I was first introduced to the world of the arts as a student at Detroit’s NE side Van Zile Elementary School. As a third grader, I walked into the music classroom of Mr. David Williams. Mr. Williams was knowledgeable, smart, classy, hilarious, and African American. I had never had a teacher that looked like me before, so I gleaned everything I could from him. He introduced us third graders to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Carpenters and great black composers and artists like: William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, Ella Fitzgerald, and the great tenor George Shirley. He took us to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which as a staff member today, feels like a full circle journey. Having David Williams as my elementary music teacher was so powerful. He made an indelible impression on me, an impression that continues to impact my teaching and my desire to advocate so that all young people, especially in underserved communities, have the choice and opportunity to engage in music education. He mentored me, he looked like me, understood me, believed in me, and showed me a world that I would begin to want to be a part of.
I have come to learn that Mr. Williams educational style, one that made his teaching so powerful, focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). He was practicing DEIB 45 years ago! Daily we would study, listen to, and often sing music by an array of artists who were African American and from Detroit. In particular, Mr. Williams posted pictures of Detroiter George Shirley who was the first African American tenor in the New York Metropolitan Opera. The images of George Shirley along with hearing his magnificent voice signaled to me that a career in classical music was attainable. I was learning, in the third grade, the power of diverse and inclusive teaching. While the words, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging might sound like an educational trend, when made real in the classroom, we should never underestimate their power to impact lives.
It was during the third grade that I decided I wanted to be a teacher, a music teacher. Mr. Williams’ class lit a spark in me that helped me imagine and dream big. I began imagining myself as a teacher and a world class conductor, conducting at the finest venues in the world. Guess what? I have been teaching music for 30 years and I have conducted at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Orchestra Hall in Detroit, and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Two professional degrees, an extraordinary teaching and conducting career later, I still pattern what I do after what I learned from David Williams. I actively choose to employ DEIB in my work and I see the positive impact it has on youth. By the way, Mr. Williams remained my teacher, mentor, and friend up until his passing a few years ago.
I continue to celebrate Mr. Williams in my work as Co-Founder and CEO of the non-profit Crescendo Detroit, whose mission is, “building character in young people ages 5-18 using the arts.” I wanted a program that would impact students like Mr. Williams impacted me. I am excited that this June of 2022, Crescendo Detroit will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Since Crescendo Detroit’s inception, we have created a safe space for young people to learn music, financial literacy, dance, music production, and life skills. Just like Mr. Williams, we are showing our students a world that respects them and looks like them. DEIB is woven through every aspect of Crescendo Detroit from the food that we serve, the makeup of the staff, the music that we study, dance, and listen to. We have a David Williams inspired Crescendo Detroit Wall of Fame which is filled with pictures of Detroit artists like Diana Ross, Rick Robinson, and Joseph Striplin, who was the first African American in the Detroit Symphony. When the Alvin Ailey Dancers or the Dance Theater of Harlem are in town, we are there. We have had artists in residence such as Kris Johnson from the Count Basie Orchestra, Jason Amos and Rick Robinson from the Sphinx Orchestra, and acclaimed tap dancer Jason E. Bernard.
In addition to the classes and field trips, we have two cooks who prepare homemade meals for every session. We meet three times a week and at the end of each session students sit down with staff and parents to share a meal. Eating meals together is our way of building community and a sense of belonging. To be honest, we have had some of our best times together while kids talk and laugh (sometimes with mouths full of food) and create a total mess out of making spaghetti sandwiches!
With all of the great things happening at Crescendo Detroit, I still wasn’t sure that we were building character in our students. Although I could see that students were becoming stronger musicians and dancers and they were absorbing content in financial literacy, DJ’ing and music production classes, I wasn’t convinced we were having an impact on their overall character. When I was in Mr. Williams third grade class singing loudly and out of tune, sometimes while playing the piano, he would look at me roll his eyes and laugh, and it was something about him, his relationship with us, that made me want to do right even if he was not around. I wasn’t sure if we were having that type of impact at Crescendo Detroit, then I was reminded by a friend and veteran educator that some of what we do is ‘the long game’ so, I took the opportunity to reflect on that.
We have a student who has been with Crescendo Detroit from the beginning, he was 5 when we started the program. When he turned 10, he had so much trauma in his life that he honestly became one of our most difficult students. We tried everything to steer him in the right direction, but nothing seemed to work. Three years ago, his mom informed us that she was pulling him out the program. I was disappointed, however, to be honest, some of the staff were relieved. Then, just a few months ago, this same student asked if he could come back to the program, of course we said yes. It is not often that a student returns to a program after being away for three years, this was further evidence that we had a program where students felt a sense of belonging. The returning student, now 14 years old, is taller than all of us and he has developed some great character traits. Without prompting, he is helping to clean up after dinner, says thank you and please, and he is loving being back. Recently, he asked if I could write him a letter of recommendation for one of our great application high schools in Detroit. Truthfully, I thought his chances were limited based on his track record, but I agreed and wrote the letter. Well, he was accepted into one of the schools and he sent me a text: “Thank you Mr. Crutcher. THERE IS NO (insert his name) WITHOUT YOU. I love you, sir.” I was honestly taken aback by his words. Here was proof, in this one example, that we had been building character in our students. Our attention to the discipline of the arts, to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging truly made a difference, and I think not only in this one student, but in many more. I also thought about Mr. Williams, and if I could, I would say “Thank you Mr. Williams. There is no Damien Crutcher without you. I love you, sir.”
To learn more about Crescendo Detroit, check out the article, Bringing the Gift of Music to Detroit.
Damien Crutcher is a native Detroiter and a graduate of Cass Technical High School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Michigan State University, and a Master’s in Conducting from The University of Michigan. Damien serves as co-founder and CEO of Crescendo Detroit and concurrently as the Managing Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Detroit Harmony Initiative. It is the goal of Crescendo Detroit to create a neighborhood to college pipeline using the arts; and Detroit Harmony works to guarantee an instrument for any student in Detroit that desires to learn an instrument.Click here for a Printer friendly version of this article.