Voices of Youth: Detroit area students open up about making music during the pandemic

For 15-year-old Mi'Kyah Samuel, adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely involved making some adjustments. But as a young musician and composer, it hasn't slowed her drive to make music. 

In fact, if anything, it's allowed the teenage multi-instrumentalist more time to practice and focus on her own compositions. Right now, most of her original songs are jazz tunes, but she's also been experimenting with other genres like R&B.

Mi'Kyah Samuel"For the most part I'm trying to make them happy ... sometimes they get sad and angry," she says. "It helps me with my emotions, especially with what's going on around the country ... with people being killed for the color of their skin."

Samuel lives in Redford and attends the Detroit School of Arts. She got her first taste of music at just 4 years old learning simple songs on the piano, which she still plays. From there the youthful performer picked up the violin, guitar, bass guitar, and most recently the upright bass. While she plays a lot of classical on the upright, she's really drawn to pop and jazz, with Herbie Hancock — whom she saw in concert last summer — being a big influence on her own music. 

By and large, Samuel has been cooped up at home since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her emergency orders in March. While the teen misses seeing her friends, she's been keeping busy exercising, riding her bike, working on her music and studies, and, as she puts it, "trying to avoid getting COVID-19."

In addition to being enrolled in high school classes at the Detroit School of Arts, which starts up again next month, Samuel has been supplementing her music studies with lessons through the MSU Community Music School in Detroit.

Music and community

The music school is an outreach unit of Michigan State's College of Music, with campuses in Detroit and East Lansing. Over 60 classes are offered a week on subjects like early childhood music, instrumental basics, ensemble playing, and lyric literacy.

"We teach music to everyone from babies to seniors and everywhere in between," says director Jill Woodward. "But our sweet spot is young people who are budding musicians and composers and future arts patrons, leaders, performers, and teachers."

This year, the Detroit school is focusing on a special curriculum initiative called "Music Empowers 2020," infusing all its programming with social justice concepts to explore issues like police brutality, immigration status, and gun violence.

The Motor City campus also offers lessons at subsidized prices and financial aid to qualifying individuals. Instruments can be taken out on loan by registered students through a special "Lonely Instruments" program. 

During the pandemic, the school has been staying in touch with students through Zoom, phone calls, and texting. All of their classes moved to a virtual format in late March, but there have been some changes put in place due to the shift online.

"Music can't be played in real time over the internet because of latency or jitter," says Woodward. "There's millions of little packets of information traveling over cyberspace. Not everyone's computers are the same and music requires absolutely perfect timing."

Taking this into account, the music school has modified its online lessons to focus more on aspects like solos and technical advice.

Right now, Samuel, who's been with the school for four years, is enrolled in a Roots of Jazz class. She's also really happy to be keeping in touch with her instructors Jonathan Dixon, who's been helping her with nail down some of the particulars of her piano playing, and Dr. Tia Harding who's been sharing insights on music theory.

"It's been really good," she says. "It's totally refreshing to see other people than your parents every day. And you can learn as well as see them, even though it's virtual."

Virtual lessons

Najee Hakeem, 15, is one of Samuel's many classmates at MSU's Community Music School in Detroit. And like her, he's thankful for their virtual offerings. One of his most memorable online experiences with them involves a virtual collaboration between band students and their instructor Tyson Haynes.

"We recorded ourselves playing music on each instrument ourselves, and then at the end, our band teacher put it all together as one piece," he says. "We played movie music like 'The Lion King' and 'The Incredibles.' It sounded awesome!"

Hakeem, who lives in Redford and attends South Lyon East High School, got his start with music on the piano, but is currently focusing on percussion instruments. As with so many people, the pandemic hasn't been the most pleasant time for him. He's found it frustrating to have to constantly focus on handwashing and avoiding touching surfaces that could potentially spread the virus. But he believes it's worthwhile to take steps like these to prevent people from catching COVID-19. 

Although Hakeem misses the feeling of playing in-person with other students, his practice and online classes have been helpful in dealing with the pandemic.

"Music has distracted me and helped me relieve stress," he says. "And [online lessons] give me time to talk to other people that are doing music and going through the same things as me."

Bonfires and band practice

Shammah Sharp, 17, who takes classes at the music school with his 13-year-old brother Gabe, isn't quite as enthusiastic about the online lessons, but he's starting to get used to it.

"It's a little difficult, because I'm not used to doing stuff online, but it's still pretty cool," says Shanmmah. Shammah Sharp with his mother at the Community Music School in Detroit.

While both brothers are drummers, they've branched out into other instruments as well; Shammah also studies piano and Gabe plays the trombone. The two of them, who are homeschooled, live in Highland Park with their mother and father and seven other siblings.

The pandemic hasn't been the easiest time for Gabe and Shammah, but they enjoyed a break from the monotony this summer attending Camp Michawana, a Christian-based camp in Hastings, not far from Battle Creek on the west side of the state. 

Located on the shores of Long Lake, it offers K-12 youth a chance to partake in summer pastimes like campfires, ziplines, and water activities. And this year, the camp's organizers have been taking care to follow state and CDC guidelines to protect campers.

"It was really fun. We did a lot of stuff: swimming and tubing," says Gabe. "No one had Corona. We knew, because we had temperature checks."

According to Shammah, the camp followed social distancing practices and required campers to wear masks. Unlike his brother, he's not 100% confident no one had COVID-19, but he's not aware of anyone getting sick from being at Camp Michawana.

Life during the pandemic has been somewhat boring for Shammah, who wishes he could do things like play laser tag and perform in public again.

"I'd like to stop wearing a mask. I'd like for it to stop sooner than later, but it might happen later than sooner, so I'm kind of mad."

His brother, on the other hand, seems to be focused on making things happen with music. 

"I've been trying to practice my instrument, get my skills down and figure out some songs," says Gabe. "Everyone here plays instruments, so if we could put it all together, we could have a band ... I really want this to happen." 

Marching with masks

Arianna Peterson, 15, has been taking private lessons with Dave Rajewski, who teaches trumpets with the Community Music School. She enjoys the fact that her music education has continued into the summer months. 

"I had a band class," she says. "Now I just take private lessons with Dave. He's been teaching me jazz, and I'm expanding my horizons while being out of school."

Beyond that Peterson also had the opportunity to participate in marching band practice in-person every other week. While it's been fun to see her friends, she can't help but she finds the social distancing protocols confusing.

"It's been weird because you can't stand near each other," she says. "We have masks on, but if we have to play our instruments  we have to take our masks off because there's no way to play with the masks on. It's something we're getting used to."

While some students would like to be out in front of an audience again, that's an aspect of the pandemic she doesn't really regret.

"I like performances, but I never looked forward to performances, because I get really nervous," she says.

That said, she does miss the way life was before COVID-19 arrived and looks forward to the day she'll be able to do things like go on vacation again without a mask.

"COVID-19 is definitely changing the way everything works. I don't know if we're going to have to take shots like we do with the flu ... but I hope it ends soon."

Voices of Youth is a Second Wave Media series that captures youth perspectives during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.