Cecelia Sharpe, Founder of Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble
The music educator found her passion in working with kids, and now she is sharing her love for song and instruments with a youth program in Detroit
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Cecelia Sharpe. That's "C-Sharpe," as she's sometimes called. It's a fitting name for somebody whose life took a melodic path—and, as the founder and conductor at Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble, she's giving kids a chance to experience the magic of music, too.
Her love for music started early. "That's what I grew up around, as far as listening to music in the house," Sharpe recalls. Her family played everything from Barry White to Queen to Billy Ray Cyrus. "They were always playing music and making sure that I was exposed to a lot of variety of music."
Just before entering fourth grade, Sharpe saw a man playing the cello on TV. Out of the entire orchestra, he stood out. "He looked cool playing it," she says. "I just liked the way the instrument looked."
She was inspired. She joined her school's orchestra, picking up the cello. Later, she joined the Weekend School of Music at Wayne State University and eventually connected with the Dearborn Youth Symphony. She continued to play at the Detroit School of Arts high school, took private lessons and played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Orchestra.
Her experiences led her to WSU, where she pursued a degree in music education. Here, she discovered people playing all sorts of genres on cello. "That's when I found that you could go beyond classical music."
It came in handy when she taught music at a K-12 school in Detroit. High schoolers new to string instruments just didn't seem to have an interest.
"What I really realized is that they were interested, but they needed something they could relate to"—and that wasn't "Mary Had a Little Lamb," she jokes. Sharpe started teaching them scales in a hip-hop rhythm. They loved it.
For her middle school students who loved playing their instruments, Sharpe created a summer camp she ran out of her mom's house. The songs included popular TV and movie themes. They'd eat and take field trips. "Just exposing them to what Detroit has to offer."
That grew into Urban Stringz II Youth Ensemble, which invites students ages 8-18 of any skill level to participate in a two-week summer camp in Midtown playing string instruments. Students get a taste of performing and have fun learning music from artists like Etta James, J Dilla and Lady Gaga. Meals and field trips are still part of the agenda. The more advanced students stick around through the school year to play at various venues around town. "It's about sharing your talent with others."
Sharpe hopes to see Urban Stringz II expand, both in the number of students and in its offerings—plus she'd like the students to have chances to travel.
Sharpe's life is full of music, and her passion has seen her working in education, conducting for the DSO's Civic Youth Ensembles and playing freelance gigs, too. Today, as University of Michigan's music and arts program coordinator, she also works at her Detroit School of Arts alma mater.
She has high hopes for the kids who come through Urban Stringz II. Not that they take up music for life. "That they try something new. That they put forth their best effort, (that) they learn something about themselves—they grew as a person not just musically but as a human being."
Why kids should play music
Why should kids dabble in playing musical instruments? Sharpe can point to a number of reasons the exposure is beneficial.
One is that the lessons learned can be carried on—and not just in music. "There are skills you can take with you throughout life," she says, pointing to qualities like learning to listen, work together, practice and having determination.
It can also be what Sharpe calls a "saving grace" for kids. "It keeps them from doing something that's not best for them or not conducive to their success or their survival."
Besides, art—and that includes music—can be a great form of self-expression, something Sharpe says kids need. "Art is important. It's therapeutic." It can inspire, teach kids about themselves and challenge another part of the brain, she says. "Sometimes if you're not the best scholar or student, you'll find that your passion may be in the arts and you can find yourself in that."