teaching experience, which ended up not being a problem at all.

“The kids are all so sweet, genuinely the nicest children I’ve ever met,” he said. “They’re so friendly and they’re really interested in learning the instruments.”

The program director and co-founder of the Woodbridge Community Youth Center, Margaret Wilson, said that this program is filling a void that exists in Detroit schools.

“The children love it, they’re very excited about it,” Wilson said. “They love the opportunity to be able to play an instrument.”

Wilson said that parents in the neighborhood enjoy the program too, and the kids get to show their families what they’ve been working on at a recital that they put on in June.

The fledgling club is trying to solidify itself by creating board positions to help things run more smoothly and be more organized. Right now, Saunders is the glue that is holding the group together — he rents the vans, rents the instruments, communicates with the community members and even pays out of pocket to keep things going.

He’s dropped over $1,000 of his own money to help pay for transportation, or to buy kids instruments that they get to keep for themselves so they can practice at home — all because the club is having trouble securing funding, even from the University.

“Since we have not been able to acquire funding, if I stopped funding it, then it would fall apart completely,” Saunders said. “We’ve put in too much work to just let it go to waste.”

Saunders said the organization has applied for several University grants in the past, but was turned down from them.

“If the school were able to provide us funding, that’s just all that’s holding us back,” Saunders explained. “We have plenty of interest. There’s obviously a huge need for it in Detroit.”

Seventh Mile Music’s goal is to be able to provide instruments to every kid that is interested in learning about music but hasn’t had the opportunity to in Detroit. Because, as Saunders knows first hand, music can make all the difference.