Monday, June 28, 2010

Lessons in finding the good.

"Quip is the city
Quip is the town
We are together
We're never goin' do-own."

Lyrics that are dear to my heart. Did they win a Grammy? No. Were they written by a famous singer/songwriter? No. Did this song make its' way up the Top 40 chart? No.

These were written by youth of Aliquippa, PA, who attended an arts camp last summer through the nonprofit, Aliquippa Impact. For two months, a small group of youth met with myself and my co-teacher, Bill, three nights a week to learn about different music genres, composers, rhythmic styles, types of instruments, song structures, etc. Some of them had private instruction in piano, voice, and guitar. We spent the majority of our time learning about basic pop songwriting structure and had the youth write their own verses, choruses, bridges, and melodies. The song that came to complete fruition by the end of the summer was titled, "Quip Is the City," and it featured a short 3-4 line verse by each student, along with the chorus and bridge that they had created as a group.

Why is this such a big deal? Can't kids and youth be taught this anywhere? What makes it so different from any other learning environment?

Welcome to Aliquippa, PA: home to the negative views of nearby towns, a reputation that I felt rudely awoken to every time I encountered someone outside of Aliquippa and, after hearing my response to their question of my location, would respond with fear, disdain, or both. From my understanding, Aliquippa is thought of as the town where nothing good happens; where prostitution, drug trafficking, gangs, and crack houses serve at the town's present identity. You'll find plenty of news articles like this and not enough like this.

Those of us that have lived or worked in Aliquippa beg to differ on this overly pessimistic view. Establishments such as Uncommon Grounds Cafe or the nonprofit of Aliquippa Impact are two of the brightest beacons of lights to shine in an otherwise darker city. The vision and heart behind the actions of their staff are beautiful examples of the love of Christ for those who desperately need to believe they are created for purpose - for something far greater than what they have been deceived into thinking life is all about.

I love the collaboration between Jay-Z and Alicia Keys for the song, "Empire State of Mind." I think it is such a beautiful concept to find pride and purpose in the places that you are from - the experiences that made you a stronger person, the sights and smells that leave you nostalgic on a rainy day, the memories you held with friends and families. I feel the need to clarify that this is not my attempt at painting a naive picture of beauty or of warm, fuzzy historical backgrounds. I realize that there is a lot of pain and places gladly left behind in our pasts and upbringing. But I also believe there are a lot of places in our lives worth remembering and worth using as markers of lessons learned. There is good and beauty worth writing and singing about all around us.

My music students last summer were told to keep in mind this idea of telling their own individual stories as they wrote their lyrics. I cannot express how moving it was to watch them slowly but surely find written ways of expressing the parts of their life worth celebrating - a kind word, a good meal, a favorite sport, a favorite family member, future career ambitions. Bit by bit, bright lights of hope emerge from the creative outlets discovered by the youth of this town.

I return to Aliquippa on Thursday morning to teach a similar course for the month of July. I ask your prayers and encouragement, friends.


  1. Erin, you have such a magnificent way of voicing for people. It is with great excitement we welcome you back to the grand ole 'quip... eagerly awaiting your energy and passion for lie! are you coming for the people, the course, or just because the paper tongues are in town???

  2. ha! i am coming back for the 'quip, of course! meaning, i am coming back to teach music again (just for a shorter amount of time - one month)for aliquippa impact...and, given whatever scheduling i have, i'd love to help out at the cafe again whenever far as the paper tongues, i just so happened to be flying in the same date they play! you should come if you can!