People have been noticing the salubrious effects of music for a long time. Both in regard to individuals and the public at large, its health benefits have been trumpeted by musicians, scientists and perhaps overly enthused devotees the world over. Studies of varying veracity have linked listening to and participating in music with everything from improved immune systems to heightened computational ability, in some cases leading to cultural waves which gathered cult-like followings (for instance, the “Mozart Effect” movement, born out of a particular widely misunderstood study). In recent years the fields of music therapy and the cognitive neuroscience of music have flourished, borne aloft by public goodwill and interest driven by both the intriguing nature of contemporary discoveries and pop-science proselytizers (see: Oliver Sacks “Musicophilia”).

But in addition to music’s effects on the individual, there’s also great interest in its health effects — in the less literal, non-anatomically inclined sense — on society. Music has been shown to be an excellent tool for building communities, strengthening bonds between groups of people and providing a collective sense of purpose, particularly when children are involved. This isn’t either a new idea or a secret — even as early as 1837, when Lowell Mason’s dream of public music education became a reality in Boston, a report submitted in support of his proposal cited many of these same concepts (along with a few other reasons that sound a bit ridiculous today, such as “It appears self-evident that exercises in vocal Music, when not carried to an un-reasonable excess, must expand the chest, and thereby strengthen the lungs and vital organs,” which laughably argued that singing could cure/prevent tuberculosis).

Most notably in recent years, however, a Venezuelan program colloquially known as El Sistema has achieved massive international renown for its successes. Founded in 1975 by the musician and activist José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema started with a mere 11 students rehearsing music in an underground parking garage and the goal of lifting economically disadvantaged children out of poverty. Of El Sistema’s mission, Abreu has remarked, “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development … it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.” By others, El Sistema has been described as a remarkably successful public health project. In the intervening decades since its founding, El Sistema has expanded to include over 500,000 students and inspired similar programs in other nations (including the United States), where the concept has been warmly received. Laudation has been in plentiful supply; in 2009, Abreu and El Sistema were awarded the TED Prize (as in TED Talks), and in 2007 one of El Sistema’s star students, Gustavo Dudamel (perhaps best known outside of the music community as the crazy hair conductor meme), was named to follow the highly respected Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a post which he still holds and likely will hold for several years to come.

But after all of that, it is important to remember that 40 years ago, El Sistema began as a small program made up of just a few students and leaders with a vision — a description that could apply equally well to Detroit’s Seven Mile Music.

“It’s certainly the same concept,” Sam Saunders, founder and president of Seven Mile Music, said of his program’s similarities to the Venezuelan program in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I think (Seven Mile Music) is in line with El Sistema … in that its focus is to allow access to everyone, not just those with the means previously.”

Saunders — who is a senior studying music composition and piano performance at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance — started Seven Mile Music in the fall of 2013, with the aim of providing free music lessons to Detroit’s inner-city youths, taught by University students. Beginning with the neighborhood of Brightmoor, Saunders hoped to fill what he saw as a distressing void in the opportunities available to children from the city.

“I just found that (for) children in some of the roughest areas, there were just no resources coming to them. In many ways, but particularly in music, I saw almost none of it,” Saunders said. “I read that Detroit was cutting all funding to arts and music in the schools, and that sort of affected me personally because I knew how important music was to get me out of a sort of rough situation … I knew how important music would be for certain children to rise above their circumstance. So I thought particularly in a city like Detroit, it was just a crime to do away with music education.”

Saunders began Seven Mile with very little in terms of a support network, and the road to its founding was challenging. Without knowing anyone in the area, Saunders started by driving down Seven Mile Road, in the heart of Detroit, stopping at every church and community center to propose his idea — where he was met with reactions ranging from suspicion to welcome. Eventually, Saunders found the perfect environment for the program.

“I came upon Brightmoor, which is just known as one of the worse-off areas of the city, and I went to the community center, and I met the leader of the community center, a man named Dennis Talbert,” Saunders said. “And he was so supportive of the music program, he just couldn’t contain his excitement about it.”

There were many things about Brightmoor that made Saunders feel that his idea could work well within the community, not the least of which were the people he met.

“I started meeting more people around here, and I saw that Brightmoor really has a grassroots community of leaders from within who are really working to make it a better place,” Saunders said. “I saw the combination of a neighborhood that lacked many resources but also had a lot of positive energy, and it just seemed like a perfect fit.”

In the years since, Seven Mile has expanded in scale and attracted some attention. In 2015, Brightmoor and Seven Mile Music were the subject of a documentary short called “The Key of B,” previously reported on in the Daily.

Much has been written and said about the economic plight of Detroit, the generalities of which are universally known enough that reprinting them here would be unnecessary. Let it suffice to say that when I accompanied Saunders and other members of Seven Mile into Brightmoor that the dilapidated state of many of the houses we passed confirmed a great deal of what is said about the city but my observations at our destination also lead me to lend credence to Saunders’s statements regarding the positive energy of the community.

