Every month we'll highlight a reader in the Great Lakes Bay region and learn more about them, their work, and their reading life. We'll also discuss books and share a conversation about their journey.
Read on to learn more about Major Chord for Minors CEO, community activist, and uplifter, Lisa Purchase.
Lisa with her son, Max, looking at a guide book for climbing routes at Joshua Tree National Park in 2020.
What inspired you to join Major Chords for Minors?
I got my start in community engagement in my twenties. I had a 1 1/2-year-old at home and was only working part time, and on a whim I filled out a volunteer sheet to work backstage at Pit & Balcony. I worked on the Props crew for the first show of the 1994/1995 season (As You Like It), and by my second show at the end of that season (Lost in Yonkers) I was running the entire backstage: props, scenery, costume changes. I fully engaged with the theatre community for the next twenty-some years, stage managing or crewing two or more shows a year at Pit & Balcony, working on building sets, helping create fundraising events (Diva Nights), and becoming the essential Gal Friday for the new and edgy 303 warehouse theatre in Old Town.
It took me a long time to figure out that I was not just an underling or sidekick to the talented and creative people around me ... while I did not possess any of their artistic abilities, I came to understand that my role as cheerleader, den mother, drill sergeant (and occasional carpenter) was essential in creating a space for art to happen. People often asked me why I never auditioned or wanted to be IN the shows I helped put on. That part didn't interest me. I really liked (and was good at) creating the space and the conditions for the show to happen, making it possible for the actors and the audience to do their thing. It was challenging and often thankless, but I was really really good at it and I loved it.
Eventually, I built and opened a restaurant downtown with my (then) husband. And that space began to become my "theater". He was in charge of the food, and I was in charge of the people. That included the staff (the "actors") and the patrons (the "audience"). I needed to fill the dining room with interesting and capable waitstaff, and then find ways to appeal to patrons and bring them in. I built a friendly space where people felt like a community together, and I created events like Moth Story Night at Bradley's, Burns Night dinners and Poe dinners, and eventually I decided we needed a big event that would bring our local restaurant community together, so I created the Saginaw Harvest Table. I managed to pull together 7 chefs preparing 7 courses paired with local beers and hard ciders, plus an army of volunteers and creative talent (musicians, graphic designers, decorators) to put on this magical event on the riverfront in Downtown Saginaw. This event was wildly successful for two years, and I loved putting my "stage managing" skills to use in a new way.
After the restaurant closed, I retreated to a "desk job" with a regular salary to pay the bills to recover from the financial roller-coaster of owning a small business for the past several years. I knew that job was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my career but had no idea what to do next. What could possibly follow the restaurant? Bradley's was the love of my life at the time, and there was no other form of community engagement that made sense to me in the aftermath of that loss. I missed my community and having a role in it, but I was lost and looking for the next version of myself. So I worked ... and waited.
In the spring of 2021 (almost exactly three years after the restaurant closed) I got a phone call from someone I didn't know. He was the president of the Board of Directors of Major Chords for Minors. He wanted to interview me for a job.
I knew John & Katrina Vowell, the founders of Major Chords for Minors, from a show at Pit & Balcony many years earlier (The Full Monty). So, they knew me as a stage manager - someone who moved the furniture and the people and put out fires and created special effects and got the show on stage every night. Later they were building their crazy scheme (Major Chords for Minors) while I was building my crazy scheme (Bradley's), and we commiserated over shared struggles and our dedication to making our community a more vibrant place. When they had been running Major Chords for Minors for ten years of 24/7 effort, they were ready to step back into retirement. They had built this great organization, weathered the pandemic shutdown hanging on by their fingernails to keep the program alive, and they were ready to take a break and hand it over to someone else. So, they had their board call me.
After the interview, I told them I couldn't take the job. It was a huge cut in salary for me, and I'm not a musician. This was out of the blue. And those were big shoes to fill. Why me?
