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Creative writing and music students team up for genre-bending performance

The Creative Youth Center and Triumph Music Academy combine their creativity for a project that merges poetry and music into one show on December 16. The entire collaborative process is being recorded and will be featured on Michigan Radio in 2017.
Creative Youth Center students are gearing up for another performance, this time with new friends at Triumph Music Academy.

Creative Youth Center students are gearing up for another performance, this time with new friends at Triumph Music Academy. /Courtesy of the Creative Youth Center

Spoken Word + Music

December 16 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Free

Wealthy Theatre Annex

1110 Wealthy Street

Grand Rapids, MI 49506

 

Get plugged in here for more about this event and other news straight from the Creative Youth Center. 

Students at the Creative Youth Center and Triumph Music Academy are coming together for a brand new collaborative project, a free night of Spoken Word + Music. On December 16, CYC students will perform original poetry at the Wealthy Theatre Annex while Triumph students provide live music that corresponds to the poems.

This project is an experiment, according to James Hughes, owner and director of Triumph Music Academy. It’s a process, one that’s been filled with questions and possibilities. 

“We just want to have it as an experience,” Hughes said. “We could say ‘This is what it is’ in a sentence or two words, but when the unpacking comes around there’s this entire world of opportunity that opens up.”

The process started at the CYC where the middle school writing students spent time getting into the groove of poetry, learning the elements of sound, like assonance and alliteration, analyzing videos of spoken word performances and having visitors perform slam poetry in the flesh. Spoken word, which is rooted in social justice, feels relevant for this context, according to Brianne Carpenter, program manager at the CYC.

“Middle school students are hip to the beat,” Carpenter said. “They’re aware of what’s going on around them and they have voices and they care, so it’s an art form that overlaps really well with where they are and how they’re seeing the world.”

“There’s a poem a student wrote called ‘Black Women Are Our Guardians,’” Carpenter said. “And another poem called ‘Girl Power.’ You can see them really wrestling with and thinking about the things that they are already being told that they can or cannot do and pushing back against that as young women and young women of color.”

But the poets weren’t restricted to any particular theme or topic during their writing time because there’s so much to tell about the world and endless ways to tell it.

“They really have free range in their writing,” Carpenter said. “For a poem, for really anything, to be good you need to be writing about something that you really care about and that depends on who you are. The cool thing to have seen in their poems, and this is the beautiful thing about middle schoolers, is that you can have an entire poem about eating too much candy on Halloween and being really excited about candy at the same time you have a poem about bullying and identity.”

At the end of each day of writing, the poets came together to share their work, taking turns reading their drafts. When a poet finished reading their piece, everybody would clap and listeners gave ‘shout-outs’—specific things that they appreciated about what the poet had written.

“A lot of the days have ended in tears—emotional, happy tears—because the students are writing really personal and deep and meaningful pieces and the group recognizes the amount of trust and care that they are building to allow space for students to share things like that,” Carpenter said.

A few blocks down Wealthy Street, students at Triumph Music Academy worked on how they were going to interpret poetry into sound.

“First, we individually prepared the students for the project,” Hughes said. “And what that means for Triumph and our students is that I put into use some of the things that I learned in music school like how to construct aleatory music. Aleatory music, also called ‘chance music,’ is improvised and based on feelings and emotions. We did these sort of exercises where we would create different ambient soundscapes or backdrops with a group.”

Those attending the upcoming performance might hear guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. And probably a number of things they can’t expect. Students have the freedom to branch out, finding the music in the poems while keeping the possibilities open.

“I would read one of the poems that was written and I’d say ‘What do you hear in it? Don’t think about any limitations. Just tell me what you hear and what we should probably incorporate,’” Hughes said. “I read one poem for example that had a mention of Santa Claus and one of my students said ‘We’ve got to have sleigh bells.’ And then, I think it was the same poem, I asked what the overall feeling was. They said ‘Well, it’s positive, but it’s whimsical.’ And then someone said ‘A kazoo is a whimsical instrument.’ All of a sudden we’re on Amazon looking for an electric kazoo.”

The writing and music students have met up to meet and play word games and will come together some more to prepare for the big performance. Both sides are excited to figure out what it’s going to be like to combine their art.

“These students are working on their ends,” Hughes said. “The writing students are writing everything individually and the music students are taking these writings and then working on music independently, so the experiment is when we get together to see how some of these actual collaborations that are going to be performed at the show are going to go over. Are the writing students going to like how the music students interpreted? There are so many questions that are going to arise and we’re just really pumped to just see what happens.”

A cool part of this whole collaborative project is that all of the teaching and practice sessions are being recorded and will be edited into a podcast that will be featured on Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity this spring. According to Carpenter, being heard on the radio is exciting, not for their organizations, but for their students.

“Our goal is to amplify student voices,” Carpenter said. “Being able to reach that large of an audience and to show students that their voice doesn’t just matter in Wealthy Theatre, it matters across the state and what they have to say and their experience is important.”

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