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The Education Experience at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Music education at the DSO inspires students to take lead

We are most successful when we learn and grow alongside our students. Listening and responsiveness guide us in the pursuit of student well-being, superseding assumptions around age, race, gender identity, socioeconomic status, or place of residence. Our work at the DSO centers people as the experts in their own experience. ”

Karisa Antonio, DSO Senior Director of Social Innovation and Learning

Young people mimicking horn players seen in movies and video games; humming along to violin melodies when they identify a song; tapping their feet; and dancing to the rhythms of pop, jazz, and classical music—because the flow of it all feels that good—these are lived experiences that happen through music education presented by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.   

Whether connecting with the DSO through concerts in Orchestra Hall, watching educational webcasts, or attending events in their own neighborhood, students are encouraged to try and inspired to participate in these avenues for music-making and self-expression.  

The growing collaboration between the DSO and communities across Detroitknown as the Detroit Strategyis emblematic of the organization’s vision to create musical and educational engagements that eliminate barriers. Priding ourselves as “the most accessible orchestra,” it is our mission to impact lives near and far through music.  

At the core of our work is ensuring that students across the city have access to instruments and programs. With this goal in mind, we launched Detroit Harmony in 2019 as a citywide collaborative effort with a mission to eliminate the struggle between student success and connection to resources. Since its launch, over 2,500 instruments have been donated to the initiative, refurbished, and prepped for use. Distribution to local schools and community partners has now begun.  

The ambitious program has already made a significant impact in classrooms such as Detroit Prep Academy on the city’s east side, where students in Denzel Donald’s music classroom spent a morning trying out and learning about string, wind, and percussion instruments that were donated to their school through the program.

Seeing instruments in their hands is a dream come true; now we can grow our music program. Music gives kids a different perspective on education. It allows them to be able to understand things and have a sense of critical thinking; it boosts confidence and helps kids develop in areas where they may have not realized that they could. Even if they’re not planning to be a musician, my goal is to make sure that I am giving them the opportunity to explore and have a chance to see that type of future for themselves. ”

Denzel Donald, Musician and Music Teacher, Detroit Prep Academy
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The Detroit Strategy works across sectors from early childhood and student education to health and service partnerships, workforce development, and an inclusive range of musical performances.  

“It’s about listening and responsiveness; co-design and co-implementation,” says Karisa Antonio, DSO Senior Director of Social Innovation and Learning. “Then it has the evaluation component so that we know the things we’re doing have an impact and live out our intentions. The DSO as an organization is committed to a spirit of excellence. Our education programs are no different. We are committed to a high level of care and excellence for each and every one of our constituents. Many of our students live in the city of Detroit. They deserve the very best we have to offer.”

Building A Musical Foundation

There are various entry points that can be the jumpstart to a fruitful relationship with music-making, and the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center campus is filled with musical opportunities. 

Starting with early childhood, the DSO’s partnership with the PNC Foundation and Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) includes the PNC Grow Up Great program, which offers interactive school visits with a teaching artist and support from DSO musicians. The artists lay the groundwork, offering students at the pre-K level lessons on music concepts and genres combined with literary skills that help to build a foundational understanding of music. 

Serving as a curriculum prompt for teachers is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored Music Toolbox—a creative, inspirational confidence-builder for teachers to use to help incorporate music into their classrooms, even if they don’t have any musical experience. 

“The Music Toolbox aims to affirm and support music making in early childhood at locations across the city of Detroit,” Antonio says. “Our teaching artists tapped into all these networks from homes to childcare centers and asked, ‘How do you use music in your classroom and what would be helpful to you?’ Through those conversations and collaborations, the Music Toolbox was born.”  

Aesthetically pleasing to the eye, the embellished box serves double duty as a drum and keeper of musical instruments from egg shakers to chimes, colorful scarves to imitate swishing of the wind, and a frog-shaped guiro—a percussion instrument with an open-ended hollow guard that makes a ratchet sound by rubbing a stick or tines along the notches. 

Hosted on the DSO’s YouTube page is the Music Toolbox series—an interactive series led by the teaching artists. Children and caregivers explore themes like breath and movement; rhythm and sound; and exploration of instruments. A tutorial on creating toolboxes with materials found in your own home is also provided.  

“Music works,” says Antonio. “The goal is to support early childhood educators across Detroit and have this beautiful tool that they can use in imaginative ways to bring music into their environments. People naturally make music when they’re with children: they’re singing, chanting, drumming. We want to affirm the inherent musicality in these educators and their students. Additionally, through the Music Toolbox, we bring these educators together in supportive networks and affirm the importance of their work.”  

In spring 2023, the DSO welcomed all 33 Grow Up Great classrooms and over 700 pre-K students to The Max for an educational concert experience. Students heard a live string quartet and a narrator bring an illustrated story alive and participated by singing and moving along to the interactive program and engaging with activity stations, which were spread throughout the music center. The event marked the first time PNC Grow Up Great educators took students outside their classrooms to hear and see the DSO in Orchestra Hall.


I love seeing how all the little ones get to be hands-on, learning how to move their bodies, move their hands, and learning about the different instruments in a way that makes sense to them. ”

Charnae Hunter, PNC volunteer and graduate student

When students have physical access to instruments and can begin an exploratory journey in music-making, worlds open; palettes of possibilities begin to form and there’s belief that something remarkable can happensomething life-changing.

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A Holistic Educational Experience

Education at the DSO is strongly rooted in listening, collaborating, and creating environments where everyone feels heard, supported, and appreciated. There is active belief in a model that puts students in the driver’s seat of their developmental pursuit—musically and personally. 

