Monday, August 23, 2010

Lessons from spare ribs and new friends under a bridge.

Sometime in late June, just before I left for Pennsylvania, my brain (as often happens to musicians) became infected with the itch of a catchy melody that refused to vacate the premises. For whatever reason, I decided that the melody's lyrics needed to start with the word, "may" and so I thought back to an arrangement of an old Irish blessing I had sung with a choir in college:

"May the road rise to meet you,
the wind at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rain fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again -
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand."

The words fit the melody perfectly, so I decided to forge ahead with some lyrics. I had no real inspiration, so I decided to make up a fictional story about a couple in PA who felt conflicted between reality and big dreams for their life. I put the song down and just let it sit for a while, since it wasn't really a major project for me at the time.

That is, until the last week of my time in PA.

One Saturday, a couple of friends and I decided to introduce ourselves to a homeless couple living under a bridge in Pittsburgh. Driving past one afternoon, my friends had noticed quite the set-up under a few of the bridges: queen size bed, bed frame, grocery carts as closets, lawnchairs, etc. It peaked their curiosity so much that they just had to sit down with the creative minds behind it all. I decided to tag along for the adventure.

We introduced ourselves, explained our initial draw to them, and planned on coming back and sharing dinner with them on the following Monday. They were more than happy to sit down with us so that we could all learn more about each other over a few spare ribs and some corn on the cob.

That Monday night dinner was a truly beautiful experience: sharing stories about our pasts, our relationships with our families, the 60's (them, not us, of course), and what a typical day looks like for each of us. At one point, it was brought to the couple's attention that my friend, Dorian, and I had been working on an album and they requested a song. Dorian pulled up the music on his phone, began rapping and I began singing. It did not take long for our new friends to stand up and start dancing and singing along - even the husband, who was using a cane!

Two and a half hours later, we were in our car headed home, minds freshly challenged by the new knowledge of our friends' situation under the bridge, hearts growing with a love for the oppressed who were bound to us by the shared bond of humanity.

I walked into my living room that night, picked up a guitar, and began singing the words of that old Irish blessing. I stopped as I reached the verse and glanced over the words. Once. Twice. Slowly, the realization that I had found the rest of my lyrics for the song began to wash over me. I tried to recollect as many stories and events from the evening as was possible and began writing the second verse.

Sometimes, you just have to let the story start telling itself.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lessons in not sleeping.

August 8, 2010.

6 a.m.

I pull the Stanleys' car forward into Parking Space #8, turn off the engine and open my door, amazed I am still awake at this hour. I turn to see the quickly brightening skies greet me, almost smirkingly, as if to mock my lost sense of time this morning.

Speaking of, let's move the hands of time back a couple of hours.

4 a.m.

I am watching the slow, steady movement of Dan's hand on the soundboard as he fades the music to silence. These are the last remaining seconds of time before this song is completely finished and ready for the rest of the world to hear. I hear the drums and piano chords that I know all too well from weeks of dreaming and structuring an instrumental track for the students to sing and rap over.

I am sparse on the amount of bold statements I lay out for the public ear to hear, but I deem this a moment worth boldly stating.

I truly feel like this recording has huge potential to do great things: change hearts, grab the attention of those who do not give Aliquippa a second thought, inspire youth and encourage children. It's really such a beautiful song and the students sound amazing, singing and speaking the words they have spent weeks working on in their journals.

"Dan the Magician (of Funk)," as I have taken to calling him, is the talented producer/owner of the studio we have been working with. He stayed with me for hours tonight, rummaging through rows upon rows of audio files until I found the perfect beats and instrumentation to polish up the song.

I felt a second wind all night. This was an amazing moment, a rare and precious opportunity. I was not about to sleep through it.

On the drive home, I popped the CD in so that Dorian and I could do a "speaker check" on the song. I was smiling so much, I thought my face was going to split in half. There were small spots where I felt like the volume levels needed adjustment, but I was too excited to dwell on it. All of those long hours staring at a computer screen earlier, editing vocal tracks and photos from the students' album photoshoot, seemed like a small price to pay for the end product.

My thoughts return to last summer, where the idea of having our kids recorded in a real studio was a nice dream, but seemed out of financial reach. We did the best we knew how at the time (especially it being our first experience) and left with a few songs in our possession, ideas on what worked and what could be improved upon, sweet memories of our youth slowly blossoming with confidence in their previously-untapped creative abilities, but knowing how much more we could do for them. We just needed the connections and the resources.

With everything that has been produced during a month's time, I believe last summer would smile on this summer like a proud and knowing mother.

Praise God that good things have been done, are being done, and will be done in this town.

The best-looking crew you've ever seen set foot in a studio. Probably around 3:30 or 4 in the morning.
[L-R: Dorian, Dan the Magician, myself]

Hear Dorian's music here.

Lessons in mindless activity.

August 3, 2010.

2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday night. Absolutely mindless pop songs pumping through my headphones. Well into my fifth game of Spider Solitaire. Click, click, click. Staring blankly ahead, just attempting anything to briefly get my mind off of what will absolutely consume me for the next week and a half - the final project of my music students from this summer.

I remember my college days (I really lack an excuse not to, seeing how they were a mere two years ago) - piles of projects weighing on my shoulders, rehearsals, tests, hours in practice rooms preparing for recitals and lessons. I used to spend almost as much time stressing out about responsibilities as I did actually working on them. When I felt everything crowding in around me, I had a very familiar routine: head straight to my computer, slap some headphones on, and play multiple rounds of Spider Solitaire - mindless activity that would distract me from the insanity.

