Free Music Lessons Strike A Chord For At-Risk Kids | KUOW News and Information

Free Music Lessons Strike A Chord For At-Risk Kids

Dec 16, 2015
Originally published on December 16, 2015 11:55 am

This story is part of an occasional series about individuals who don't have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.

Saginaw, Mich., is one of those places where economic recovery has been slow to arrive. The city has been hit hard over the years by factory shutdowns. Unemployment is high. And people have left, by the thousands.

Now, residents John and Katrina Vowell are trying to help turn things around — with music.

The couple says they love Saginaw, despite its many problems, which include high poverty, drugs and drive-by shootings.

The city doesn't look that bad — there are tidy, modest homes, small fenced-in yards and some new restaurants and luxury apartments.

But there are also plenty of boarded-up buildings and empty lots, where abandoned houses have been torn down to reduce blight.

"This was a car town," says John, as he drives around the city. "This was GM, and everything and all the companies that built parts for GM, and it's all pretty much gone."

But he and his wife have stayed. They both grew up around here. John is 56, with a thick sweep of gray hair. Katrina is 49, with short dark hair and bright eyes.

As they drive past a long line of cars outside a funeral home, Katrina wonders if the funeral might be for Laquavis Cooper, a teen shot at a local park a few days earlier.

"He had just gone to Chicago, and was back visiting his aunt and got killed," she says.

Such incidents have raised concerns about the fate of the city's youth. The Vowells say people are trying to improve life in Saginaw, but there isn't much for kids to do in their spare time.

So when the Vowells were trying to turn their own lives around a few years ago, they decided to start a program called Major Chords for Minors. It provides free private music lessons — and instruments — to kids who can't afford them. That's a lot of people in Saginaw, where the poverty rate is more than 37 percent.

Major Chords for Minors has almost 130 students so far, and a long wait list.

Still, it's a shoestring operation. The Vowells started the program using their meager savings and help from friends. Now they rely on grants and donations. Instructors, who teach drum, guitar and piano, get paid only $10 a lesson.

Classes are held in an old public elementary school, which was shut down for years due to lack of enrollment.

Today, students come to Major Chords just to hang out, playing board games or practicing instruments. It's a second home for some, like 19-year-old Emilio Saenz, who learned to play the Spanish guitar here.

Saenz explains that his mother left the family when he was young. He describes his father as "kind of neglectful," and says the Vowells are like surrogate parents.

"There've been lots of times, if it wasn't for them, I probably would have gone home hungry, not eating for whatever period of time," he says.

The Vowells say they know what it's like to find refuge in music, especially for young people.

"I was a loner. I felt nobody liked me. I could get lost in my music," says Katrina, who plays the piano.

John says as a child he would listen to record albums over and over when he was holed up in his bedroom, trying to block out an alcoholic father.

"When he drank, he turned into a monster," says John, "and I said I'll never be like that. Well, I turned out to be exactly like my father. "

And that's another part of this story. The Vowells are both recovering alcoholics.

They used to work in real estate, and Katrina says watching so many homes they sold being foreclosed upon got pretty depressing. At one point, the Vowells say, they hit rock bottom and lost almost everything they had.

Major Chords for Minors is a big part of their recovery.

On a recent evening, everyone at Major Chords was preparing for their first full-fledged parent's meeting. Thirteen-year-old Tanzania Cantrell was nervously rehearsing a song she was scheduled to perform. She wrote the song, called "Help Me Out" when she was only 9 years old, and says she's been coming to Major Chords for free lessons ever since.

"Because we don't have much money," she explains. Cantrell says she loves coming to Major Chords because music calms her when life gets tough.

"At school I get bullied a whole lot. Yeah, ever since I was, like I said, kindergarten," she says.

But practicing up on stage, Cantrell seems transformed — hardly a pushover — as she belts out her song.

Later that evening, John and Katrina greet and hug the parents as they gather in the auditorium. It's like a big family.

But as in many families, John needs to have a tough talk. He tells the parents that they need to make sure their kids get to lessons on time, and practice their instruments.

He says everyone has to be on board if they're going to teach these children that responsibility and hard work pay off.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Doing More With Less - that's what we've called our occasional series about people who have little money but make a big impact. And today, we visit Saginaw, Michigan. It's one of those places where economic recovery has been slow to arrive. The city's been hit hard by factory shutdowns. People have left by the thousands. Now, a local couple is trying to help turn things around with music. And NPR's Pam Fessler has their story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: John and Katrina Vowell love Saginaw, despite the hardships.

JOHN VOWELL: Drive-by shootings, poverty, drugs.

