Detroit Youth Volume, the only program in the city to offer no-cost violin lessons using a special training known as the Suzuki Method, has an innovative ethic that makes learning to play music accessible to kids from low-income families. Participating Detroit children also get instruments at no cost, and parents even get gas cards to ease the strain of getting their kids to class.
Every week, about 20 young students accompanied by parents meet at the Samaritan Center on Conner near I-94 where they participate in group lessons. Clara Hardie, the organization's program director and founder, instructs the Saturday classes with fellow teacher and operations director Allison Harris and two part-time volunteers.
Astarria Lewis, 9, attends weekly classes with her 16-year-old sister Ashley Ardis, the only viola player of the group, and she's thrilled to be there. "This is a really cool and fun program," she says. "I always like learning how to play [my instrument]. I like my teachers. I like talking to my friends."
Detroit Youth Volume
(DYV) began five years ago when Hardie was tutoring and teaching art therapy as a program assistant for the Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program
at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. An Upper Peninsula native, Hardie developed the class as a mashup of her activist ideals and own upbringing in Marquette, where she studied the Suzuki Method with her mom and continued with violin lessons until she was 18.
Studying social science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hardie became involved with activism and her violin studies fell by the wayside. But after moving to Detroit for an internship with Labor Notes
, a labor-oriented magazine and nonprofit, her interest returned. She began playing with friends and eventually took teacher training at the Suzuki Royal Oak Institute of Music
Hardie left her job with the Rosa Parks youth program in 2011 but continued to teach Saturday classes, switching the venue to Orchestra Hall for several years. New DYV students continue to come from the Rosa Parks youth program, often starting off at summer violin exploration camp.
Early on, DYV used the Suzuki Royal Oak Institute as a fiduciary, raising money and getting donated instruments from philanthropic parents who sent their kids there. Now it's its own nonprofit, holding classes at the Samaritan Center and using Allied Media Projects
as a fiduciary. Currently Detroit Youth Volume is funded through donations, including those generated by holiday cards that allow donors to pledge for students on behalf of friends and loved ones.
Operating on a modest annual budget of $20,000, DYV educates students ages 3 to 16 who come from lower-income families on the city's east side. It costs about $700 a year to put a youth through the program, a price tag that includes materials, gas cards and breakfast snacks. The two teachers are the only paid employees, and both have other jobs. Hardie also teaches unrelated private lessons through the Detroit Music Teachers Collective
So what is the Suzuki Method?
If you're picturing some kind of stern musical indoctrination, think again. The Suzuki movement seeks to create a nurturing and encouraging environment that helps youth thrive as they learn.
Japanese violinist and teacher Shinichi Suzuki developed the training in the aftermath of World War II.
"He started it to bring some joy and beauty into the lives of kids who had seen war and also to develop kids who wouldn't go to war," says Hardie. "His whole point is to nurture beautiful humanity in the kids, becoming a violinist is just kind of a byproduct."
Suzuki's training is based on the premise that any child can learn. It uses observations about how children learn language as a springboard for teaching.
Elements of his method include: parental involvement; starting lessons very young; daily listening; learning to play before learning to read, individualized pace; private and group lessons; positive reinforcement; repetition; a layered learning approach that teaches songs in segments; a common, set repertoire; and learning with other children.
DYV's Suzuki program, however, is somewhat non-traditional. To start with, it's a subsidized program geared towards Detroit youth, nearly all of whom are African American and come from lower-income families. Students tend to begin older than the typical three-to-five-year-old Suzuki starting age. Due to financial constraints, the program also offers semi-private lessons in small groups to supplement group classes, rather than one-on-one lessons.
There's a democratic component to the program, too. Every season, Detroit Youth Volume holds a community meeting where students and parents help determine the organization's direction. Youth also participate in events like Dilla Day and perform paid gigs at grassroots and youth-centered happenings.
Hardie says the youth have thrived in this exciting environment.
One student, a teenager named Grandearmere, got accepted in the Detroit School of Arts after a skillful violin audition and now plays in its orchestra. Ashanti, a 12-year-old student, taught her teen siblings to play.
"We're playing over the phone to each other," Hardie says. "She'll go to the car so she can be alone and play me songs and ask me questions."
Detroit Youth Volume's founder isn't the only one who's inspired by the program's impact.
Astarria and Ashley's mother, Linda Wardlaw is on the DYV board. Seeing the program in action gives her faith, she says.
"I think the program has really been a great help to the inner-city children because it gives them something to look forward to," Wardlaw says. "They get to go different places, and they get to play with different audiences. It broadens their horizons."
Donations can be made to Detroit Youth Volume through Allied Media Projects.
David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
Photo of Clara Hardie by John Clark. Photo of DYV students by Clara Hardie.