Keeping music education within reach

For some kids, time spent at Blue Lake or Interlochen arts camp become a treasured part of their summer, where they spend a few weeks immersed in learning their musical instrument while make lifelong friends and spending time amid the beauty of Northern Michigan. 

For other kids – equally as talented – coming up with over $1000 for two weeks of music camp is as impossible for their parents as sprouting wings and flying. But an inspiring teacher in Ann Arbor Public Schools has found a way to get kids quality music instruction over the summer no matter what their circumstances are. 

Deborah Katz runs the Scarlett Summer Music Academy at Scarlett Middle School. It's part of the Ann Arbor schools' summer music programs, but is aimed specifically at kids who might not be able to get to other schools in the city because their parents don’t have transportation or are working. About one-third of students at Scarlett receive free and reduced price lunch, twice the percentage of other middle schools in Ann Arbor, and many students receive help with the summer music program's $200 fee from a scholarship program. 

"It's extremely important for budding musicians to keep up their skills over the summer, she says. "Physically there is muscle tone and mechanical skills that only stay in shape if they use them here," she says. Furthermore, their recall of notes and music reading can suffer just like any other mental skill that remains unused during the long summer months. 

Students, who range from incoming sixth graders to newly-graduated eighth graders, spend three hours at camp for three weeks in the summer. They have about 45 minutes of ensemble rehearsal, another half hour or so of music theory and musicianship, and a private or small group lesson with a coach – high school and college students with a great deal of experience on their instrument.  

"These are kids who, at whatever level, are pretty committed musicians and interested in kids. It's not just a job for them," Katz says.

A few of the coaches are graduates of Scarlett themselves, which provides good role models for the young people who are taking lessons right now. The fact that they are young, often not too much older than the students themselves, is also an advantage.  Often, the Scarlett students consider the young people more relatable and less like an adult telling them what to do.

In fact, sometimes the younger teachers can provide greater inspiration. Nicole Joslin, one of the coaches, said she was mistaken at first for a college student, and when the kids discovered she was only 16 and still in high school they began to relate to her more. 

"I think that when they found out I was only five years older than them, it made them feel a bit better because they weren't talking to an adult, but rather someone closer in age. They no longer saw me as an older person who wants them to do this and this and that, possibly how they see their parents and teachers, but as someone they could really connect to and open up with," she says. 

It also helped the students feel more comfortable asking questions and admitting where the gaps were in their knowledge. "I know that if I had to go have an oboe lesson with someone much older than me with a lot more time with the instrument underneath their belt, I would be much more apprehensive and nervous," she says. "But if I'm learning from someone who is younger, I feel more open about discussing how I feel and what I want to learn."

For Chris Haddlesey, who is majoring in trombone performance and music education at University of Michigan, the Summer Music Academy is especially important because it allows students with in interest in music to overcome the distractions of a large class of peers as they would during the school year. He saw the contrast firsthand, as he taught at Scarlett as part of his field education during the school year. 

"I think summer music education is invaluable for students because it allows for time to focus on the abstract concepts, practical skills, and discipline needed to succeed in music and other aspects of life, all in a safe environment free of the distractions and evaluations that come during the normal school year," he says.

Seth Stancroff, who is an incoming senior who plays percussion, says working as a coach has helped him be a better musician as well by forcing him to figure out a way to explain things he's known for years to students who are just learning it. 

"I like teaching kids because it helps me better understand the fundamentals of music," he says. "As I explain basic concepts to the students, like rhythm and note reading, I find myself thinking about those concepts in new ways."

All that work leads to some amazing progress over the three weeks of camp, Joslin says. She had one student who had never before touched an oboe – a notoriously difficult instrument to learn – but by the end of camp was playing at the same level as those who had had a year of experience. 

"It was very impressive hearing all of them becoming aware of how they sounded on the oboe and watching them make adjustments to see how they could make themselves sound a lot better," she says. "It was an amazing sight."

Katz pays the coaches out of the stipend she receives from the district to run the program. "I am a 40-year teacher. I have been doing this a long time and certainly make a living wage," she says. "My goal was to provide this kind of experience for students and the district funding can’t do that." 

Katz also received some foundation support, and the school district has assured here there will be a program at Scarlett as long as she can get enough kids to come. She also makes sure the kids have a a healthy snack before they leave, since she knows nutrition can also suffer over the summer when school lunch programs aren't available. 

Essentially, the program helps close the gap between kids at Scarlett who may come from financially struggling families and their more well-off peers elsewhere in the district.

"It's harder to do in a community where people are living closer to the edge," she says. "We keep kids playing and feeling accountable for playing – and we have a lot of fun." 

Amy Kuras

All photos by Doug Coombe

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