The trip in which I took part was actually one of Seven Mile’s newer offshoot programs, dedicated to a combination of visual art and creative writing. The art program goes to the neighborhood on a weekly basis. There are also two weekly music trips, a large trip with about 20 teachers on Fridays and a smaller trip with about six on Wednesdays. We arrived at the building of Mission: City — one of Seven Mile’s community center partners — around 7 p.m., finding a handful of students finishing some tutoring sessions. 

The common room of Mission: City had the smell of an elementary school classroom and complimentarily themed decor (an example: a poster of check-boxes, reading “Bullies are: Not Cool, Not Friendly, Not Popular, Not Respected, Not Welcome, All of the Above,” the last option of which bore a big red checkmark). To our right a boy was constructing a Eiffel Tower-like structure using gumdrops and toothpicks. On the back wall of the community center there were several rows of uniquely patterned tiles, each apparently hand-crafted and bearing the name of a person or group to which it was presumably dedicated.

While I conducted an interview with Saunders, students worked with Seven Mile’s art teachers on a Van Gogh-themed project. At the beginning of the activity, students wrote haikus about sunflowers, and then proceeded to draw their own sunflower images, using Van Gogh’s famous painting as a model. In a side room of the building, a couple of boys could be heard drumming on a table with markers, prompting Cece Simonsen, a teacher with Seven Mile, to say to Saunders, “Go talk to them; they should join the drum corps” — another of Seven Mile’s more recent programs.

During the course of the trip, Saunders showed me a closet full of the instruments Seven Mile uses, a collection of various keyboards, violins, cellos and guitars, most of which were purchased using money collected via a GoFundMe page. Like many nonprofit organizations, Seven Mile is frequently low on monetary resources, and relies upon public donations given through either their GoFundMe page or website. Currently, the organization is in the middle of an instrument drive, the goal of which is to collect both instruments and funds with which to buy more.

“We’re doing an instrument drive with Spring Fest, with Music Matters … that’s the thing we’ve been (flyering) around campus about,” said LSA junior Mike Payne, Seven Mile Music’s board chair.

“For the students who aren’t able — because of time commitments or for other reasons — who aren’t actually able to help us out by being a teacher, by being a volunteer, they still can do something,” Payne continued. “If you haven’t played an instrument in a while, and you’ve put it down for a while, and you’re sort of at that point where you think you’ve moved on from it — that instrument still has a lot of value, especially to the students that we work with that wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to play. It could sit at home or it could be in the hands of a child.” 

In addition to the programs Seven Mile offers during the academic year, they also operate a summer camp in Brightmoor called Brightmoor Arts Camp, which has very similar aims to the main program, with slight additions.

“It’s an eight-week program … the goal was to bring in some of the teachers we already had, but also bring in teachers and musicians from the community to make sure that the music and culture of the area was still being cultivated,” Payne said. “It really was something that was sourced from Detroit.”

During the course of the previous summer camp, Saunders lived in Brightmoor in order to better get to know the community. Following his graduation from the University this semester, Saunders plans to move back to the neighborhood to continue growing the program as much as he can during a planned gap year before attending graduate school.

“I’ve always dreamed big for this,” Saunders said. “I see this at first spreading to the (rest of the) city of Detroit … and then spreading around Michigan — Flint, Saginaw, Benton Harbor — some of the more underprivileged areas of Michigan.”

In addition to the state of Michigan, Saunders has long-term goals for Seven Mile, which include dramatic expansion.

“I definitely want it to go national,” Saunders said. “I think there is a need for this all over. I see a model where we provide start-ups at other universities — like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, we would provide an umbrella funding, curriculum, everything needed for a motivated student at Johns Hopkins to start a subsidiary program. I really want it to expand nationally, and I see that happening through the collegiate system.”

Part of the reason why Saunders is so passionate about bringing music to disadvantaged children is his own early experiences with it, and the transformative effect it had on his life.

“I started playing piano when I was about 10, and it really got me on a better track in life,” Saunders said. “I was just not doing well in school, I was not doing well socially, I just wasn’t doing well all around. And I discovered a love of music, I discovered I had a talent for it and I just discovered an outlet for myself.”

Saunders also cited the positive social health effects of music, particularly emphasizing the impact it could have on children from underprivileged backgrounds.

“Just on the most basic level, I think it is the purest form of emotional expression, so particularly a child in a troubled circumstance, with a lot of emotions welling up inside of them, it gives them an outlet for those emotions,” Saunders said. “It’s not like these emotions disappear — either there’s an outlet or they fester and grow into something worse, like depression or violence. A lot of children in a neighborhood like Brightmoor have very few extracurricular activities … so they have very little to do with their time. Combine nothing to do with a very troubled situation and you often have a child getting into a bad circumstance.”

While expressing a wish to not overstate what he believed Seven Mile could accomplish — mentioning that the program would likely simply be a bright spot in the week for many of its students — Saunders did display optimism about the sort of existence-altering effects Seven Mile could possibly create. 

“I think it does have the potential to be transformative,” Saunders said. “If we find a couple children that really have the aptitude and passion for it, then this really could change the whole trajectory of their lives.”

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