Deborah's Place - Summer Session




In a neighborhood on Chicago’s West side, nestled in between a school and a highway is an unassuming brick building. Deborah’s Place  is unique as a housing facility for women experiencing homelessness and it is remarkable that such an inconspicuous building can house such a thriving, supportive community. For this reason, Deborah’s Place is my favorite residency. Over the past few seasons, we have gotten to know the residents at several of their locations. At first, we began with a music and poetry residency, and organically this evolved into a Blues song composition residency. The Blues, an art form characterized by trance like rhythms and call and response lyrics, has special significance as a tool for promoting self healing.


This past summer, we spent six classes with the residents at the Rebecca Johnson Apartments helping them to compose music and lyrics together. Having worked with them before on two separate occasions, we are consistently impressed with their ability to express themselves through different poetic outlets. Residents have the benefit of regular poetry classes there and knowing this, we could rely on the residents to compose beautifully sophisticated lyrics for us. As opposed to past residencies where residents would read poetry accompanied by improvised music, this time, residents would make these words into actual songs and perform with us as singer or percussionist in the final performance. This is a daunting task to say the least, especially considering that most participants could not read music, however, as they usually do, the ladies tackled this challenge head on.


During the first visit, we led the participants through different activities on the different elements of writing blues poetry, and in particular storytelling through poetry. It was important to me to encourage the sharing aspects of storytelling and the creativity of this oral art form as a catalyst for composing Blues Ballads. To get the creative juices flowing, we started with a fun activity: one word storytelling. The idea is for each person to say one word, any word, that comes to mind as the story is passed around the circle. As you can imagine… this gets pretty ridiculous.  It begins with the Fifth House TA’s starting the usual catchphrase for a story: “Once. Upon. A. Time….” It was amazing to watch as the story developed from a story about a rainy day, to a thriller about being chased by pterodactyls, and what a natural progression landed us there! This is the amazing part about this activity: anything can change the plot if you want it to. Needless to say, the participants left with smiles on their faces. In the second class, this activity evolved into something more personal where participants first had to read aloud another person’s story about family struggles, and then share one of their own. Stories of addiction, fraud, and medical scares soon gave light to the ideas that would lead their projects about overcoming a personal hardship.


Each class began with a unifying activity, and for this we used Bobby McFerrin as an inspiration. There’s this amazing video online of Bobby McFerrin giving a presentation where he uses his body to teach an entire audience (without prior prompting) to sing! By jumping around the stage and stopping at certain points to sing a pitch, he quickly gets the audience to sing a melody while he improvises another melody on top. However, the Fifth House TA’s were not as physically fit as Bobby McFerrin, and each time we did this in the class… we usually ended up panting and sweating for the next portion of the class! By the fourth class, it was revealed to our participants that this activity had been teaching them how to improvise on the blues scale each week.


As the weeks progressed, the participants became more accustomed to singing and trying new and daring things. They were introduced to graphic notation, and quickly started to write down their melodies using colored blocks to represent the pitches. Soon the fifth class arrived and it was time to start putting projects together. At this class, we saw many “eureka!” moments as things started to click. One participant had this really cool melody fragment that she wanted to sing, but she couldn’t quite figure out how to write down the whole thing. We started playing and singing it together at the piano. I started to improvise the chords that went underneath, and it all fell together into a steady rhythm. She finished writing out the melody and was able to sing it herself in the performance.


At the performance itself, family and friends of the participants came to be supportive. It was amazing to see the variety of performances that came out of this residency, and the comfort and stage presence they commanded. It’s certainly not easy to compose music, and definitely harder to get up and share very personal stories in performance. One person sang a very moving improvised melody to a poem she wrote about sleepless nights, all with a chord progression she chose herself. Another chose to sing her poem to a gospel song. Another two sang completely original melodies that had been fully written out, and lastly, another read a poem about conquering stage fright while accompanied by an original melody she wrote, with supplementary rhythm and bass line instruments. Each performance was truly unique and inspiring, which is one of the many reasons we are asking these participants to perform again with us in November!


As we prepare for our Fall Residency at Deb’s Place, I’m looking forward to what surprises the participants have in store for me this time.