The music man 

There’s magic where children learn to make sweet sounds for $5 a lesson

The little girl struggles to hold the heavy clarinet in her hands.

Amira Chambers, all of 5 years old, sits inside the cold air of the Metro Music store, with her winter coat still on, and blows out one unsteady note after another as she learns her new instrument. 

Her teacher, wearing a knit hat and winter coat, points to a sheet of music and instructs her note by note. "F," he says. She blows F. "F again," he says. She does F again. "Now an open G. OK, another one. Again. Again. Now play F. Good! Good! Good!" he exclaims.

Sometimes her notes slip a little into sharps or flats, but each time they do, Mark Lamonte, the store's 64-year-old owner, gently prods her back on track, without a trace of impatience in his voice, always with the same gentle, steady tone of a good teacher. He charges only $5 for a half-hour lesson in any instrument you want to play. He knows how to play them all.

George Cunningham, her grandpa, who's winter-bundled like the others, sits and watches as he does every Saturday with two other little children, one a grandchild and one his own, who fidget as they wait for their own lessons. He marvels at the teacher's tenderness. "The music man here, the way that he takes time with the kids, the way that he reaches them — not everybody's got that kind of patience with kids," the 66-year-old minister says.

Children, the reverend thinks, should learn to play a musical instrument. Doesn't matter which one. Not only does it give them something constructive to do, not only is it a skill that will benefit them in other ways, but there's just something that's good for the soul about creating music out of nothing. That's why they're sitting here now, in a cold, unlit room, with this likable, slightly eccentric teacher.

"Everybody love music," Cunningham says, as the clarinet behind him honks out one note at a time. "Show me somebody that don't love music. I don't know nobody that don't."

 

You can see the tall, brick Metro Music building from the freeway that runs below it. Faded lettering up high announces it with a name that says not only are instruments sold here, but that the ability to make your own music is taught here.

Lamonte's father, Fred, started the store back in 1952. He'd been a steel guitarist in a touring Hawaiian band, and for years had his own music store called the Aloha National Conservatory of Music on 14th Street near Grand River Avenue, where he taught how to play what was then still a popular genre. But he and his business partner had a falling out, so Fred purchased a plot of west side land that now overlooks the sunken Southfield Freeway near Joy Road and had the Metro Music store custom built.

Lamonte has loved music his whole life. "I used to sit and listen to the record player when I was a kid," he says. "Man, I would sit there for hours, trying to figure out the chords and the song." He played saxophone in elementary school and at Mackenzie High in Detroit, then got a music education degree from Eastern Michigan University. After graduating, he joined his dad at the store. 

Back then, just about every school had band and music classes, and customers poured into the store for lessons and instruments for their kids. It also drew local stars like members of the Four Tops and the Temptations, and dozens of backup and bit-part Motown musicians. The giant store carried just about any instrument anyone requested. 

It still does. Besides guitars and amps and drums and horns, you can get a cowbell or a tambourine, bongos or an Ozark harp, maracas or cabasas. There's even a box of metal kazoos under the glass counter, which Lamonte gives free to each of his students, just because it's yet another way they can make music.

Business was so good for a while the family opened a second store on Grand River at Lahser, then a third out in Chesterfield Township. But the ups and downs of the economy in the past few decades whittled business away, as did local budget-strapped schools cutting music and arts programs, particularly in Detroit. "Business just fell right apart," Lamonte says. First one store closed, then the other, and Lamonte dragged the stock of both back to the original store, where he planned to start over. The idea was to unpack all the instruments, the amplifiers, the drumsticks and strings, and go back to having a single grand store, just like it was when his dad first ran the place. 

It's been 12 years now, and still the store is full of unpacked boxes stacked halfway to the ceiling. Maybe it's because there's just so much to sort through, so much to unpack, that it's hard to know where to begin. Maybe it's because his mom and dad died not long ago, barely a year apart, and going through all this stuff is an emotionally draining task. But he pledges he's going to get to it someday.

"I'm trying to start over again, but as you can see the place is really a mess because I have all of this leftover from the other stores," says Lamonte, who lives in the apartment upstairs. "I kind of have to sort it all out. It really looks terrible now, but we still have a small business here. Things dropped off, but it will pick up again. It's just a matter of time."

 

The dim winter sun spills into the room, casting angular shadows in the natural light. Lamonte sits in a chair, by a portable heater, strumming an acoustic guitar, waiting by the door in case a student shows up. He centered in the one open space he's left himself to teach music, next to the front window, surrounded by his stacks of boxes. 

The music stand in front of him holds two sheets, both featuring Bob Dylan songs, both meticulously handwritten in clean cursive, from memory, with the chords penciled above the words in block capital letters. 

Some days, if the weather is bad, the students just don't show up or call. Still, he waits here faithfully just in case they're late. He makes himself available seven days a week.

The room is dim and chilly because business slowed so much over the years that the electricity kept getting shut off when he couldn't pay the bills, and finally, a couple of years ago, he didn't bother turning it back on. And he has what he calls "a little property tax issue" that he's working to resolve. But he repeatedly assures that things will get better soon.

"We're doing a different thing," he says. "I'm a little bit of a protester. What we're going to do here is all solar. That's my main thing. We have to get off the grid. Well, we are off in the fact that we have our electricity turned off due to the fact of nonpayment of bill, but that's why we brought these solar lights." He's got two of them, one affixed to a pole, the other by the door. "I don't want to go back to the same old routine of paying the electric bills."

He strums the guitar and bursts into Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." It's a quirky but earnest rendition. Dylan's among Lamonte's favorite performers, as are Creedence and Van Morrison, not just because they reflect the time he grew up, but also because their songs are so basic you can pick up a guitar and just start playing them. And that's what it's all about to him — music you can make without plugging something in, without spending a fortune to do so. There's still magic, he thinks, in grabbing a simple instrument and making music with nothing but that instrument and your voice. 

"You can be like them guys you hear them on the radio, all the famous singers," he says, excitedly. "You can be just like them." 

It's a bit after 1 o'clock. The student due here on the hour hasn't shown up. But Lamonte stays in his chair by the heater and waits. After all, the student scheduled to come in at two might show up, another kid he can teach music to, and he'll wait patiently just in case.

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