Northside musical gifts: Money not an obstacle for youth who want to learn to play

Sometimes a surprisingly rich world lies behind a door that you might have passed a dozen times, but never opened. Music studios are often like that, tucked as they can be into the basements of churches or in otherwise ordinary-looking houses. 

But the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center studio at the Douglass Community Association has its own special light, thanks in part to its namesake, the late Helen Fox, a Northside music teacher, community icon and hugger extraordinaire.  Fox’s spirit, along with the dedication of the organization’s founders, teachers, and students, are growing musicians on Kalamazoo’s Northside.

“Many youth, particularly underserved youth, don’t even get an opportunity to see and know what instruments there are,” says Fox Music President Bridget Tucker Gonder. “They’ve never seen a clarinet or a tuba. We’re about exposing the kids to music. We won’t turn you away if you cannot pay.”

That musical exposure is not limited to the studio, as the Fox Music students have already performed in four studio recitals. They've also performed at the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s Family Discovery Series and at the Parchment Community Library. In addition, they have attended an inspiring performance by pianist Alpin Hong, thanks to the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, and Black Violin, thanks to the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

Last summer, through a generous loan of instruments from Meyer Music, 4120 Stadium Drive, the organization sponsored an Instrument Petting Zoo for the summer campers of New Genesis, where nearly 50 youth attended.

The center currently offers piano, violin, viola, cello, and voice lessons. Its mission is to provide “musical education for urban youth as a pathway for success and excellence in all areas of life.”

“A lot of people think music is just for pleasure, just for fun, but there’s some really scientific research that shows it’s also good for math and science skills and for social development,” says Tucker Gonder. “That’s part of our giving back, as well.”

Tomiwa, a 5th grade Kalamazoo Public School student, has been taking viola for two years at the Fox Gospel Music Center.
Tucker Gonder says she’s grateful for the support of Kalamazoo’s rich musical community, and she mentions the generosity of both individual donors and foundations, including the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and Irving S. Gilmore Foundation. 

So far, news of The Fox Music Center has only spread by word of mouth. The music center which opened its doors quietly at the Douglass two years ago, is ready to expand its reach, says Tucker Gonder, now that the organization’s website, Instagram and Facebook pages have recently launched.  The center currently has 15 students, three volunteer administrators, including Fox’s son, Vice President Joseph Fox, and three volunteer teachers.

Rich musical legacy: Sister Fox, Velvelettes, and Joseph Douglass
When the Fox Gospel Music Center opened its studios in a back room of the Michigan Works office at the Douglass, they replaced the walls’ "corporate green" with bright purple and aqua blue lined with a musical notes border. They laid down a rug, and filled the space with history, including clippings and old photos of Helen Fox, the Velvelettes, and surprisingly, a violinist little known to them at the time.

One of their volunteer teachers happens to be famous in her own right, Bertha Barbee-McNeal, artistic director and piano instructor, but most notably known as a founding member of Kalamazoo’s own Motown all-women singing group, the Velvelettes, which achieved acclaim in the '60s with several recordings. In 1964, the Velvelette’s single, “Needle in a Haystack,” hit 45 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

“You don’t retire with music,” says Barbee-McNeal, who after her moving on from the Velvelettes to raise a family, then taught music and directed choirs in the Kalamazoo Public Schools for 26 years, the last 19 at Millwood Middle School.

“Music goes over into different areas and different fields,” says Barbee-McNeal. “I was always concerned about diversity in classical music, getting more students involved in choir and band, that kind of thing.” 

Organization namesake Helen Fox, also known as Sister Fox and “the lady with the cart,” often walked hours daily in both Kalamazoo and Battle Creek spreading encouragement to whomever she met until she passed away at age 96 in 2016. Her frequent stops included Interfaith Homes on the Northside and the downtown train station. Her story was featured in the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Battle Creek Enquirer, and on Channel 3 WWMT.

In partnership with Reuben Moss, now a Fox Music Center Board Member, Fox also brought up a generation of Kalamazoo musicians in their Moss Piano Studio on North Westnedge for over 30 years, including teaching one piano student who went on to tour in Japan. She allowed students to pay what they could, but always at least $1 because she believed that a financial commitment would increase a student’s sense of the lesson’s value.

“I considered her to be community icon,” says Tucker Gonder. “There was very little that would hold her back. She graduated from high school at the age of 50. This was a woman who didn’t let a lot keep her down. She gave music lessons to people based on their ability to pay.”

Soon after setting up at the Douglass, Tucker Gonder says the music center made the delightful discovery that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass himself, after whom the Douglass Community Association was named, was an amateur violinist, and that he had a musically-gifted grandson, Joseph Douglass, who was considered “the most talented violinist of the race” in the 1890s, according to black press of the time. Douglass was the first black professional violinist to make transatlantic tours. A framed photo of Douglass playing his violin is one of the treasures of the studio’s historical legacy.

Giving music lessons is giving back
Caleb Jackson, 12, arrives for his piano lesson just as On the Ground prepares to leave. Barbee-McNeal says she hopes he will be their first Gilmore Keyboard Festival student this year.

Tucker Gonder reminisces about Caleb’s last piano recital, where he paused after an arpeggio, waited, then hit the last note of Clair de Lune. “He has a natural stage presence,” says Tucker Gonder. “That just flowed out of him. No one taught it to him.”

Caleb says music runs in the family. His father sings and his mother was coincidentally a choir student of Barbee-McNeal’s at Milwood Middle School. “When I was 2, I just started banging on stuff,” he says. “Music has always been something I liked.”
Without too much prodding, Caleb agrees to play a bit of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” an old jazz standard. To the delight of all, Barbee-McNeal joins in singing, a validation of how music uplifts and transforms.

“Helen’s legacy was about giving back to the community,” says Tucker Gonder. “Many of us get caught up in our lives, our own jobs, raising our own kids, and we don’t think very much about giving back. This is our way of giving back.”

“What we’re doing here is carrying on what my mother did back in the '60s and '70s with her music lessons,” says Joe Fox, who thinks his mother would approve.

“Eventually we want to turn this into a full music academy,” says Tucker Gonder. Clarinet, tuba, drums, and other instruments could be taught. “We have dreams. To increase our presence, to increase our footprint.”

And she adds, “to eventually have a choir,” after which Barbee-McNeal and Joseph Fox nod in enthusiastic assent. 

“I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Joe’s mom,” says Barbee-McNeal, “but it gives me great pleasure to carry on her legacy. It really does.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.