The third time they offered, I said finally said yes. I had figured out that, for me, maybe this was Restaurant 2.0. I didn't do the food at the restaurant, and I don't do the music at Major Chords. I do the other stuff. The people stuff. The event stuff. The community stuff. This was the "What's next?" I had been waiting for.
So, for the past two years I have been the new Director (CEO) at Major Chords for Minors, taking grueling baby-steps forward, figuring out what shape this organization is supposed to take now when most of our resources and momentum were lost to the shutdown plus the change in leadership. I'm still figuring it out, how to do the job of the two people who started this amazing thing, and how to reconnect our community with what we do here.
What would you like readers to know about the difference the non-profit makes in the community?
Major Chords for Minors is one of the things that helps take this community from merely surviving to thriving, and the difference is felt across many layers of our population.
First, the direct impact of one-on-one professional weekly music lessons is indisputable. Study after study shows that participation in music enables better academic and social success, coping skills, self-awareness, and offers a creative outlet in lieu of passive pursuits. The time spent with our highly qualified instructors replaces screen time and classroom settings with dedicated attention and personal interaction. Especially in this time of post-pandemic recovery, this personal interaction is vital in helping students regain their sometimes-stunted ability to connect and be fully present with people who are in the same room with them.
Making our music lessons available to all Saginaw kids in grades 3 through 12 removes economic obstacles for many families. The cost for individual music lessons can be $30 - $45 for a half hour lesson each week. and the cost of purchasing an instrument can run hundreds or thousands of dollars. This is prohibitive for many households in our community. Nearly half of all households in Saginaw County are ALICE households (Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), meaning they do not officially fall below the poverty line (and therefore don't qualify for a lot of financial assistance) but are employed at a level that barely covers essential expenses and leaves little room for "extras" like music lessons. Major Chords for Minors providing free music lessons and instruments helps the whole family, not just the individual student. Happier healthier kids increase household stability and population retention, as families more often choose to stay and invest in a community that invests in them. When our kids are doing better, we're all doing better.
In addition to the weekly music lessons, we offer our more experienced students the opportunity to play in an ensemble performance band. They have additional practice time together every week and learn to collaborate with fellow musicians, try new music styles, and develop a stage presence for performing at community events. With their performances they experience the opportunity to participate and contribute to their community ... a powerful experience for young people who often have no sense of their own role in creating art and connection in their community. During the summer and throughout the year our rock bands perform in front of thousands of people at events like Party on McCarty, Friday Night Live, Rock the Block, the Art Fair, and at local businesses (Valerie's Downtown, Artisan Urban Bistro, Oracle Brewing, White's Bar, Cafe 476).
A secondary mission involves supporting the live music scene in Saginaw. We have a wealth of great musical talent in the area, and we aim to enhance and support that by getting more young people involved with music (and therefore more interested in and connected with the concept of live music performance), and by employing professional musicians as our instructors, thereby offering them a steady paycheck in addition to their income from gigs, and an opportunity to directly affect the next generation of musicians coming up in their town.
Does the organization have any fundraising events or shows coming up? If so, do tell?
If you read all the info so far, I'm sure it's not much of a surprise that we DO have fundraising events coming up!
We have numerous small events throughout the year ... just in the next couple months we have:
Pints for Positive Changes fundraiser all of September and October at Oracle Brewing
Our annual Halloween party show and costume contest (Oracle Brewing on Friday, October 27th);
Grateful Pasta nights at Artisan Urban Bistro (Wednesdays, November 15th & 22nd)
Student recital coming up Sunday, November 16th (Bradley House Theater at First Congregational Church)
Our local restaurants have been incredibly supportive, and we love to have an opportunity to play at these fantastic venues for their patrons. First Congregational church (from whom we rent our studio space) has also been very generous with allowing us use of the wonderful Bradley House Theater space within the building.
But of course, I am working toward bringing back the big-ticket events I love to create. I spent the whole first year here just trying to figure out which end was up, but I made it to a second year and that's when the fun started. I wanted to create a signature event that will a. contribute the community, b. become a high-quality event that will be associated with Major Chords for Minors, and c. raise funds for our organization.
