OU professor, students bring Guitars Not Guns program to Children’s Village

OU professor, students bring guitar program to Children’s Village
Professor Hoag and OU students are using guitar lessons to support at-risk youth at Children's Village.

Oakland University guitar instructor Bret Hoag and his students Jessica Julian and Keith Kunkel are meeting with a group of 16 young women at Children's Village in Pontiac to launch a new community initiative called Guitars Not Guns. “It was totally awesome,” said Hoag. “The girls were enthusiastic and the staff on hand were fantastic.”

Hoag has been a driving force in forming the first Michigan chapter of Guitars Not Guns, which has the slogan: One Child. One Guitar. One Miracle.

This 501(c)(3) organization uses music as a catalyst to encourage children and teens to use their creativity to foster personal development and to help divert them from destructive influences. The participants are provided with guitars and lessons with qualified teachers at no cost. Once the classes are finished, the new musicians keep the guitars.

Bret Hoag is a Special Lecturer of classical and jazz guitar at Oakland University and president of the local chapter of Guitars Not Guns.

Hoag is the president of the Michigan chapter of Guitars Not Guns, the Honorable Frank Szymanski is vice president, and youth counselor Tony Bittick is the treasurer.  


Judge Szymanski presides over the Juvenile Division of the Third Circuit Court in Detroit and has long seen the need for programs like this. A musician/songwriter himself, he first learned about the national organization at a conference. He was introduced to Hoag by Bittick, a mutual friend who has worked with at-risk youth as a counselor and mentor for many years.


Judge Szymanski gets involved with this and similar initiatives because of what he sees in his court. “Most of the young people I work with have been traumatized in multiple ways and need to ‘get out of the trauma’ as best they can,” he said. “Interventions like music are well suited for this. When we are engaged in an activity that provides the right amount of challenge and interest, time is suspended and we become fully absorbed in an activity, and for that time nothing else matters. When the trauma is severe it can seem inescapable to individuals, but when we start to establish our ability to control the memory by loosening its power to preoccupy us, we start to climb out of the hole it has dug for us.”


Once the Michigan Guitars Not Guitars chapter was formed, Hoag obtained a commitment from Children's Village for an inaugural program that would cover basic guitar technique, chords, reading music and blues progressions. Now all they needed was 16 guitars.


Hoag approached Walk The Beat, a Grand Haven-based organization with a board of private donors. In his application to board member Larry Halverson, Hoag wrote, “We are only requesting the tools to do the job. We are asking for the guitars, bags, tuners and picks for the students.”  And although the turnaround time was short, Walk The Beat agreed to fund the project.


In the future, Hoag plans to continue with more classes, involving more of his OU guitar students who he thinks will derive enormous benefits from the program. To keep the program running, there will be a need for ongoing funding from an expanding number of sources. Every time a new group begins their classes, new instruments are needed. But Hoag is undaunted. To donate guitars or find out more about the program, contact him at hoag2@oakland.edu.


About Guitars Not Guns:
Guitars Not Guns is a nationwide non-profit providing guitars and lessons to at-risk youth in an effort to provide them with an alternative to violence.

About Oakland University Music program:
Oakland University offers a comprehensive education in music for undergraduate and graduate students. The opportunity to work with internationally and nationally renowned faculty creates a vibrant atmosphere for musical and intellectual growth. OU students also learn from one another, forming a supportive musical community.

The music program at OU is broad enough to provide students with a wide range of experiences, yet focused enough that students receive significant attention from our faculty. Performance possibilities include diverse offerings such as the Oakland Symphony, Chorale, Wind Symphony, Jazz Combos, Opera Workshop, African Ensemble, and many more. Students pursuing music education degrees study with experienced music educators and work in the schools starting in the freshman year.

All music students expand their understanding through study with cutting-edge teachers in the fields of music theory and music history. In addition to their work as teachers, performers, and researchers, OU faculty mentor students as they prepare for careers and further study in a range of musical fields.

Participants in the Guitars Not Guns program show off their new guitars and prepare for the lesson of the day.