Sam Saunders Is Bringing Music Back to Detroit
When Detroit public schools cut music programs, the University of Michigan student took matters into his own hands and started Seven Mile Music.
By Jasmin Suknanan, Stony Brook University
In TV shows and movies, the band geeks, kids who played sousaphones that were way too big for them or could barely lift their flute case, are often picked on by the “popular” kids, but later, their musical talents end up providing intellectual, creative and social benefits.
The feeling of accomplishment that washes over you after knowing you contributed and cooperated with a team where everyone has a diverse role in bringing a story to life is indescribable. If you listen carefully, every song has a story behind it. Many young children learn to play out other peoples’ stories before playing their own. So, when a decision is made to cut school-music programs, it also cuts students’ ability to tell their stories.
Seven Mile Music is a music program founded by Sam Saunders, a student pursuing a career in music at the University of Michigan. The program seeks to provide Detroit children in grades K-12 with an enriching music experience, where public school students can take lessons for the low price of zero dollars.
The Road to Inspiration
Saunders’ family owned an old piano that his mom would occasionally play. At ten, he began tinkering around on it and really enjoyed it. When he heard the news that Detroit public schools were cutting arts and music programs across the city, he was determined to help students get the enrichment they deserved.
“I began by driving across Seven Mile Road from the far west side (Telegraph Rd.) to the far east side (Kelly Rd.). This is about a 15-mile drive on a main road through the inner-city,” Saunders says. “I would stop at every community center, church, school or other similar establishment and pitch the idea of holding a free-music program at their space.”
After many weeks and a lot of driving, Saunders was able to connect with centers that believed in his mission. The relationships he established allowed him to start filling out legal paperwork and recruiting teachers who were just as passionate about providing Detroit’s youth with music education.
Dealing with Speed Bumps
Kelly Clarkson once said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In other words, don’t dwell on shortcomings. When the going gets tough, you’ll emerge stronger than before, and your efforts will pay off if you just keep pushing forward. Saunders has encountered his fair share of pushback from the project, most of which has come in the form of disinterest.
“We have had dozens of meetings with many different departments at the University of Michigan, and almost no help has ever been given,” he says.
Despite the setback, Saunders and his team were able to build a large, supportive network of foundations and neighborhood groups.
Highway to Help
Seven Mile Music has close ties to two Detroit community groups in a neighborhood called Brightmoor. The first, Mission:City, offers the “Summer in the City Arts Camp” to students, while the Murphy Performance Academy offers after-school programs and serves as a site of instruction for Seven Mile Music.
Seven Mile Music also provides students with an incredible summer-camp opportunity called the Brightmoor Arts Camp. The Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation provided Seven Mile Music with a grant last year, allowing students the opportunity to attend the eight-week camp.
“Brightmoor is one of the most challenged neighborhoods in the country,” says Saunders. “It is the lowest income neighborhood in Michigan, and it’s the area of Detroit most affected by drugs and violence.
“For a child in Detroit, I believe a music education to be one of the single most powerful tools to allow someone to potentially rise above their circumstance,” he says. “On a smaller level, it is something that can bring joy to a child, particularly in a situation where that sort of thing is somewhat lacking.”
Saunders strongly believes that the way his program allows children to have a space where they can have fun is a victory in itself. Seven Mile Music provides lessons to around 100 children every week.
Down the Road
While he is working hard to help kids get an opportunity to play music at the moment, Saunders has dreams of his own as well. While pursuing his degree at the University of Michigan, he is looking ahead to a time when he can work to earn a career in the music business.
He is currently looking into graduate school, but still has his sights set on bigger goals for Seven Mile Music.
“A couple years from now, I hope to see Seven Mile Music’s programs instituted in schools all across the city,” he says. “We are planning to establish after-school music education in three schools across the city starting this coming fall.”
In the end, Saunders just wants to find a way to give every kid in Detroit a chance to play music if they want to. Performing changed his life and gave him a lifelong passion for playing, and he wants music to be able to do the same for others in his city.