Saturday, July 5, 2008

Flint Portraits: Mark Brewer

Mark Brewer, an expatriate now living in the Chicago area, reflects back on a time when you could get free harp lessons in Flint and the fictitious Death Squad gang roamed the halls of Hamady High:

My parents moved to Flint from Calgary, Alberta, when I was a month old. After a year living near Jackson Avenue and Avenue A, we moved just outside of town, to the northwest side, where I attended Gillespie Elementary, Hamady Junior High and then Hamady High.

Feeding into my father's loathing for anything that costs money, I dropped piano lessons and started harp lessons because they were free. There were four public harps in Flint: one each at Flint Institute of Music, Eisenhower Elementary, Zimmerman Junior High and Southwestern High. The harp teachers were grad students at the University of Michigan. The lessons were funded by the Ballenger Foundation and kids from the county were invited to participate. So I did.

I took free lessons from age 11 to 16, practicing at the Flint schools for two years, and then my father bought me a harp on the condition that I pay for college myself. Luckily, that was back when college was still affordable.

Somehow I thought it was normal for a town the size of Flint to have a dozen harp students. I played in the Flint Youth Symphony for several years, mostly playing trombone since there were fewer capable trombonists than harpists. I was allowed to play second harp once and had the privilege of sitting near Chris Lamb, who went on to become the principal percussionist for the New York Philharmonic. At the time, I was impressed with the fact that he was so good he got out playing in marching band. Or, at least, that's the legend.

Being a harpist at Hamady was a challenge. The school administration wasn't able to stop the recurrence of my face being caved in at least weekly by the typical Hamady mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who wanted to show how much they loved me.

But then a clever friend invented a fake gang — Death Squad. He managed to successfully associate it with various anti-social activities before announcing that I was under their protection. The beatings stopped immediately.

Through the harp and the youth orchestra, I associated Flint with bright, educated people who could read and valued the arts, and I spent as much time as possible in the cultural area. I played in UM-Flint's production of The Fantasticks, a musical featuring a small combo and a challenging harp part, while still at Hamady. Later, I was offered a scholarship to join the theatre program there, but instead went to Ann Arbor for music school, where I had been taking harp lessons since I was about 16.

Given what Flint has endured recently, it's nice to see that the Flint Symphony, which grew into a respectable orchestra around the mid-1980s, is still intact. Just before leaving in 1988, I played with the orchestra in their first concert under Enrique Demecke, who is an amazing and inspirational musician and leader. But it was Isaiah Jackson who whipped the orchestra into shape.

For most of the 1980s, I played in the Warren Symphony, which was actually a good orchestra. I didn't play much in Flint, given the general attitude that anything from Flint must suck. So I logged a lot of miles driving to the Detroit area after my job at EDS/AC Spark Plug. After two years of EDS and GM's pompous attitude, not to mention the warm fuzzy feeling knowing that I was part of the team making the worst cars in history, I moved to Oak Park to be in the thick of the cultural scene in the Chicago area. More gigs. More money. Fewer miles. It must be heaven.

In Chicago, I'm privileged to play with all sorts of high-level musicians. I play mostly jazz now, specializing in bossa nova. I have a nice business with the Hilton Hotel and the Palmer House, and play in people's homes for their intimate soirees. I was on the music faculty of Concordia University for about 10 years, but just resigned.

When not playing the harp, I'm a freelance writer, and am currently working on a business plan for a marketing services company specializing in newsletters, magazines, websites and other relationship builders.

I'd like to thank (somehow) all the folks in and around Flint who still keep the arts alive in Flint. The art museum is a real treasure and I never miss an opportunity to brag about it. Gayla Zukevich, former ballet diva, once said the Flint is a
Karmic debt center for artists. That may be true for those professionals in the arts who live and work in Flint. Their contributions are continually overlooked because, apparently nothing good can come from Flint. Leo Najar, former youth orchestra conductor, is a good example. But hopefully they'll realize that some of us still appreciate and draw from the time, attention and professionalism they invested in their students. If it wasn't for them, people like me wouldn't be in the big city trenches of creativity, contributing to society with good things that matter.


  1. Mr. Teare's Short Time StudentMay 15, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    I was watching Mr. Holland's Opus tonight on a cable channel and thinking how much I was like the little red haired girl who played clarinet in the movie.

    I took lessons from Mr. Teare from Zimmerman one summer. In retrospect, I wasn't that bad but Mr. Teare was very disappointed in my performance at the time. One problem is that clarinet is an extremely competitive instrument, and at that time, I wasn't playing that well. There were plenty of better clarinet players to fill the top concert band section at the time. Unfortunately, Mr. Teare's assessment followed me around for a good year and a half before I became much better.

    There was another clarinet player who I knew who was not a star clarinet player either. But she gave up clarinet and started playing harp and she was very good. Her name is Susan Saurwein and she went on to U of M Music School and made a career performing and teaching harp. And like Mr. Brewer has said, she trained on the harps at Flint SW and FIM.

    Flint SW music hasn't produced a governor like in Mr. Holland's Opus, but it has produced a county prosecutor and a number of music professionals that rival Rowena.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I tell all my non-Flint friends about the free harps and none of them believe me.

  3. Mr. Teare's Short Time StudentMay 18, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    The national media have had little to say that was good about Flint since the late 1960's. When I tell people how nice it was in the corner of Flint where I lived, and that Music, Theater, and Art programs at Flint SW could be compared favorably to Grosse Pointe North and South, they are incredulous.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at