Orchestra director helps bid farewell to ‘Queen of Soul’

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton uses his smartphone to play the 1968 hit song “Think” during Aretha Franklin’s funeral at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. Seated behind him to the immediate right is Oxford Schools orchestra director Natalie Frakes, who performed at the Aug. 31 funeral with the Aretha Franklin Orchestra. Image courtesy of WXYZ-TV Detroit.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton uses his smartphone to play the 1968 hit song “Think” during Aretha Franklin’s funeral at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. Seated behind him to the immediate right is Oxford Schools orchestra director Natalie Frakes, who performed at the Aug. 31 funeral with the Aretha Franklin Orchestra. Image courtesy of WXYZ-TV Detroit.

She said it’s all still a blur, sitting just a few steps away from national giants like former U.S. President Bill Clinton and pop singer Ariana Grande, and looking down at the body of the ‘Queen of Soul’ during Aretha Franklin’s funeral on Aug. 31 at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple.

Music and Detroit mean a lot to Natalie Frakes, Oxford Schools’ orchestra director, and she felt privileged to be part of Franklin’s final farewell to her fellow Detroiters.

“I am deeply, deeply honored to have been involved in something like (this),” Frakes said. “I have been asked previously to perform with the Aretha Franklin Orchestra and, unfortunately, I couldn’t. But, the person who books these things has hired me for things before, and I was the one who got the call. I was just in awe that I had been asked to do something like that.”

Frakes was one of the few local musicians invited to play at Franklin’s star-studded funeral. Frakes sat front center on stage with her violin in hand during the celebration that lasted over eight hours. But she said the clock was the last thing on her mind.

“It was an experience that I’m still processing right now and will probably be processing for a while,” she said. “It was nine hours . . . and people have asked, ‘Did you get fed?’ (and) ‘Did you get to go to the bathroom?’ and honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about those things because I was surrounded by so many important and influential people – these movers and shakers in the black community and our nation.”

Like many, Frakes found herself continually inspired by the Queen of Soul. When she’s in the classroom, Frakes said she tries to impress some of the same moxy and realness she learned from Franklin on her students.

“She lived to be who she was no matter what anybody said to her,” Frakes said. “As an artist, she had what she had and she knew what she had and she wasn’t going to change that for anybody no matter what . . . That’s what students do as musicians in the classroom. We are who we are, but we ultimately have to come together and make it work. There’s always a way to make that happen.”

She believes music has the power to bring people together and help individuals where they’re at. As she said in her TEDx Talk in April at her alma mater, Wayne State University, she aims to connect her students with the music they’re learning rather than just teach them skills.

In her opinion, music education that focuses too heavily on tradition can be elitist – giving music less ability to reach the hearts of those learning to make it and the audiences for which they will play.

In her four years with Oxford, she’s found particular enjoyment in teaching the district’s young students and seeing firsthand the positive impact music can have on a child.

“I want my students to understand that we’re here to make music, make it sound fantastic and inspire people,” Frakes said. “That’s something that I’ve been touching upon with the little ones, and we talk about it often. I ask them (if they can tell me) some things we learn in orchestra that have nothing to do with music . . . One of the words I’ve been pressing with them is perseverance.”

When she isn’t teaching in Oxford, she works with youth in Flint, investing in music programs that are all too often lagging or left out in lower-income cities.

“I’ve felt really inspired by giving back to communities that have the bare minimum (when it comes to) resources,” she said. “I’ve worked with some schools in Flint in after-school programs, and I was really inspired by that. It’s been a goal of mine to really keep that going.”

She has also traveled abroad to teach music to children. She gained a lot from learning to play as a child and she wants to share that with others.

With her violin and bow in hand, Frakes plans to teach kids about life through music for many years to come.

“Music has changed me, and I think as an educator that making music with other people will make a better world.”

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