Published: Oct. 9, 2013

Making music, expanding minds

Detroit. The city that gave us Motown is one of many across the nation to see deep cuts to school music programs. But faculty and staff from MSU’s Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-Detroit) are helping ensure that music education and its benefits are not only available, but also accessible, to Detroit residents of all ages, especially youth.

CMS-Detroit’s music education programs don’t just capture students’ imaginations while they’re learning to play music. In fact, the research-based curriculum aims to hard-wire their brains to develop skills that are vital to future success—enhancing quality of life and helping produce citizens whose creativity and versatility could add fuel to Michigan’s economic fire.
That’s music to kids’ ears—and their minds.

Rhonda Buckley

Rhonda BuckleyShe started playing the piano at eight, the flute at age nine. But it wasn’t until she was 16 that she found her true love.

“We had too many flutes in our high school marching band and our very attractive drum major asked some of us to switch to saxophone” says Rhonda Buckley, associate dean for outreach and engagement in MSU’s College of Music. “The saxophonists I had heard in junior high sounded awful, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity and said yes right away. It became the love of my life.” The saxophone that is.

But the real love of Buckley’s life— indeed what motivates her to make a 90-mile drive to downtown Detroit three days a week as part of her work with the college’s community music schools—is her deep commitment to providing access to arts education for all.

 “It’s just part of a healthy community and healthy people,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without music, and I can’t imagine any person, young or old, denied the opportunity to pursue that if they so desire.”

Buckley, who worked for Disney as a performer after graduating from MSU in 1986 with a master’s in saxophone performance, found her calling after joining Central Florida Community College as director of instrumental music. There she encountered students whose family problems significantly affected their ability to complete their degrees.

“That’s when I realized I needed to deepen my education,” Buckley says. She decided to spend a year in Washington, D.C., contributing her time and talent through a program called Quest and working for a woman named Patricia Sitar, who had founded an after-school tutoring program for inner city youth. After a year, Buckley asked if she could stay on for another. After the second year, Sitar suggested Buckley continue and start teaching students to play music.

One year turned into 15. Buckley’s first saxophone student grew up, graduated from Bryn Mawr and now sits on the board of the arts center Buckley would go on to found. More and more students began taking lessons. Buckley and Sitar were fulfilling a need and satisfying a pent-up, passionate desire for music and the arts among these inner city youth.

“Before you know it, I had founded the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts, a separately incorporated multidisciplinary arts center,” says Buckley. She grew the organization, now called the Sitar Arts Center, from 50 students who met after school in a basement to a newly purchased facility designed specifically to meet the arts education needs of more than 300 students studying everything from dance to photography to theatre to music performance.

What could possibly woo Buckley away from such success?  

“Jim Forger [dean of MSU’s College of Music and her former saxophone teacher] is very persuasive,” Buckley says, laughing.

When the School of Music was becoming a college in 2006, Jim had a vision for making outreach a central priority of the college,” Buckley explains. “He wanted an associate dean who would also run the community music school and who would increase our activities in the City of Detroit. It was going back to the city where I was born and contributing to making arts accessible, working for my alma mater, all those things coming together into a really great opportunity.”

But fundamentally, for Buckley, the attraction of doing what she does comes down to structure. Her work as an associate dean and director of MSU’s community music schools in both East Lansing and Detroit allows her to be an architect.

“I get excited about creating the structures that allow arts education to take place,” Buckley says. “I don’t have to be the teacher. There are so many good teachers. But there isn’t always good structure. That’s where I’ve made an impact and where I can do my part for equity and justice in arts education.”

Field Note: What Ford Teaches Me

Rhonda Buckley shares what she learns from the students at the CMS.

Ford is a participant at the MSU Community Music School in East Lansing. He is an enthusiastic community member who has had a successful professional career and now in his leisure years plays music for enjoyment.

Surrounded by a group of friends who share his interest in music, he rehearses twice a week with the New Horizons Band, a band for adults who have never played an instrument before or who are returning to it after many years away from playing. This activity keeps him in contact with other vibrant adults and with “young people,” MSU students who are getting valuable teaching experience while working with these dedicated musicians.

Ford, at age 85, has a lot to teach our music students. Ford has a lot to teach me.

Ford is a saxophonist, and he is my one and only student. I’m an administrator these days more than I could claim to be a teacher or a musician.

But I keep teaching Ford because he makes it real. After several strokes, he has maintained his sense of humor and his love of music. Though he was a dentist by training and career, it is music—along with his beautiful wife, Laura, who, at age 84, still plays tuba and bass clarinet in the band—that keeps his spirit going.

I need the lessons that Ford teaches me, lessons that I can pass on to all our students. These are lessons in perseverance, in acceptance, in living in the moment. 

And Ford teaches me to hold on to my music. For Ford, there have been significant health obstacles. He is not the best player in his band. But he has gone beyond limiting expectations, and he keeps playing his sax because he has to, because it feeds his soul. I also play because I have to. I’m not the best player from my class—MSU has one of the best, if not the best, saxophone studios in the country—and I can’t devote the time to it that I once could. But Ford reminds me to hold it dear, because even if imperfect, our practice and our playing still uplift us.

We play music because it is an integral part of our quality of life, Ford and I, because it makes us more fully who we are. We may come at it from different angles and for different reasons, but to each of us, having music available to us is critically important. Here’s to community arts education for all, regardless of age, income, or ability. And here’s to Ford.



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