Small steps grow future generations of music patrons in Battle Creek


Editor’s Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A program offered by the Battle Creek Music Center is not in its infancy, but its participants are.

This year, as it has done for more than 10 years, the music center offers its Music First lessons for children from 0 to 5 years old. Susan Balbaugh, executive director of the Music Center, explains that these classes are part of several existing and newer programs that have been developed as a way to build a base of future patrons and musicians.

“Music Center isn’t 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 across the United States, knows that the survival of the organization she leads depends on its ability to attract younger audiences and stay relevant.

In addition to the Music First program, the Music Center also offers various choral opportunities including the Sojourner Truth Choir, music lessons for adults and children, and operates the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maestra Anne Harrigan.

“We have to figure out how to stay relevant and that’s the goal we look at in everything we do,” Balbaugh says. “If we just want to 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’s Music Learning Theory six years ago.

“When babies are born, they have the greatest musical aptitude they will ever have, similar to what we know about language learning,” Noaeill says. “Early exposure to music will prepare children for later musical development. Music First is designed for adult and child experience. This can be a parent, grandparent, guardian, or any adult designated to attend classes. »

During each class, children have the opportunity to sing, chant, move, dance, listen and play simple instruments. All of this “helps them build a strong foundation for future music,” says Noaeill.

Brianna Eldridge says her son, Zander, started taking Music First lessons when he was 8 weeks old.

“He may not have been able to sing or dance to the music, but it was clear he was engaging in his own way trying to pronounce the sounds he heard and later trying to match the pitch of the music. It was truly amazing to see such a young child do this,” Eldridge said in a press release.

Brianna Eldridge’s son Zander started taking Music First lessons when he was 8 weeks old.Noaeill says the program is available for 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 that finances will not be a barrier to a child’s participation, financial assistance is available, in addition to funds available through the BCCreative program offered by the Miller Foundation, which covers 50% of the cost for eligible children ages 3 and up.

“One of my personal goals is to make sure kids can get involved in music without the financial aspects of their family getting in the way,” Balbaugh says. “When I was a child I wanted to play the flute, but my family was poor and I never got to do it. I don’t want that to happen to another child.

The Music Center, she says, is able to offer financial assistance because it is financially sound thanks to the COVID relief funds it has received over the past two years and contributions from individual donors and the Battle Creek. Community Foundation, the Miller. and Binda Foundations.

Asher Alexander, 2, shows off his drumming skills as instructor Teri Noaeill cheers on a younger sibling during a Music First session at the Music Center.“They believed in us, supported us, and got us through COVID,” Balbaugh says.

The Music Center also receives funding from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council (MACC) and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The sounds of success

As COVID fears subsided, in June the Music Center reopened everything and classes “just exploded,” Balbaugh says. Five new faculty members have been hired to teach piano, violin, voice lessons and Music First. “We can’t hire fast enough to fill the need. »

Much of this demand is driven by a lack of music education opportunities in schools, the most traditional channels for such learning, Balbaugh says. The lesser musical education in schools has both “hurt and helped” us, she adds.

Parents and guardians who understand the value of music will enroll their children in the Music Center to fill that void.

Frankie Boughton, 4, and instructor Teri Noaeill play together during a Music First session at the Music Center.“A lot of what we used to see were students who wanted extra teaching and learning. They may be in a group and want to take private lessons to take their game to the next level. The majority of schools don’t have the programs that would feed our curriculum,” says Balbaugh.

“If the school no longer offers an orchestra, we have lost it as a respite program. If there was a youngster who was a good cellist but wanted to be really good, he would supplement what he was taught in school with one-on-one interaction here. It was a respite program for us. Many of them have disappeared.

Currently, about 550 young people are taking courses at the Music Center. But the courses are also accessible to adults and they represent 25% of registered students.

To increase its visibility, the Music Center is deepening its community outreach efforts, an area of ​​focus for Balbaugh and Harrigan.

The Music First program encourages parents to bring their babies to the program. These efforts include a presence at community events like the upcoming Bruin Boo from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on October 26 on the Kellogg Community College campus. Billed as a family event, Balbaugh says teachers at the Music Center will showcase what they do, hand out information and answer questions.

Plans are also underway to transport music performed by Music Center musicians on the road for a fee or free of charge. This can range from a string quartet or a five-piece band providing background music at a corporate or non-profit event to a private event. In addition to creating greater awareness and appreciation for music, Balbaugh says opportunities like this “remove the stigma that music is too brainy or inaccessible.”

To further reinforce this, Balbaugh also plans to speak directly with local youth about the types of programs and classes they would be interested in attending. In the past, faculty members would tell him what they saw as needs or identify specific programs or classes going on at other schools that might be a good fit for the Music Center.

“I want to speak directly to the children to tell them ‘What do you want?’ Kids these days aren’t 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 Music Center’s Executive Director.She recently spoke with a group of young people from the Washington Heights United Methodist Church who had attended a summer program focused on financial literacy at the church. She says they explored ideas for a Hip Hop and Pops choir and a drum set, among other things. She has also started having regular conversations with Pastor Monique French, who leads the church, about working together next summer.

She is also considering collaborations that will give young people the opportunity to work together in studio production classes that would involve singing, songwriting and video put together in a digital format that could be marketed and sold to an audience. wider.

“We have a huge pool of talent in this community when it comes to the arts, especially musical talent. It’s huge for a community of this size and it’s mostly blue collar. When people come to the symphony from out of town, they are shocked.

She credits Harrigan of the Symphony Orchestra with continually raising the bar for herself and for musicians. “We’re seeing a lot of young musicians coming into the industry and getting to a higher level than they were 30 years ago,” says Balbaugh.

Maintaining this upward trajectory will require a continued and intentional focus on future generations.

“If the arts aren’t accessible to kids, you’re going to have kids who aren’t as broad-minded or broadly educated. We know that children who have been making music for at least four years test higher in language arts and math,” says Balbaugh. “But these kids aren’t doing it for that reason alone. They are involved in the arts because they want to create an atmosphere of their own. It’s up to arts organizations to make sure they can do that.

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