“Music shouldn’t be a luxury for the few,” says the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center
“Research is out there that talks about how music education expands your ability in other areas: language development, math, social skills, it is just an all around positive thing." - Joseph Fox, Co-founder of the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center. Learn more about the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center
When you strum a chord on the guitar, play a melody on the piano, or tap a beat on the drum, more is happening in your brain than you know. Studies have shown that involvement with music goes beyond learning notes: it develops parts of the brain that help with language and reasoning, promotes emotional development, improves pattern recognition, builds intellectual curiosity, teaches teamwork, and the list goes on and on.
Costs related to music education keep many students from this activity which contributes to success in so many other areas. However, one music organization in Kalamazoo is dedicated to making sure that everyone has access to music.
The Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center has only existed in Kalamazoo for four years, yet its history in the community goes back decades. In 2016, Co-founders Bridget Gonder and Joseph Fox began operations at the gospel music center with only four students. The music center is young, but it continues a long tradition of accessible music education for urban and disadvantaged youth, started by the center’s namesake, Helen L. Fox.
Helen L. Fox was born in the roaring 20's. She left high school as a sophomore to get a job and support her family. She moved to Kalamazoo with her family, and in 1970, at age 50, she finally earned her high school diploma. She minored in music at Western Michigan University, and for thirty years Helen taught piano lessons from her home, and from the homes of her students. She charged her students whatever they were able to give; whether it was $1, 25 cents, or produce from their garden. In an article written by the Battle Creek Enquirer in 1994, Helen said that the Lord paid her for her services, and that she didn’t expect her students to pay a dollar.
Helen L. Fox passed away in 2016, but today Bridget Gonder and Joseph Fox, Helen’s son, honor her legacy through music education. The Helen L. Fox Music Center has served over 30 students in the community, and counting. Gonder and Fox, like Helen before them, don’t do this work for the money. Neither Gonder nor Fox work for a salary, yet they are constantly rising above the call of duty: organizing instrument petting zoos, building local partnerships, and even actively participating in the transportation of donated pianos.
“The thing my mother developed, I saw how it affected lives,” Fox said. “To be able to carry on her legacy, and develop future students that will move on and be successful in the music world, that is fulfilling to me.”
Though he is not a musician himself, Fox learned the value of music by watching his mother and his students. Around 50 percent of students that enroll at the music center have no previous musical experience, or are self-taught, Gonder said. Despite these humble beginnings, the co-founders have both witnessed their students grow. The music center even has a small ensemble of three students that play together at local music events, such as Kalamazoo Singers concerts, the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, and Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra Family Discovery Series pre-concert programs. Besides musical growth, Fox says he has watched students grow into more confident individuals.
However, valuable or not, it can be challenging for urban and disadvantaged youth to gain access to music programs. Costs associated with lessons, expensive instruments and transportation can make music lessons cost-prohibitive to low income and middle income students.
“If you have to choose between rent and food, and a music lesson, you are gonna choose rent and food,” Gonder said.
While other music centers in Kalamazoo charge $25-$50 for a lesson, the Helen L Fox Music Center charges based on ability to pay.
“Our teachers have bachelors and masters degrees,” Gonder said. “(Students) see the quality of our teachers, and they see the prices. They could not go elsewhere for this quality of educational experience.”
The Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center is located at the Douglas Community Association, aptly located at the heart of Kalamazoo's Northside Neighborhood, the very population they aim to serve.
The music center offers piano, viola, violin, cello, bass, and voice lessons, and is looking to expand both their instrumental capabilities and their student population. In the past, the size of available space at the Douglas Community Association had limited their abilities, but transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a world of possibilities. With space no longer an issue, the Helen L. Fox Music Center now has the capacity to take on more students.
“In some ways this has been a positive thing,” Fox said. “because it helped us to really expand our online presence and meet the need.”
Students who enroll at the music center have a number of reasons for joining the program. Gonder says that the motivation often comes from an outside influence: “Sometimes a friend sees a friend playing, and they say: ‘I want to do that.’”
Parental support is also a huge motivation. Most of the students that are successful have a parent, an aunt/uncle, or a grandparent behind them, Gonder said.
Though students may be enthusiastic to learn to play notes on the violin or the trumpet, music provides a reward greater than a note well played.
“Research is out there that talks about how music education expands your ability in other areas: language development, math, social skills, it is just an all around positive thing,” Fox said.
With so many benefits to music education, Fox and Gonder feel it is important to give this gift back to the community. The program is still in its infancy, Gonder says, but the co-founders have big ambitions to expand the music center to be a household name in Kalamazoo: they want to double their student population every year, with the help of virtual learning, and expand the types of instrumental instruction they offer.
When they envision the future, Gonder and Fox see their program moved to a freestanding center of their own, the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Academy: a physical token of Helen’s legacy.