So many of us have fond memories of art and music classes in our school days. So often, it was a chance to decompress from math, science, English, or history, but the arts in learning have always been about a bit more. Studies have shown improvements in math, reading, and critical thinking can all be linked to engagement in artistic or creative endeavors.* So, it is not just a sense of melancholy that makes it upsetting that so many school systems have had to decrease funding for art programs and sometimes eliminate them altogether.

Photo by Jessica Wynder Photography

It’s this reality that spurred Michelle Chenard and Pete Kehoe of Big Water Creative Arts to turn their passion for music into a bigger purpose.

“Music has always given Michelle and me so much,” said Kehoe, director of the board at Big Water Creative Arts. “It felt like time for us to return the favor.”

Chenard and Kehoe are longtime friends and sometimes creative partners who have enjoyed their own lives as musicians. Chenard, originally from the Upper Peninsula, took her talent on the road working the music circuit in the southern United States and finally back to Michigan. Kehoe, from Gladwin, has been in Petoskey since 1999. While they’ve worked on songs together and played in Michigan for decades, it was a songwriting workshop they were holding on Mackinac Island that was the first step in creating Big Water Creative Arts.

Photo by Johnny Ulibarri

“We had been doing this three-day songwriting workshop for a few years, but never quite got in the black,” said Kehoe. “Then we started talking and realizing we wanted to also do something that had a more far-reaching impact.”

The two were keenly aware that school music programs had been losing funding year after year, with many rural communities in their own backyard with no programming at all.

It started with a songwriting workshop for Mancelona Public Schools. Music programming spread to Petoskey, Pellston, Gaylord, Cheboygan, and so on. Today, Big Water Creative Arts offers multiple programs for arts education for elementary and middle school students, as well as senior and adult special education programs.

While BWCA offers these music classes free to all students, they depend on grants, donations, and fundraising from their annual event in September. As interest grows amongst students and school administrators, the strain on the nonprofit’s budget increases.

Photo by Alex Childress

“We are always looking for community partners who want to help bring music education to Northern Michigan,” said Kehoe. “We want to take the cost barrier out of the equation so it can be available to all.”

This is what the folks at Big Water Creative Arts do. They see a need, look at their resources, and make musical magic happen in their community.

“It’s our dream that every kid who wants to play, sing, or express themselves musically can do that without worrying about economics or funding,” said Kehoe. “Music is a right for everyone. It makes for more engaged, confident, and happy people. And that just makes the world better.”

*Source: President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities, 2011

Cover photo by Alex Childress

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