Tonight is the first I have thought of Spider Solitaire in quite some time. Since I automatically relate the game to the busier times of my life, I thought it best to close down my game early to reflect on just why I went straight into stress-recovery mode tonight. (I suppose it does not help that I had a cup of coffee around 9 p.m. either).

I think big. I dream big. I have ambition that often wears shoes bigger than I am ready to fill. I have perfectionist tendencies. My expectations for myself and my projects are high and my frustration is just as high when those expectations are not met.

This summer, I am dreaming big for my music students. In a month's time - two days a week and only 40 minutes with each class at a time, I decided my students would have a song written, rehearsed, and recorded by the time I had to leave. I truly believe they will be able to do it, but the focus has to remain strong in the short amount of time I have left. I also believe my Father knows my ambitious, big-dreaming heart and loves me enough to show me what can be done when one will combine hard work, prayer, and selfless ambition for the purpose of the kingdom.

I also went into the studio this past weekend with my friend, Dorian, to help record songs for his upcoming album. This was my first time in a real studio; my first time really recording songs. As I walked in and heard the first strains of a guitar part for one of my songs, I just stopped and shut my eyes, trying to take it all in. When I opened them, Dorian looked at me and said, "Erin, I feel like this just became real to you."

He could not have been more right.

When I was ten years old, I secretly decided that I would write songs and perform them for the rest of my life. I did not have a clue as to how or when, but I knew I wanted this to be my main pursuit. Over time, I lost that vision due to several factors: insecurities, detrimental rationale (not that all rationale is detrimental, but was so in this case), and fear. I had almost completely talked myself our of the idea by the time I entered college and found that it is so much "easier" to hide behind teaching piano or looking for other routes to take under that huge umbrella of "music."

But lights are not meant to be hidden under a bushel. Trust me - I have tried for years. I chose to let stubbornness take the wheel in my life for a long time, but it only drove me even further towards the emptiness I felt without the pursuit of what I felt born to do: write songs and perform them. Funny how the ten-year-old Erin Dalton knew so much more than the 24-year-old version of me could understand.

All of this to say, I have no idea what direction is beginning to take shape in my life in the way of music, but I can feel it turning somewhere that I am not ready to face yet. I need prayers. I need wisdom. I need patience. I need trust when this direction does not go as I might expect it to.

Which explains why I am sitting in front of my computer, headphones on, and an unfinished game of Spider Solitaire. Tonight I am on autopilot; mindless activity. Tomorrow I hope to return to mindful thinking.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lessons in finding a creative outlet..

This past week, as I was taking a brief break between my music classes, I began flipping through the journals of my students. I have assigned a journal to each of my students in my 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes, asking them to write various assignments for the different sections of popular songwriting structure (ex. chorus, verse). The first couple of weeks consisted of simple rhyming exercises, with lines such as, "I have a cat/It is fat/And it ate a rat/Now it is flat." Cute, but just a stepping stone to the real goal: for the students to find a safe place - an outlet for their struggles, their happiness, their imagination, their stories.

After searching piles of pages and words, I stopped short at the sight of one student's lyrics. This particular student had written words of deep pain and struggle in her life - not exactly what I am used to seeing in the writings of my students. Lines such as, "crying out and no one hears me," and "nobody's seen the things I have/sometimes so hard to get through this," caused me to bring my evaluation to a complete stop. Was this a cry for help? How much do I ask about? Do I pry or just sit back and wait for her to talk, if she talked at all? Can I include this in the summer song project or is it just too personal?

The next class time, I had the students write more verses and they were given the opportunity to sing, rap, or speak their writings in the last portion of our time together. I was amazed at the line of students willing to voice their work in front of everyone at the end of class. (Typically when I ask about a public display of their work, you would think that I had asked them who wanted to get their teeth pulled out). I was especially impressed when the student who had written such personal lyrics was the first in line to share her work. I watched as she poured her whole self into every word, every note of a melody she was creating out of a desire to finally be heard.

During the next class, I pulled her aside and talked to her about the deep value of expressing our innermost frustrations and hurt through writing and song. I made sure she knew that a pen and paper is there for the purpose of talking about things that you feel like you cannot verbally communicate, but that, at some point, it's also important to find someone you can trust to talk about it to. As her class was lining up to go to their next class, she walked up to me and said, "Hey, I just needed you to know that this song is about my dad. I haven't seen him in six years." Then she walked away.

I have since then heard her make comments to other students about her hatred for her father - the things she would do if she saw him, past experiences of disappointments, etc.

I am completely aware of the broken world that I have entered when I walk into my classroom. I realize that a consistent, present father figure is rare among my students. I know that there are situations of hurt and abuse everywhere. The process of healing and change is a long, blurry road. I am not expecting lives to completely turn around within a summer's amount of time.

But if one child expresses herself through songwriting and finds a creative outlet there, I know that I have, in some way, helped to pave the way on that blurry road. That need is discovered and I pray that I can be used to meet it as an encourager; a healthy enabler of expressing oneself through creativity. And I pray that this child can find the source of creative outlets, the true Creator of life breathed into our expression of art - that this child can find the mender of our brokenness and the healing that our needy lives so desperately cry out for.