FESSLER: Although, as we drive around, the city doesn't look all that bad - tidy, modest homes, small fenced-in yards, some new restaurants. But there are also plenty of empty lots, where abandoned houses have been torn down to reduce blight.

J. VOWELL: I mean, this with a car town. You know, this was GM and everything - and all the companies that build parts for GM. And it's all pretty much gone.

FESSLER: But John and Katrina stayed. They've been here most of their lives. He's 56, with a thick sweep of gray hair. She's 49 - short, dark hair, bright eyes.

KATRINA VOWELL: I wonder if that's that Laquavis.

FESSLER: As we pass a long line of cars outside a funeral home, Katrina thinks it might be for Laquavis Cooper, a teen shot at a local park a few days before.

VOWELL: He had just gone to...

J. VOWELL: Yeah, he moved.

VOWELL: ...Chicago and was back visiting his aunt and got killed.

FESSLER: There's definitely a fear here that some young people won't make it if they don't get some help.

J. VOWELL: And I think what I'll do is take you this way. It's a cool town. I love this town.

FESSLER: John says most people here want to make things better. So when the Vowells were trying to turn their own lives around a few years ago, they knew exactly where to start.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Playing guitar).

RYAN FITZGERALD: Yeah, all right. It makes a huge difference, right?

FESSLER: They created Major Chords for Minors, a program that gives free music lessons and instruments to kids who can't afford them otherwise, which is about half of Saginaw. After four years, they have 130 students ages 8 and up and a very long wait list.

FITZGERALD: Let's just here that chord from the fourth string.

STUDENT: (Playing guitar).

FESSLER: Instructors like Ryan Fitzgerald get 10 bucks a lesson. It's a real shoestring operation. The Vowells used their meager savings at first. They now get grants and donations. Major Chords is located in an old elementary school, shut down for lack of enrollment.

STUDENT: (Playing piano).

FITZGERALD: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What? Oh, nice.

FESSLER: But today, this is a second home for some kids. They come here just to hang out, playing board games or practicing instruments, like 19-year-old Emilio Saenz, who plays Spanish guitar.

EMILIO SAENZ: (Playing guitar). This is one I made.

FESSLER: Saenz's mother left the family when he was young. He says father is kind of neglectful, that the Vowells are like surrogate parents.

SAENZ: There have been lots of times, like, if it wasn't for them, I'd probably have gone home hungry, not eaten for whatever period of time.

FESSLER: The Vowells say they know what it's like as a child to find refuge in music. Katrina played the piano.

VOWELL: I was a loner. I felt like nobody liked me. I could get lost in my music.

FESSLER: And John listened to albums over and over again, holed up in his bedroom, trying to block out an alcoholic father.

J. VOWELL: When he drank, he turned into a monster. And I said, I'll never be like that. Well, I turned out to be exactly like my father.

FESSLER: Which is another part of this story. The Vowells are recovering alcoholics. They used to be in real estate and say it got pretty depressing watching so many homes they sold being foreclosed upon. Major Chords for Minors is a big part of their recovery.

J. VOWELL: Get right up on that microphone. Sing your heart out just like you did before. That was so...

TANZANIA CANTRELL: (Singing) OK.

J. VOWELL: That was so good.

TANZANIA: (Laughter).

FESSLER: It's a big day at Major Chords. They're having their first full-fledged parents meeting tonight. And 13-year-old Tanzania Cantrell is nervously rehearsing a song she's scheduled to perform. She wrote it when she was only nine. And she's been coming here for free lessons ever since.

TANZANIA: Because we don't have much money.

FESSLER: Cantrell says music calms her in a life that can get pretty tough.

TANZANIA: At school I get bullied a whole lot. Yeah, ever since I was, like - like I said, kindergarten. Yeah, so...

FESSLER: But practicing up on stage, she seems transformed - hardly a pushover.

TANZANIA: (Singing) That kid like me. Can can you promise me, there's not such a place...

FESSLER: John and Katrina greet the parents as they gather in the auditorium.

J. VOWELL: Hey, Patrick. What's going on, man?

FESSLER: It really is like a big family here.

J. VOWELL: I haven't seen you one-on-one like this in a while, man.

FESSLER: But as in many families, John needs to have a tough talk. Some parents aren't getting their kids to lessons on time or making sure that they practice. He says everyone's got to be on board if they want to teach these young musicians that responsibility and hard work pay off. Then, several students, including Tanzania Cantrell, take to the stage to show how far they've come.

TANZANIA: (Singing) Help me out.

(APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.