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Detroit music entrepreneurs rock to ignite learning while bringing people together

Joseph Hardig is used to tough verbal challenges, but none like what he faced last summer, when he got on stage at a Detroit-area music festival and rapped a Madcon song.

“I’m a 57-year-old, bald, white lawyer. I don’t rap,” says Hardig. But he was studying guitar with a band that wanted to do Madcon’s song “Beggin,” and someone had to rap. Based on the cheers, it unearthed a new kind of accomplishment for Hardig and a talent he didn’t know he had.

Enabling the performance was the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music, an innovative, locally owned business that fills a much-needed niche in music education. Students not only learn drums and guitars, they rock out at gigs, gain self-confidence, and feel the collective pull of music that transcends age and race to bring people together.

“We play on stages with huge Marshall amps and lots of music-loving fans – just playing our hearts out and having an experience that otherwise would not be available,” says Hardig. “Pretty cool.”

Lifelong drummer Jason Gittinger founded the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music. Photo: Ami Vitale.

The school – part of a vibrant entrepreneurial scene reviving metropolitan Detroit – is the vision of musician couple Jason and Sherry Gittinger, who wanted to offset the rigidity of orchestras and solitude of private lessons with a fun, communal school. They opened in 2008 in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.

It’s since become a lively hub of about 150 contemporary music students who follow the motto, “Stop practicing … start performing.”

“It’s not so much the rock and pop that’s important. It’s having passion for something,” says Jason Gittinger of his students young and old. “If this is where they find that one passion that ignites the fire for learning anything – a curiosity to learn other stuff for the rest of their life – then I’m doing my job right.”

He’s part of a wave of tech developers, investors, artisans, manufacturers and entrepreneurs busy creating opportunities in the wake of Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy last year. Their work is gaining momentum, energizing neighborhoods from downtown Detroit to surrounding suburbs.

High school student Vanessa Allen studies guitar and voice at the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music, where she says she has learned “how to be more responsible for myself and others.” Photo: Ami Vitale.

“The great part is that this region is filled with a ‘get it done’ entrepreneurial spirit that motivates people to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and make our dreams a reality,” says Gittinger, a professional drummer who moved to Detroit in the ‘90s.

Over the years, he’s watched students grow and improve. One teen found peace and calm in music while going through tough times at home. Attorney Hardig learned to rap and plays in a band with friend and fellow student Judy McCullough, a Detroit firefighter with a beautiful voice.

“A band is a truly collaborative setting,” Hardig says. “There is a phrase we use, ‘I don’t want to step on your toes,’ when figuring our solos, vocals, etc.” That group desire to blend in, step back and let fellow musicians shine is a joyous antidote to what often happens in life, he says.

For kids, the school is about life skills. Susan Norton recalled the first performance of her daughter Alie, who transformed suddenly on stage from shy 12-year-old girl to fierce rock drummer.

“I was floored,” Norton says. “To sound really good and have the guts to do it, it definitely helped her self-confidence.”

Music students at the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music learn to collaborate and perform together. Photo: Ami Vitale.

To run the school, Gittinger often works 80-hour weeks to manage student bands, guide rehearsals, book shows around town, record studio performances and produce the school’s cable-access music show. He also oversees his music education nonprofit, Live the Music Foundation, and has taken students to play gigs around the country.

He uses Microsoft tools to get it done, from Skype for meetings to OneNote for organizing rehearsals and production. Windows powers his computers for everything from office tasks to studio lighting. The technology helps him create ways for music and art to flourish as shared experiences, he says.

“The entrepreneurs of today, much like long-past generations, don’t see empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure,” Gittinger says. Instead they see “wonderful opportunities to create a world where we want to be.”

Learn more about Gittinger and the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music at Microsoft’s Instagram page, a celebration of people who #DoMore.

This story is part of a series on Detroit entrepreneurs. Read the first story, a profile of the founder of Detroit Bikes.

Lead photo: Jason Gittinger, second from right, is pictured with students of his Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music. Photo: Ami Vitale.