Donna’s Detroit: Soup kitchen kids learn Suzuki violin

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

Every Monday and Friday afternoon a handful of kids and their parents slip into a side door of St. Charles Boromeo Church on Detroit's east side. The young people carry violin cases and backpacks and soon the church basement is filled with the melodious – most of the time – sounds of violins playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie.”

This is the sound of Detroit Youth Volume, Detroit's only free Suzuki violin program for disadvantaged youth.

Although Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, the originator of the Suzuki method, believed every child can learn given a positive learning environment, daily practice and parental support, the typical American "Suzuki kid" is white or Asian and upper-middle-class -- understandable, considering the cost of buying or renting instruments plus books and transportation.

But program founder/director Clara Hardie recruited her students from the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Detroit's east side.

These kids really mess with any stereotypes you may have had about inner city youth – and their parents. Hardie is disrupting assumptions about ability, commitment and effort by asking a lot of both kids and adults and having the expectation that they will succeed.

The kids get both group and private lessons, and Hardie gets donations of healthy snacks, a real plus when these students get out of school needing some extra fuel to put behind their violins. Their parents get gas cards to help with transporting their budding musicians to class. The program also employs a van service for parents who don't drive.

Hardie, a Core City neighborhood resident herself, started Detroit Youth Volume five years ago, teaching kids she met at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program at its Warren/Conner location.

Today, the 23 students range in age from 3 to 17 and all are African-American. The four teachers, including Hardie, 31, are pretty young themselves. All have played violin since childhood and Hardie and Scott Murphy both grew up in the Suzuki program.

What is the Suzuki method?

Hardie tells the oft-repeated story of how Dr. Suzuki, with only one violin, began teaching his neighborhood children to play to counteract the effects of living through World War II in Japan. It's not much of a stretch to say poor kids from the soup kitchen have trauma of their own to deal with and Hardie hopes learning to play violin will give them a sense of accomplishment "and bring joy into their lives."

Shinichi Suzuki observed that children learn the complexities of their native language by listening to it being spoken for one or two years and with plenty of reinforcement from their parents and tons of repetition. He reasoned that applying the same method to music education would allow any child to play an instrument.

That means parents must be very involved. "It's a bigger commitment for the parents than for the kids," Hardie said. "They have to come to every class, take notes and facilitate daily home practice."

Children learn language by hearing it spoken around them, so Suzuki students listen to recordings of the pieces they are learning every day. Children speak before they read, so the method requires them to have basic competence with their insturment before they begin learning to read music.

Changing the perception of the ‘Suzuki kid’

Hardie aims to "change the face of the Suzuki world" in the U.S. When she attended the North American conference of Suzuki teachers last year, out of the hundreds of attendees, only two were African-American. That's when she realized "I needed to impact the entire Suzuki world."

"The foundation of the Suzuki Method is that every child can learn," said Hardie, "and in my head I'm thinking 'regardless of race or class.’"

Ashley Ardis, 16, is Detroit Youth Volume's sole violist. The teen is very aware of how playing the instrument sets her apart and confronts societal stereoypes. At a recent performance with Classical Revolution Detroit, the host Rick Robinson held a mic to her lips and asked her why she likes to play. Without hesitation she said, "I don't want to be looked upon as not having skills because of my color."

Hardie wants the kids to "learn that if they work hard at something they can do anything," she said. "It's so important for us to set them up for success so they can see a real example of themselves working hard and making progress."

When Hardie first met her student Kelsy Dinwiddie, she asked her what she thought she was good at. "She didn't know what to say," Hardie recalled. Asked again four years later, Kelsey had many answers, beginning with "playing violin."

"It has helped her feel confident performing in front of a group, so now she's on the dance team at school and using her creativity in other ways."

Knight Arts Challenge Grant

Early on, Hardie started enlisting hip-hop artists like Sterling Toles and beat boxer Stevie Soul to work with the kids developing beats that can underly the violin performances. It puts a whole new wrinkle in “Twinkle Twinkle.“

"We're trying to expose the kids to other artists of color in their own city who are creating social change using music and art," Hardie said.

"The kids can see themselves in those adults and the adults can see that our kids are really special."

This year the program received a $22,000 Knight Arts Challenge award to create a hip-hop violin recording featuring Detroit Youth Volume musicians performing classical pieces over the beats of three local hip-hop artists. The Lower Eastside Community Grant Foundation offered her $10,000 toward matching the Knight grant (which must be matched for the funds to be released). "And we've gotten some anonymous donors," pause, "who are my dad," she said laughing.

When Suzuki parents or students go to YouTube to find examples of the songs they need to practice, they'll see Detroit's young African-American violinists playing to hip-hop beats, something they're not likely to see in the American Suzuki Journal.

"We want to put it out there that Detroit kids are playing Suzuki violin," Hardie said.

There's still a little time to help fund the record project. Detroit Youth Volume's Kickstarter campaign is open for donations until Dec. 31.

The Hardie Method

When Clara Hardie attended the University of Michigan, "I was a young activist who felt I had to save the world every single day so I didn't have time to play the violin and felt it was selfish if I did," she said.

"I spent my time kicking Coca Cola off campus" for its anti-union practices in Columbia and India.

In 2010 while Hardie was the program assistant at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program, she began taking teacher training at the Suzuki Royal Oak Institute of Music. But she wondered how the Suzuki method she'd grown up on and believed in could ever be accessible to the low income kids she worked with. Their parents wouldn't be able to afford to rent their children a violin to learn on.

It seemed to her the trainer was always coming up with more things for the parents to buy to support their child's learning. "And I just kept raising my hand and saying what happens if they can't buy it? Can I still be a Suzuki teacher if this is the community I want to work with?" Hardie said. "And I think I really made him think."

That trainer Mark Mutter helped her get her program started and Suzuki Royal Oak funded it for the first four years.

Now Hardie says Detroit Youth Volume is her activisim.

"I didn't major in violin," Hardie said. "Maybe it's not a secret, but I don't care about violin as much as I care about kids.

"I see the Suzuki method as my activism now. I just see it from a social justice point of view," she said.

"It doesn't even matter that it's the violin," Hardie said. "It's just an activity where you're bonding with an adult that cares about you and thinks you're important and who also respects your parent."

Hopes for expansion

Hardie is grateful for the three basement classrooms that St. Charles Boromeo Church has opened to them this year. "In the past few years we've taught out of an elevator vestibule and a hallway bcause we had one classroom for multiple classes." There are four teachers, including Hardie.

There's a real need to expand the program. Hardie gets requests from parents to enroll their children but she has to turn them away because she doesn't have funding to hire more teachers. Currently the waiting list to join Detroit Youth Volume is 20 deep.

"If we had 17 teachers – and maybe they are teaching cello and viola as well as violin – we could teach 150 students and be making an impact on even more kids’ lives," she said.

Donations get them classroom space, instruments and the tee shirts kids wear for performances. Grants help with instrument maintenance and gas cards for parents to get their kids to classes. The Detroit Food Justice Task Force helps them pay for healthy after-school snacks. But there is no grant aimed at general operating expenses like paying teachers, and this is where Hardie really needs help.

To lend a hand, go to for information on donating by check or an automatic digital monthly payment of support. Hardie says a monthly donation of $5 or $10 a month would "really make a difference for us."