Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
A program offered through the Music Center in Battle Creek isn’t in its infancy stages, but its participants are.
This year, as it has done for more than 10 years, the Music Center
is offering its Music First classes for children ages 0 to 5 years old. Susan Balbaugh, Executive Director of The Music Center, says these classes are among several existing and newer programs that have been developed as a way to build a base of future patrons and musicians.
“The Music Center is not about making pretty music, it’s about using music as a tool to do good for individuals and the community,” she says. “At the very root is music at the infant level.”
Balbaugh, like leaders of arts organizations throughout the United States, knows that the survival of the organization she leads depends on the ability to attract younger audiences and remain relevant
In addition to the Music First program, the Music Center also offers various choral opportunities including the Sojourner Truth Choir, music classes for adults and children, and manages the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maestra Anne Harrigan.
“We have to figure out how to remain relevant and that is the lens we look through in everything we do,” Balbaugh says. “If we want to just sit on the sidelines and say it’s all about Mozart and Brahms, that’s not enough.”
The Music First program, she says, “really took off” when Teri Noaeill, Artistic Director of the Community Music School, began leading the program based on the Gordon Music Learning Theory
six years ago.
“When babies are born, they possess the highest musical aptitude they will ever have, similar to what we know about language learning,” Noaeill says. “Early music exposure will prepare children for later musical development. Music First is designed for an adult and child experience. This can be a parent, grandparent, guardian, or any adult designated to attend the classes.”
During each class children have opportunities to sing, chant, move, dance, listen, and play simple instruments. All of this “helps them build a solid foundation for later music,” Noaeill says.
Brianna Eldridge says her son, Zander, began attending Music First classes when he was 8 weeks old.
“He might not have been able to sing along or dance to the music, but it was clear he was engaging in his own way by trying to mouth the sounds he heard and later to attempt to match the pitch of the music. It was truly incredible to see a child so young doing this,” Eldridge says in a press release.
Brianna Eldridge's son, Zander, began attending Music First classes when he was 8 weeks old.
Noaeill says the program is available to all children, including those with special needs. She says parents of children are encouraged to use the Music First program as another form of support.
To ensure finances won’t be an obstacle to a child’s participation, financial aid is available, in addition to funds available through the BCreative Program
offered through the Miller Foundation, which covers 50% of the cost for eligible kids age 3 and up.
“One of my personal agenda items is to make sure kids are able to be involved in music without the financial aspects of their family interfering with that,” Balbaugh says. “When I was a child, I wanted to play the flute, but my family was destitute and I was never able to do that. I don’t want that to ever happen to another kid.”
The Music Center, she says, is able to offer financial assistance because it is financially healthy thanks to COVID relief funds it received over the last two years and contributions from individual donors and the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the Miller. and Binda foundations.
Asher Alexander, 2, shows off his drum skills while instructor Teri Noaeill encourages a younger sibling during a Music First session at the Music Center.
“They believed in us and held us up and helped us get through COVID,” Balbaugh says.
The Music Center also receives funding through the Michigan Arts and Culture Council (MACC) and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The sounds of success
As COVID fears waned, in June the Music Center opened everything back up and classes “just exploded” Balbaugh says. Five new faculty members were hired to teach piano, violin, voice classes, and Music First. “We can’t hire fast enough to fill the need.”
A large part of this demand is driven by a lack of opportunities for music education in schools, the more traditional channels for such learning, Balbaugh says. Less music education in the schools has both “hurt and helped us,” she adds.
Parents and guardians who understand the value of music will enroll their children at the Music Center to fill that void.
Malik Alexander, 4, and Teri Noaeill, instructor, play together during a Music First session at the Music Center.
“A lot of what we used to see is students who wanted the extra teaching and learning. They may be in band and want to take private lessons to take their playing to the next level. The majority of schools don’t have the programs that would be feeders into our program,” Balbaugh says.
“If the school doesn’t offer orchestra anymore, we’ve lost that as a feeder program. If there was a young person who was a good cello player but wanted to be really good, they would supplement what they were being taught in school with one-on-one interaction here. That was a feeder program for us. A lot of those are gone.”
Currently, about 550 youth are taking classes at the Music Center. But classes also are available to adults and they represent 25 percent of students enrolled.
To increase its visibility, the Music Center is taking a deeper dive into community outreach efforts, an area of focus for Balbaugh and Harrigan.
The Music First program encourages parents to bring infants to the program.
These efforts include having a presence at community events like the upcoming Bruin Boo from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 26 on Kellogg Community College’s campus. Billed as a family-friendly event, Balbaugh says Music Center faculty will showcase what they are doing, hand out information, and answer questions.
Plans also are in the works to take music performed by Music Center musicians on the road for a fee or at no cost. This could include anything from a string quartet or five-piece band providing background music at a corporate or nonprofit event to performing at a private event. In addition to creating greater awareness and appreciation for music, Balbaugh says opportunities like this “take away the stigma that music is too high-brow or inaccessible.”
To further reinforce this, Balbaugh also plans to speak directly with area youth about the types of programs and classes they’d be interested in participating in. In the past, faculty members would tell her what they see as needs or will identify specific programs or classes going on at other schools that may be a good fit for the Music Center.
“I want to talk directly to kids to say ‘What do you want?’ Kids these days are not going to respond to a survey about their music,” she says. “I want to know what they want, not what someone else thinks they want.”
Susan Balbaugh is the Executive Director of the Music Center.
She recently spoke with a group of youth at Washington Heights United Methodist Church who had participated in a summer program focused on financial literacy at the church. She says they explored ideas for a Hip Hop and Pops Choir and a percussion ensemble, among other things. She also has begun having regular conversations with Pastor Monique French, who leads the church, about a collaboration next summer.
She also is looking at collaborations that will give youth opportunities to work together through studio production classes that would involve singing, songwriting, and video put together in a digital format that could be marketed and sold to a larger audience.
“We have an immense pool of talent in this community when it comes to the arts, especially the music talent. It's huge for a community of this size and is predominantly blue-collar. When people come to the symphony from out of town, they’re shocked.”
She credits the Symphony Orchestra's Harrigan with continuously raising the bar for herself and the musicians. “We’re seeing a lot of young musicians coming in to industry and coming in at a higher level than we saw 30 years ago,” Balbaugh says.
Maintaining this upward trajectory will require a continual and intentional focus on the next generations.
“If you don’t have the arts available to kids, you’re going to have kids who are not as broad-minded or broadly educated. We know that kids who have been involved in music for at least four years test higher
in language arts and mathematics,” Balbaugh says. “But these kids aren’t doing it for that reason alone. They are involved in the arts because they want to create a vibe that is all their own. It is up to arts organizations to make sure they are able to do that.”