Music education for every child in DetroitQ&A with Damien Crutcher: Nonprofit Journal Project

Spearheaded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Harmony is a collaborative of more than 40 local arts nonprofits, schools, and community organizations to create and strengthen music opportunities for every child in the city. Managing Director Damien Crutcher — who also founded the nonprofit arts afterschool program Crescendo Detroit — talks about the work Harmony is doing, the power of collaboration, and the importance of music education.

Collaboration seems to be at the heart of Detroit Harmony. Who are some of your key collaborators, and why is collaboration so important?

I have to be honest: When the DSO put out the first press release — music education for every kid, instruments for every kid — I thought they were absolutely insane. One organization cannot do that. It’s an extraordinary lift. And so, the first thing that I did was I put together a leadership team of people from Detroit and across the world to help me think it through. My music education workgroup has teachers, principals, retired superintendents, artists, city leaders, civic-minded people. Crescendo Detroit is represented, Detroit Public Schools is represented by administration and teachers, charter schools, churches, other nonprofits like Sphinx, Seven Mile Music, Interlochen, Blue Lake, MSU Community Music School, Motown. They've been meeting with me for the last two years to make it come to life.

It's easier said than done. I told my colleagues at the DSO and the board members, “Look, if this thing seems like it’s DSO-centric, we're going to lose.” It's not just about getting kids to the DSO, but it's about all these other programs, spreading out resources, sharing best practices, and understanding that each one of these organizations all compete for the same funding. It took a minute, but we built some trust.

Detroit Harmony is committed to providing instruments to any child who wants one. How do you make it happen?

A couple of years ago, we decided to have an instrument drive. We collected almost 2,000 instruments. I thought that I could just say it's one month, but they just keep coming. We're probably at about 2,400 instruments at this point. The Michigan State Marching Band helped us, the Michigan Marching Band helped us. There were drop-off sites in Grand Rapids and East Lansing, Southfield, Berkley. We had them all across the state, which was good because it was able to galvanize support for Detroit Harmony.

Earlier this year you held your first collaborative music impact event — 132 kids from three different schools ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade at Greater Grace Temple Church. How did it go?

The theme of it was celebrating Detroit's arts legacy because our students don't really know that Detroit is a music capital of the world across genres. So they got a goodie bag, they got coloring pages of Big Sean and Aretha Franklin and Aaliyah. Our partner programs set up tables to discuss their programming with the kids. Motown was there, Crescendo was there, Girls Rock Detroit, Sphinx.

The kids spent some time talking to the people about their programs, and then they moved into the sanctuary for performance. There was a samba percussionist, a jazz gospel ensemble, the DSO String Quartet. Then they went into breakout rooms to try instruments. The samba player, his crew had drums and stuff for kids to try. Detroit Harmony had a room set up with brass and percussion instruments. Sphinx had violins. Lydia Cleaver teaches at Cass Tech, and Cass Tech has the oldest high school harp program in the country. She brought five harps and let kids try harps. And now we're just following up with the kids in the schools to see, did they sign up for a program? Are they interested? So it was a good collective impact test. It was fun, nerve wracking, but it was great.

Do you have any other events or initiatives planned for the future?

Right now we’re setting up Detroit Harmony information tables at any event during the summer that we can find. We’ve developed a virtual map, which was one of my major goals, and we have on that map almost every nonprofit, every school that offers music. So if we meet a kid, we refer them to a program right on the spot.

We want to start an instrument repair tech training program here in the city, so we're working with the city of Detroit’s workforce development people to design that. We've got the curriculum, we've got the ideas; now it’s just working through to see who could be the first people. I'm thinking that in the fall, even if we start with one or two people, we’ll go live. Start small, figure it out. It's much more involved than I thought to start workforce training programs. But the city of Detroit, Dana Williams and her staff, have been absolutely outstanding in spelling it all out.

Why is music education important for young people?

First of all, I'm the product of music education. I grew up in Detroit. Back then every school in Detroit had a general music teacher, a band director, orchestra teacher, and a choir teacher. So I was exposed to music early on. I played trumpet. And when I got to Cass Tech, I was not a good trumpet player. I discovered the French horn by accident, and my life changed forever at that very moment. There were scholarships that rolled in for me to study with a Detroit Symphony Orchestra member, Bryan Kennedy. I wasn't really good at anything else, but because of music education, I was able to go to Interlochen, study music education at Michigan State University, and I did a masters in conducting at Michigan. For me it has been a career path, a way of life.

On the other side, we just want kids to be able to enjoy opening up an instrument case for the first time. Just the sheer joy of music making is important. If they choose it as a career, great. If not, it makes us better people. It makes us whole and happy. We love music! Music is like food. We love food. We love to eat. We love to socialize around food. Music is the same thing.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.