Battle Creek

Inner City Music Proving Arts Can Teach makes huge IMPACT in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series. 
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Notes, beats, and keys are among the building blocks of a well-rounded education, says Carolyn Ballard, Director of the Music Center’s IMPACT program.
A retired educator who was both a teacher and principal with the Battle Creek Public and Lakeview School District, Ballard was raised in a musical family of nine boys and nine girls in New Jersey. She says her mother was a “gifted” singer and church musician who surrounded her children with music and formed a family gospel singing group. She took them to sing at church concerts and performances, many of which featured well-known recording artists.
“I’ve been singing since I was able to talk,” Ballard says.
As an educator for 48 years who participated in many community music events, she says she was able to make the immediate connection between music and its impact on the brains of students who sing, dance, or play a musical instrument. This was not lost on Marge Weil, the previous Music Center director who presented Ballard with a concept she developed that became IMPACT (Inner-City Music Proving Arts Can Teach) in 2001.
“Marge was hearing of children whose families weren’t able to pay for music lessons. There was a whole group of gifted children out there and she wanted to find a way to supplement these costs,” Ballard says. “The Music Center had a lot of children attending, but not a lot of children of color and other demographics because their families could not afford to send them.”
Around this time, a youth and adult choir was being assembled to sing at the dedication of the Sojourner Truth statue in Monument Park in 1999. Ballard says there were close to 200 children in that choir, many of whom wanted to continue after the event. This made sense, she says, since there was no major choir of color in Battle Creek and it led to the formation of the Sojourner Truth Choir which became part of the IMPACT program in 2001.
During the first five years of IMPACT, students had opportunities to take lessons in piano, drums, violin, guitar, voice lessons, and tap, ballet, jazz, and hip hop dance classes, and a beginning choir open to children ages 4-6, says Susan Balbaugh, Executive Director of the Music Center.
The cost of these lessons and classes was covered through grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“Once those funds were used up, Ballard was asked to select what classes were thought to be the most impactful,” Balbaugh says. “Drum, piano, and dance were the most popular.”

But, by this time the initial choir had become a critical part of IMPACT so Balbuagh, Music Center staff, and board members settled on drum, piano, and choir.
The Sojourner Truth Choir meets every Wednesday after school. Drum and piano lessons are offered Monday and Tuesday respectively beginning at 4:30 p.m. with 40-minute sessions that continue until 7:50 p.m. Each session has anywhere between 10 and 14 students. The ideal size, Ballard says, is 10 per session for piano and 12 for drum. Currently, due to the fact that the classes are at capacity, there is a waiting list for everything except the choir.

 Courtesy, Battle Creek Music Center“We have several students that are in choir and either drum or piano and some that are in all three,” she says.
The IMPACT program has staunch financial supporters who have enabled the Music Center to continue to cover the cost for each participant, Balbaugh says.
“IMPACT has its own following when it comes to donors,” she says. “They are very committed to making sure the program has the funds it needs to keep going. These are large individual donors and churches. The Music Center subsidizes whatever is not covered through Symphony ticket sales.”
In 2023, IMPACT received a three-year $75,000 grant specifically for the Choir from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Balbaugh says this is because the group frequently appears at events in the community. At the same time, the Music Center would like to make opportunities available to more families and children.
To make this happen there needs to be more support and investment around the arts, says Alana White, Program Officer with WKKF.
“We’re a Foundation that cares about children. We’ve worked over the last five years to really go deeper and support programs and projects that engage children in a variety of ways,” White says. “When Carolyn, Susan, and I met I was really interested in finding ways to support the Choir and IMPACT as ways to support creativity in children in our community.”
Courtesy, Battle Creek Music CenterShe says she was struck at how the program has evolved with past participants who want to serve as mentors, teachers, and coaches for the students.
Drum and piano lessons are available to students in grades second through six and the Choir is open to youth ages 7 and up. Ballard said that about 195 students participated in IMPACT throughout the year, 45 of whom are in the Choir.
About 85 percent of the students represent the area’s African American, Burmese, and Latinx communities, Balbaugh says.
There is no limit on how many can participate in the choir and they don’t have to audition because “we can develop that skill,” Ballard says. “We train kids and give them the opportunity to go out in the community to share their gifts and talents. They get better because they hear the people around them. In return, their confidence is boosted when they are validated by positive comments from various audiences.”

In addition to singing, choir members are taught the importance of developing a good character, being respectful, and working as a team.
“To be part of a team you have to learn to sing and harmonize with the people around you,” Ballard says. “These are skills that are helpful when people enter the workforce.”
Hitting the high notes, making the grade
As an educator, Ballard saw how students involved in music excelled academically. She cites countless studies that confirm that children who play an instrument or sing perform better academically than their peers who do not.
Findings from several of those studies have established the positive impact of music learning (instrumental learning or participation in a choir or band) on academic achievement in general as well as on domain-specific achievement among elementary school, secondary school, and university students. 

They also revealed that secondary school students who continued with music training after completing compulsory music education performed significantly better in all school subjects and exhibited higher levels of academic achievement than non-music students did, according to an article on the National Library of Medicine website.
Courtesy, Battle Creek Music Center“The authors (of these studies) found that students who participated in music learning performed better in English, mathematics, history, and science.”
Ballard has followed these studies and research that supports what she has always known — that a child’s exposure to the arts makes a long-term, positive impact.
“One factor stands out all the time that students participating in music programs at school show a greater ability from the academic side as well,” she says. “Yet, if a school budget is cut the first thing to go is the arts.”
She makes the case that having children participate in the arts is essential because “not every child is going to be an athlete or that straight 'A' student."

Extracurricular music education also helps alleviate the frustration experienced by middle and high school band teachers who often work with a new group of students each year, many of whom don’t know the fundamentals of music. This leaves band teachers having to start at introductory stages delaying their ability to rehearse and create music.
“If we can give these kids a headstart for free then when they do get to middle school and high school band, they’re one step ahead of the game,” Ballard says. “Band teachers will be excited to direct a crop of students who understand the basics of music.
So, while singing “la la la la la,” may seem like a lot of “blah blah blah” and creating a beat with drumsticks or striking the right keys on a piano may appear like frivolous pursuits, Ballard says to imagine that practicing the skills may create children who could be the next generation of musicians, teachers, doctors or lawyers.
“The arts, although they get the raw end of the deal, have been a major player in the lives of many, many Americans, myself included,” she says. “How is it that we grow up to be people in charge who get to say, ‘That’s not important?”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.