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Since he was a toddler, 18-year-old Josh McClendon knew he wanted to be a musician.
“When I was about three years old…my sister was playing violin in her kindergarten violin class and my mother was working at the school at the time,” remembers McClendon. “One day, I happened to walk in on her class and someone put their violin down. I just went and picked it up and started making some noise.”
Some music teachers might be irritated by a toddler interrupting their class, but Josh says that wasn’t the case. He actually got to take the violin home.
“The same teacher took me to see the Detroit Symphony and they were playing (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5) and the second movement is a really big cello movement,” he says. “Throughout that entire performance I totally fell in love with the cello, but my mother was like, ‘(the cello) is too big.’ So I played violin until I was eight years old and I was able to make the switch.”
An outstanding talent
By seven years old, Josh was performing with the DSO’s youth orchestra. That switch to cello proved to be a lucrative one for Josh, too.
After graduating from the Interlochen Center of the Arts this year, he received full ride scholarships totaling more than $1-million-dollars from every college he applied to. Well, almost every college.
“All but one,” laughs McClendon.
Josh will head to Julliard in New York this fall — and that’s a move he knew he’d have to make. Finding the education that matches his talent has always been a struggle for the Detroit-born musician.
“It’s just not something that’s taken seriously by the district, so there wasn’t much time for it at school. It came to a point where my teachers would just excuse me from class to go practice.”
His mother Voncile Campbell — a DPS teacher herself — made the decision to take her son out of Detroit schools by the 7th grade as his talent outpaced the arts education available to him.
“It was really tough,” says McClendon. “It’s just not something that’s taken seriously by the district, so there wasn’t much time for it at school. It came to a point where my teachers would just excuse me from class to go practice.”
Josh was able to find other options, but for other less fortunate students, there’s few options.
“Never given the opportunity”
Decades ago, Detroit Public Schools was known for its music programs, but years of oversight by emergency managers has led to massive cuts to music and art programs.
In numbers provided by DPS just last year, the data was grim and mirrored cities around the country. Out of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers. Just 24% of the schools have an art class; 27% with a music class. The overlap is minimal with less than 15 schools offering both.
Josh sees funding as only part of the solution.
“There’s so many students that are so talented,” says McClendon. “ No one ever sees it because they’re never given the opportunity to really nurture that. There’s a lot of funding for our athletic programs, which is totally fine. The problem is that a lot of students think that’s all they can do.”
DPS superintendent Nikolai Vitti has committed $3-million-dollars to bringing art and music classes back for K through 5 students this school year. The district will also launch a partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Michigan Opera Theatre this school year as well with hopes of exposing more students to the cultural institutions in the city.
In the meantime, Josh has embraced the job of role model.
“The biggest thing for me…is letting the younger students know that there’s more out there,” says McClendon.