‘Guitars Not Guns’ teaches music to at-risk youth

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Pontiac – With the music from Adele’s “Someone Like You” by Adele, scrawled across a classroom’s dry erase board, 11 girls gathered in a circle, each with a guitar in hand, as they learned various chords to mimic the rhythm in the song.

Keith Kunkel, volunteer with Guitars Not Guns, works with at-risk youth, teaching them to play the guitar.

“Most pop songs are not very difficult to learn because they use basic chords, most of what we learned last week,” said Brett Hoag, president of the Guitar Not Guns program. “With much practice and patience, you all will be playing her song in no time.”

The music lesson at Oakland County’s Children’s Village, a residential treatment and detention facility, was part of a program sponsored by the Michigan chapter of Guitars Not Guns, a group founded to help at-risk youth find a creative outlet.

“This is such a unique program because not only are the girls learning skills that they can take with them, but it helps with learning self-control and can help them get their mind off of other outside factors that they may have to deal with,” said Joanna Overall, Children’s Village manager. “Music is soothing and can be great therapy.”

Bret Hoag, Guitars Not Guns president, works with at-risk youth and teaches them to play the guitar at the Children's Village campus in Pontiac on Wednesday July 7, 2016.

At no cost, each girl is given their own guitar during the six-week course and can keep it upon completion. The Michigan chapter of Guitars Not Guns was founded by Bret Hoag, a classical and jazz guitar lecturer at Oakland University; Judge Frank Szymanski of Wayne County Circuit Court’s Juvenile Division; and Tony Bittick, a youth counselor in Clarkston.

“This is a fantastic program because it’s something that everyone can learn and it’s a way for the girls to express themselves positively through music and songs,” Hoag said. “I can’t fix the world, but I can help open doors to higher education, which can help make a well-rounded individual.”

While trying to position her finger on the correct chord to produce G-minor, one girl practiced the chord quietly until she perfected it.

Tracy Huffman, youth specialist at Children’s Village, who practices guitar with the girls, said she has seen improvement in their behavior.

“Some of the girls that fidget or have nervous energy, I notice that it’s not as much,” Huffman said. “Also, I think this program is helping to build their confidence. This is a great alternative to be able to turn to if they are stressed or if they become angry.”

As the girls broke into small groups practicing the chords for the pop song, five of them volunteered to put on a mini performance of Adele’s song in front of the class, by singing, “Someone Like You.”


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