Introducing Youth and Adults Alike to the Power of Songwriting

Back in 2014, best friends Michelle Chenard and Pete Kehoe decided that they wanted to hold songwriting workshops and other programs to connect kids and allow them to express themselves creatively through music. The idea came after the two led a workshop for adults on Mackinac Island. They decided to broaden the project into something more formal, thus beginning what would become Big Water Creative Arts (BWCA).

“It was a labor of love that grew over three years, but we didn’t feel like we were doing all we could, specifically in schools. We wanted kids and adults with disabilities to have access to our songwriting workshops as well,” says Chenard.

During the first year, Kehoe and Chenard taught a few songwriting programs at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey and the Petoskey Music House. The program was running successfully, so the cofounders decided to incorporate it into their organizational model. They chose accessible songs from the Beatles or Taylor Swift to dissect with their students. In their second year, they were invited to teach at an area middle school and expanded their program yet again over the summer and through the fall with an organization called the Bergmann Center, which works with adults who have disabilities.

“It is scientifically proven over and over that listening to and playing music energizes the brain in powerful ways. In addition to that, a lot of these people don’t have an outlet for emotion. We hope not just to invigorate brain cells, but also to inspire people to express their feelings and emotions.”

In 2018, BWCA led successful fundraising efforts and participated in Petoskey’s Festival on the Bay, providing their organization with more stability and visibility. In their third year, BWCA’s momentum carried into the fall when they led a four-day songwriting workshop as well as an eight-week class in Gaylord.

“We received so much positive feedback from these programs; it helped us gain some legs around the community.”

In five years, Chenard would like BWCA to be self-sustaining, with more staff and an ability to make an even greater impact.

“We’d like to be active throughout the state, from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, reaching folks who need it the most. There are areas where the arts have been cut from school programming, leaving youth facing challenges who could benefit from a program like ours without any access.”

One of BWCA’s board members was recently approached to work with a young person who had been incarcerated and might benefit from sound music instruction. The board member agreed and was amazed at the development this individual achieved through participation in the program.

“You can make such a huge impact on people’s lives, people who might just need some direction and a reason to focus. I didn’t have issues per se, but I’m not sure where I would be without the influence of music in my life from an early age,” shared Chenard.

Challenges currently facing the organization include reaching those whose families might not have the money to send their kids to programs like BWCA. The organization needs to charge a small fee to pay instructors, but the point of it is to remain accessible to its target demographic.

Chenard started writing songs at a young age. Because her family moved around a lot when she was young, she was at a new school every year and would spend a lot of time alone.

“I would play my guitar and learn songs. I moved on from there, and I played in my first band in high school. Music has been a huge blessing in my life and allowed me to travel and meet a lot of people. I have a real passion for working with children. It’s the best feeling in the world when you see kids put together a few lines of a song and feel good about it. I want to give back.”


Big Water Creative Arts
PO Box 124, Petoskey MI 49770