This past summer we began the MAJOR GROOVE, a music festival in Downtown Saginaw involving 14 bands on three stages indoors and out, live art happenings, fabulous food, our own beer label, the Nerd Tent, tap dancing, a drag show, trebuchets ... you name it, we had it. As it turned out, the weather did not cooperate and it poured rain all day, so the scope of the events was significantly reduced. But we carried out the parts we could still do indoors, everyone was happy with what we did, and it was a great start to building this event for years to come. Next year the MAJOR GROOVE will go down July 27th in and around the Bradley House Theater (at First Congregational Church in Downtown Saginaw).
Keep an eye out for these and other events on our Facebook page and other social media.
In addition to your role at MCM, you're very involved in the community. What has been the most rewarding activity you've been involved in?
Honestly, even though it is sometimes stressful or overwhelming, creating the space for art and community to happen is pretty much my favorite thing to do. What started out backstage in community theater evolved through the front of the restaurant and Saginaw Harvest Table (which I've partnered with Positive Results in Downtown Saginaw Events (PRIDE) to revive in a new format the past two years) to the MAJOR GROOVE and all the community events with Major Chords for Minors. (In addition to all that, I'm eying a weird new theater project ... maybe stay tuned for that next year too!)
Where did your advocacy for the arts and the community come from?
I like Saginaw. I grew up here and I went away to college, and I've lived other places for a total of about ten years, but I keep coming back here. On purpose. There is something about the people here, the talent here, the community here that -- once you get into it -- you find out it's pretty indispensable. It's nice to be somewhere where it feels like you can make a difference, where small businesses build their own little community around them and support each other, and where you can get to know and participate in the wonderful things going on around you. We are not a passive people here ... this is not a cruise ship, everybody has to help row the boat, but every little bit helps. We all have a way to contribute here if we just get ourselves out the door to find it.
For me it was found in community theater, and local restaurants, and our public high schools (I'm also a regular substitute teacher), and our local music scene. For someone else, it could be a whole different list of other things, other places. But it's out there. It's everywhere.
I'm here on purpose, and if I'm here I want to help make this the best and most vibrant place it can possibly be.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Do I get more than one? I'm not sure I can stick to just one.
I'm all over the place. All those have the right "voice" for me. They tell the truth in an interesting way, which is what fiction should do ... hold a mirror up to ourselves and the world, let us see our collective selves. Good fiction allows us to live in different skins, try on different ideas or emotions that -- as it turns out -- are just how we might do after all. The right voice crosses genres to reveal ourselves to us.
Annie Dillard is not a fiction writer; she mainly writes about writing, which is just a meta way to look through that same mirror (maybe from the other side?).
Has there been a book that has changed your thinking in a major way? If so, what is it and how did your perspective change?
I'll go with A Prayer for Owen Meany. It changed the way I think about the mystical, the unseen hand of fate or God or whathaveyou, and our acceptance or rejection of other people's experiences with that. And our acceptance of the Other, people who seem not like us but have something absolutely vital to contribute to our experience of life. And a study in how to play the hand you're dealt.
It's a riveting complicated story, and it makes me aware to not overlook the deeply mystical which might be present in my own life. I tend to be more of a do-er than a thinker, and a story like this helps me remember to pay attention.
What are a couple of your favorite things to do in the Great Lakes Bay region?
Eat great food! And go hear live music with friends!
I'm so very fortunate to have gotten to participate in the things that most delight me about this town. Partly because of my participation in the restaurant community I am keenly aware of the dedication, effort, and expertise that comes from the talented chefs in this area. I almost never set foot in a chain restaurant and am so happy with the wonderful local restaurants we have here.
And I love having a connection to so many outstanding musicians here, getting to enjoy their tremendous talent everywhere, especially in the summer. We're so wealthy in Saginaw, with such abundance of great food and music to choose from. I'm certainly never bored here!