This story was co-published with the Detroit Free Press.
As told by the eyes, it was a quiet classroom on a Thursday morning. But according to the ears, it may as well have been heaven.
Lydia Cleaver was recounting her 16 years at the helm of Cass Technical High School’s harp program — the same program she participated in as a student before graduating in 1981 — and the challenges facing today’s generation of students, a student sat at a nearby harp, plucking away. With the student’s soundtrack in the background, Cleaver describes the impact of the ancient instrument, passionately.
“There’s something about this particular instrument that when you play it, it goes through you,” she said. “When the kids go out and sing, oftentimes we’ll have grown men in the audience who are weeping because of the effect that that experience has.”
The program, nearing its centennial in 2025, is less of an educational benchmark and more of an induction into a world whose magic is known to only those brave enough to venture into Cass Tech’s harp program. Its alumni have gone on to careers nationwide, playing in major orchestras — including for the Detroit Opera — and accompanying musical legends (like, ahem, Frank Sinatra).
“Students always reach back and say what a difference it made for them to be able to do something so unique, so unusual, and the lessons that they’ve learned have that enabled them to persevere through other things, because it is a difficult thing to do,” Cleaver said, sitting below a framed photograph of herself playing the harp as a teen at Cass Tech. “We try to create an atmosphere where they can feel like this is something that can be accomplished. They usually rise to the occasion.”
Getting (and keeping) new students
Maintaining student interest in playing the harp has proven to be a logistical challenge in recent years, Cleaver said. Class scheduling presents the largest hurdle in keeping students in the program and giving them the time to practice and hone their skill.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District does not have data on the high school’s harp program, a spokesperson said, and could not provide the program’s enrollment or budget figures.
Students are able to choose their curriculum when entering Cass Tech, but this structure provides little flexibility for students looking to explore other areas of interest.
“We have a curriculum structure that doesn’t always have room for more options, and there’s so many more options,” Cleaver said. “It’s difficult to build the student up in terms of their education at the instrument, and at the same time, go out and try and figure out how to get more kids in here.”
The music program is vying for student interest in competition with a litany of other specialties and advanced courses at Cass Tech, including architecture and design, marketing and chemical engineering, to name a few. This leaves Cleaver in a position where she often needs to refresh the curriculum to attract and maintain students.
About 20 students are currently in the harp program. Each class includes students with varying levels, requiring Cleaver’s attention for each student. The one-on-one instruction — a rarity in today’s educational landscape — adds to the appeal of the program.
“We live in a day and time where students are suffering … in so many ways,” Cleaver said. “ Their mental health is really under fire. … To know that there’s a place where you can receive individual instruction, that nobody’s pushing you to go beyond the limits of what you can do in the moment — and that they are paying attention to you. That’s extremely important right now.”
Sydni Byrd, a senior at Cass Tech, has taken harp courses since her freshman year. She does not know of any other classmate who has stuck through the program alongside her. Despite this, she has been able to form friendships with the students who have had casual stints with the harp.
“Playing the harp definitely gave me new relationships,” she said. “There are some students that just come into the class and then they venture out. And even though they ventured out, because we had harp class together and we bonded on that level, we’ve still been able to keep that friendship. So the harp definitely brought us together.”
It’s the closeness of Byrd’s relationship with Cleaver that has played a pivotal role in her high school career and inspired her future path. Byrd plans to study music production in college.
Legacy of excellence
The Cass Tech harp program’s greatest treasure is its tightknit alumni network that includes generations of harpists who have played major roles in fostering the success of subsequent generations. The network has built a legacy of excellence that offers students an opportunity to take a seat and give an ancient art a new life. It’s a chance for students to join a world of prestige where the entry fee is simple: curiosity.
In the late 1960s, Patricia Terry-Ross, a harp program graduate and now an award-winning harpist, would come home from the University of Michigan to Detroit for the summer with sheets of music to practice — she didn’t own a harp at home. The instrument is as costly as it is magnificent. A pedal harp, for example, can cost upward of $15,000. That was until accomplished jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby — a Cass Tech alumna herself — offered her home as a place for Terry-Ross to practice. Terry-Ross would later be named director of the harp program at their alma mater.
“And because of (Ashby), when I taught at Cass — and I also teach currently at Wayne State — any student of mine who wants to play in the summer and doesn’t have her or his own harp, I teach them for free in the summer,” said Terry-Ross, 76, who lives in Highland Park. “All because of that gift that Dorothy gave to me.”
Early exposure to music decided the trajectory of Terry-Ross’ life, beginning when her parents rented a piano for her when she was 5 years old. When she entered public school, at the former Duane Doty School, she was tested for her musical aptitude in the third grade. (She was assigned a violin.)
“With children, the best thing is to give them exposure to as much as possible so that they can see that there are so many choices available,” Terry-Ross said, recalling her childhood on Glynn Court. “The parts of the brain that you have to work on with music — it involves math and it involves critical thinking and problem solving — are skills that you need for life.”
When Pamela Dawson, another Cass Tech graduate and harpist, was awarded the 2023 Music Educator Award by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Museum and was slated for a performance in Los Angeles, she called Cleaver to find a harp. Cleaver was able to connect her with another Cass Tech graduate and harpist who works as a music producer in Los Angeles and owns a harp.
The network of harp students has gotten looser over the years, Cleaver said. The key to piquing a student’s interest and attracting potential students for the program is early exposure, she said.
“Hopefully, as our district is committed to true music education for our students, then we will begin to see those kinds of connections coming out of this department again,” she said. “We need to attract the right kind of student that will see this and embrace it.
“It is an ancient art, but it does not need to be a dying art. Because art is relevant in all of its forms, at any stage and at any age. It’s important.”