Free Music Lessons Strike A Chord For At-Risk Kids John and Katrina Vowell used their small savings to start Major Chords for Minors in Saginaw, Mich., because they were worried about the city's youth. Now they have 130 students and a long wait list.

Free Music Lessons Strike A Chord For At-Risk Kids

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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.


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...


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.


FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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