For the Detroit Children's Choir
and its executive director, Henry Windham III, the 301 young voices that make up that choral group are doing more than just singing -- they're bringing together children from diverse communities, backgrounds, and ethnicities.
As access to choral music declines in schools across America, DCC is partnering with the Detroit Public Schools to ensure that Detroit students have the opportunity to find their voices.
"It's something that's needed within the city of Detroit. These kids love to be creative," says Windham. "Whether it's using their voices rhythmically or for spoken word or rhyming -- not specific to hip-hop, but specific to being musical in general -- it's an invaluable thing for them."
Working in collaboration with the district, Windham and his assistants travel to four DPS schools on a weekly basis, teaching general music education, rehearsing pieces, and preparing for performances. The schools -- Coleman A. Young Elementary, Cooke Elementary School, Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts, and Golightly Education Center -- provide rehearsal spaces for the DCC and invite all students to join the ensemble.
In recent years, DPS has fought the increasingly tough fight for arts and culture to remain relevant in student education -- districts statewide have felt the brunt of a dwindling arts budget. Through their work inside DPS, Windham and his team acknowledge the heavy impact arts education carries into all aspects of a child's academic life.
And the numbers support this claim.
In 2011, Creative Many Michigan
, a statewide arts and culture advocacy organization, found that high school students with higher levels of arts education perform better on the ACT and the Michigan Merit Exam across all socioeconomic categories.
"The arts help the whole individual," Windham says. "It all brings us to a certain level of equality. It is a piece of you that you can share with other people."
Outside of DPS classrooms, Windham's DCC team works within metro Detroit communities to promote the need for music education and choral music in general. Willing communities sponsor, recruit, and host participating students at community venues.
Windham says that real magic happens in these regional forums, as students from DPS join with other metro Detroit districts to prepare for their final performance.
"I find it fascinating that children don't look at the color of our skin or where we come from, but just know we can come together and create beautiful music," Windham says. "We don't have to tell children this -- they do this naturally. You see children become children again. They become uninhibited."
Aimee Kilcher, a mother from St. Clair Shores, has been informally appointed as DCC's "parent leader." She works to keep parents engaged and build relationships within DCC's parental network.
"It's easy to just drop kids off and leave, but we are finding a way for parents to be connected and build friendships within the Detroit Children's Choir community," Kilcher said.
Though her 10-year-old son RJ is also involved in piano lessons and other choral groups, she says the DCC is a very special organization for them.
"The Detroit Children's Choir has brought together people from all over. It's brought together the suburbs and the city of Detroit," Kilcher said. "Knowing that there's an avenue for the arts to be provided to children all over the Detroit area is really a gift."
After interacting with children from all over the Detroit area, Kilcher recognizes the incredible personal growth RJ has experienced while performing with the choir.
"He's very accepting. I like that he's learning to embrace all children, regardless of their background. It's been an all-around amazing experience."
This sense of community and the creation of an accepting environment for children is what the DCC consistently works toward. Though DCC children travel from all corners of the city and region, Kilcher and Windham both agree, DCC is teaching all kids the "unified language" of music.
"We come into a room in the name of music and we learn about each other's cultures," Windham says. "Sometimes our skin color or differences are acknowledged, but our heritages and cultures are celebrated here rather than segregated."
This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.
All photos by Doug Coombe.