It is a holistic, integrated approach that shifts from exclusively focusing on music training to supporting the cognitive, social, emotional, and overall well-being of youth—with music as the foundation. This is a conceptual evolution from how youth orchestras have historically been structured. 

“In the past, it was always about getting the ‘cream of the crop,’ privileged and the most talented kids in the door,” says Debora Kang, DSO’s Director of Learning. “We can’t expect all of our students to become orchestral musicians, but what we can do is try to help students and ensure they become good human beings and find their own path. The whole child approach really respects the students as human first, and if they’re interested in pursuing music or anything else, we’ll support them along their journey.” 

This shift bridges the accessibility, acceptance, and opportunity gap formed by past industry-wide practices that felt exclusive, rigid, and out of reach for many; and the existing partnership with Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) ensures Detroit proper receives the same exposure and opportunity as Metro Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. 

Through the Fisher Foundation’s partnership and their “Whole Child Program,” the educational evolution at the DSO is strengthened. Students in the Detroit Public School Community District are bused to the music center throughout the week for private lessons and have access to a student support coach to help with mental and emotional well-being. 

“We’re able to provide group and private lessons so that students with less resources, or who are not used to taking private lessons, have access and are able to progress in our other programs,” says Kang.  

Programs like Senza, a professional development framework for teens established in 2020, give students a sense of community and a platform to explore their curiosities. Senza focuses on mentorship, community engagement, and cultural and practical experiences, and ensures that students thrive in DSO’s education programs. 

“With the Senza program, it’s bigger than music itself because they care about other things that the children care about,” expresses Timothy Abrams Sr., parent of Senza student and trumpeter Timothy Abrams II. “This has broken his shell; his confidence level is up. He’s also grown in the trumpet, but when the team learned he did his own animation, they connected him to someone who could teach him how to animate better; now he has classes every Friday for animation.” 

For violist Madeline Hooper, who comes from a musical family, Senza cemented her interest in music, while also creating a stronger bond with her older siblings who each play an instrument.  

“It’s wonderful because she talks to them about it all the time,” expressed Tisha Johnson-Hooper, mother of Madeline. “Now she comes [to the music center] with a sense of joy, purpose, and excitement, and it is evident that it’s from Senza because she’s had opportunities to meet other students who really have an interest in music; and particularly when other students look like you, it really does light that spark. They may not know what they want to do in 10 years, but programs like Senza are transformative. It’s a seed and they see purpose and excellence, and it motivates them.” 

The creation of Senza came out of responsibility felt by the learning, community, and engagement teams across the DSO. A realization came to the forefront that investment in students is critical on a holistic scale––especially coming out of a pandemic that saw human connection at a standstill.  

“We identified that there are many factors that play a role in musical excellence beyond being enrolled in a program,” Antonio says. “We know that students, no matter where they’re from, have barriers that impact their ability to have musical excellence. There are all these pieces to a student’s life that if we just ignore, they aren’t going to have the best experience with us, and we don’t want that.” 


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Comprehensive programming lends itself to the well-rounded development of each individual and better fosters progress and confidence as students choose to transition into Civic Youth Ensembles or apply their music training to levels of their desire.

And students are thriving. 

Civic Youth Ensemble and Senza student Troy Perkins is an example. A bass player with talents that range from visual arts to business, Troy’s commitment to music came after teachers and mentors expressed the talent and potential, they saw in him. His love for playing bass grew, and after seeing the DSO perform during his junior year at Renaissance High School, his audition and acceptance into the Civic Youth Ensemble soon followed.  

“We met at Renaissance, and since, he’s performed all over the city,” exclaims Kang. “He plays with The Slatkin String Quarteta top group of all the principals in a chamber ensemble, and when he wanted to apply to the University of Michigan, the deadline was approaching fast, so we worked with him to prepare his audition tape, submitting it right at midnight.” 

“As a result, he got into early admission at the U of M. In June, he played side-by-side with the DSO bass section at the Heroes Gala and later that month, he attended Interlochen on a full scholarship. So, when we talk about full circle, Troy is a prime example of how one thing can lead to another.”  

A bonus in Troy’s music trajectory is when he took his senior year graduation photos on the Orchestra Hall stage. His mom, Denise Perkins, sees it as a manifestation of what’s to come.  

“It meant a lot to us when he was able to take his photos on the stage. He said when he steps foot on the DSO stage, it’s like a glimpse into his future. We had shots of him on the stage performing and told him that he will be back performing with the DSO. I’m claiming that!” 

Through our educational programs and vast musical experiences, the DSO hopes to create a continuity of connection that begins at the pre-k level and expands to the teenage years and adulthood; one that reaches students early on in their curiosity around music and the students who dream of playing on the historic Orchestra Hall stage as professional musicians. 

“Our whole team is committed to making the music center a welcoming environment, one where students are celebrated; their successes are seen and acknowledged; and where they can really excel musically if that’s what they choose to do,” says Antonio. 

With continued support and intentional actions, there’s hope to supply access and education, create unique experiences, inspire personal growth, and instill a deep love of music in students for years to come. 

We're trying to change the way youth orchestras are and exist. At the core of everything we do is Detroit Strategy. We always make sure that we incorporate the city, or the people of the city, before we think about anything else. We are here to really support the youth that will eventually become adult citizens of Detroit. ”

Debora Kang, DSO Director of Learning

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Children that grow in a musical community can understand the importance of respecting and listening to others without judgement. I always learn something new making music with young musicians. ”

Jader Bignamini, DSO Music Director

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