City kids: Hands-on arts and music education filling gaps, creatively

Say "Detroit" to anyone not from here, and one immediate association people make will be the city's cultural legacy. The D provides fertile soil for musicians, writers, actors, artists and probably stuff we haven't even dreamed up yet, and spurs the imagination of people worldwide.

But those budding talents need a place to bloom, and schools can't always provide it. With increasing emphasis on core subjects, and budgets ever stretched, arts education often gets shunted to the side or treated as a once a week "special" instead of something that infuses every aspects of a child's learning.

Arts professionals of all stripes are leading innovative, quality programs to allow those kids a place to nurture their creative spark. In Southwest Detroit, Matrix Theater Company shows kids how to start with an empty stage and write, produce and act in plays that reflect the reality of their lives and times. On Woodward Avenue in Midtown, the Michigan State University Community Music School provides guidance for nascent musicians, from little kids shaking maracas to adults re-igniting their passion for an instrument, making music a lifelong and family-wide pursuit. And not too far up the road, MOCAD throws open its garage doors to families once a month for creative projects designed to engage grownups and children with the artistic potential around them and the artists who see it in a new way.

The kids who come to Matrix Theater Company for their acting and puppetry programs are almost starved for art, says Andrea Scobie, Matrix's director of education. "We offer them a low-key, low-pressure environment where they can be safe in experimentation."

Matrix offers programs in puppetry, playwriting and acting for children as young as five and as old as 18. Rather than just hand the kids a script and tell them to memorize it, at Matrix, kids are involved in every aspect of putting on a production, from writing the dialogue to designing sets and costumes. 

"We see a big boost in literacy, and it helps kids to develop creativity in many ways -- so often in schools kids are taught to the test and that's it," Scobie says. "They don't get to analyze anything or use critical thinking, there's not a lot of open-ended questions-- that's something we focus a lot."

They also go into schools and work with children on projects -- for example, they'll work with teachers to drive home a lesson in science or social studies through performance, or have kids imagine what a story they have read in language arts would be like if it took place in their neighborhood today.

Like Matrix, the MSU Community Music School gives young people access to professionals in their field of study. Faculty members in MSU's College of Music make the trek down from East Lansing weekly to teach middle school students in the school's jazz program.

That's only a small fraction of what goes on at the Community Music School. When it opened in 2009 as an offshoot of a similar program the university has run successfully in East Lansing for several years, their mission was not to replicate anything that was already being offered in the city, but to fill in the gaps, says Rhonda Buckley, associate dean of outreach and engagement for MSU's College of Music and executive director of both the East Lansing and Detroit Community Music Schools.

That turned out to be early childhood music programs, individual instrument lessons for older kids, jazz band for middle schoolers, and instrument classes for adults. "We don't want to replace public school music education – we want to support existing programs," Buckley says. 

To that end, faculty members will visit local schools and do workshops with music students, including a recent series with Etienne Charles, assistant professor of jazz trumpet at MSU, who visited several public and charter schools in the city and worked with jazz students there. 

Having access to college professors, graduate students and admissions officers through the school is just one of the intangible benefits for the children who study there, Buckley says. "Our admissions officers start talking to them in fifth grade about how doing homework and going to school every day in fifth grade allows a person to not only graduate but to aspire to be a college student." Seeing themselves as students like the teachers who become their role models helps set the path of academic success for hem.

So does the ability to delay gratification that's inherent in the study of music, says Buckley -- understanding the need for daily practice and to make incremental progress toward a goal is an important skill. Further, music teaches creative thinking and teamwork. It's been wildly successful so far -- enrollment has grown nearly 300 percent since the school opened.

Grant funding allows both Matrix and the MSU Community Music School to offer their programs at very affordable prices for local families, considerably less than similar programs in the suburbs. That's especially important in a city where a third of the population lives below the poverty level.  

Of course, you can't get more affordable than "free" which is what you'll typically pay for the monthly Family Days at MOCAD.

Offerings range from a costume workshop to, on Dec. 18 of this month, the return of the Family Hootenanny. The one common thread, says Ben Hernandez, public programs coordinator for MOCAD, is to erase the line between "art" and "real life." 

"I think it shows them that the arts they are working on are more of an everyday thing than just an elite gallery world," Hernandez says, "It helps expose them to artists more like them and more like people they know than perhaps some of the stereotypes that revolve around artists, that they are from another world and not like them."

Each month's activity involves either the artists who created the works on display that month, or someone whose work relates in some way, so that both kids and parents can engage with artists and get a sense of how they approach the world. The intergenerational aspect of it is important too, Hernandez says, as is the diversity of people that MOCAD attracts. "By opening up our doors to anybody, we expose them socially to elements hey wouldn't normally get exposed to," he says. "It's not just like art class for underprivileged kids, which can be alienating in its own way -- we want them to see people all sorts of ways."

These three are just a sampling, of course; youth matters to our cultural community and there are more places for children to access their creative spirits than you can shake a paintbrush at. These three are just a taste of what's out there, from flamenco to filmmaking -- and who knows where the next Aliyah or Jack White might be taking a class right now.

Who's who, where to go

Matrix Theatre: Puppet Scrooge, 7 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 18. Tickets $15. Reserve a spot at Puppet Make and Take one hour before showtime for an additional $5.

MSU Community School: Aspiring Musicians Program Holiday Recital 10 a.m. Sat., Dec.17. Free. Students 8-17 perform various holiday selections. 

MOCAD: Family Hootenanny, Noon, Sunday Dec. 18. Free.

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer. She shares this series with freelancer Melinda Clynes.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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