Luthien holds up the words to "Firework" as Ray Bailey plays piano and the campers sing.
By Luthien Brackett
My body is safely back in New York, but my heart and mind are still in New Orleans with the kids at All Souls camp. It’s Independence Day, and outside my apartment window, I can hear the crackle and pop of firecrackers, and I’m immediately swept back to Friday night’s concert, which marked the end of music week at camp and our brief but life-changing time with those 60 incredible children. The final number of the concert was Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting throught the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there's still a chance for you
Cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you're a firework
Come on show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go "Ah, ah, ah!"
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
During the song, I was crouched behind the piano in front of the kids, holding up a piece of posterboard printed with the words of the refrain to give them a little bit of help. The pounding chords of the piano rumbled against my back as the campers sang with all the vibrant exuberance they could muster. If this song is about anyone in the world, it’s about these kids. It was a feeling I don’t think I can adequately articulate.
When Thursday rolled around, I think all of us were a little bit worried that it would be a huge disappointment after the monumental success of Wednesday. We were prepared for a letdown, but it happily never came. My favorite moment of the day came during the boys’ and girls’ sectional period, when both groups convened in the sanctuary to perform for each other. In what has become one of my favorite memories of the entire trip, Stephen Sands led the boys in a performance of “Down by the Riverside.” You can view a must-see video of the performance here:
I defy anyone to watch that performance and not be filled with joy from the top of his head to the soles of his feet! I particularly love the footage of little Trent dancing in the foreground on the left. Trent, a five-year-old with the heart of a lion and the cunning of Wile E. Coyote, was a little challenging for all of us last week. He can go from crying, to smiling, to spinning, flipping, running, jumping and finally refusing to budge, all within the space of a minute. And just try to get him to sing! To see him dancing and singing, and responding the music in such an immediate, visceral and gleeful way makes me grin from ear to ear. Who but the talented Mr. Stephen (who some might say shares more than a few of little Trent’s hyperactive tendencies), could connect with him and all of these boys in such an extraordinary way?
By James Blachly
Flying home, with a whirlwind last two days behind us.
My favorite moment from Thursday was towards the end of the day. We had done well all day with our teaching, and there were fantastic moments with the kids. Towards the end of the day is always the hardest for their attention as they are exhausted, and attention spans are cut in half.
Singing in the rain!
The Sands have been incredible all week with their teaching skills and strategies and rapport with the kids, and one of the activities they introduced was perfect for this time of day, which is an increasingly silly dance one does to “singing in the rain.” The kids love it, and they can act absurd without bumping into each other. Some of them had taken to continually testing the ‘no kids on stage’ rule during this activity, and were jumping off; I was getting tired of policing them, while celebrating others who were better behaved. And as I was also exhausted, my patience was thin.
Elishaba, a very talented member of the oldest group, sidled up next to me with a book. My first reaction was that she shouldn’t have a book during our final group session, but then I saw she was pointing at the book for me to read. “Come on,” I was thinking, “put that away!” But I read it, and it was a book of severely corny puns. “What did Luke say to his mom?” “Luke mom, no hands!” And about ten other ridiculous puns. I started really laughing, because her sense of timing was so impeccable. Right when I needed to not take things so seriously, she provided some levity. A very aware and intuitive young person.
A great dream of mine since our first camp was to facilitate a year-round music program at All Souls. Seeing what we could do in a week with these kids made me want to see what they could do in a year, with consistent, excellent work. In the past year, this has crystallized into a vision for an El Sistema-model strings program, with kids coming for instruction and orchestra every day after school.
Trenton teaches violin
This week, with the excellent work of Beth Hayes and her team of Rebecca Cranshaw, Trenton, Denice, Amelia, and James Hausmann, this dream became several steps closer to being realized. I saw what it would look like to have 20 or so kids working at All Souls. I saw the concentration of the kids, their desire to learn, and the skill of the teachers.
Dr. Beth Hayes works with Shaquille on the bass.
Most important, I heard the enthusiasm of the community. At the concert on Friday, I asked the audience, “If you would like to see a thriving youth orchestra right here at All Souls consisting of neighborhood kids, put your hands together.” And the response was overwhelming. I’m hopeful, therefore, that we have what it takes to make this happen. We’ll have to raise the money, of course, and part of that will be accomplished on July 30th, when we will perform Mahler 1 at Trinity Church, with, we hope, Father Lonell and John Williams coming up to speak. And we have been discussing grants to apply for and ways to make the program sustainable long-term. What the program requires is consistency, so that kids that move up through the program in the first years continue to feed the program by returning to work with younger kids, and raising the level of the orchestra as they grow, expanding the program in numbers and in musical scope.
Denice shows Nicolas how to set up a cello
I’ll back up and say a few things about our concert preparation. In past years, this has been the hardest part of the week, when we try to have the kids focus for hours at a time to run dress rehearsals. What tires them out is not the music, but the physical transitions from place to place. They each have to remember where they stand in five or six configurations, and we have to be clear about how they get from one place to the other. While I’m not a fan of the dog and pony show, where kids are judged primarily by how well they are behaved, it can’t be denied that the more organized an ensemble is about their walking on stage and getting off, the more impressive it is to the audience.
Etienne and Tomeekan sit on their line
Stephen Sands had several masterful strokes on this front. He suggested that we put four lines of tape on the floor, each with a color, and that the black group be our helpers in keeping kids in (on) line. And he said that we did not need the kids to get to the performance early, since with that nervous pre-performance energy they’d be to jazzed up to be focused and quiet.
At the beginning of the day, after our warm-up, he introduced the system of getting on and off the stage by awarding a huge sum of campbucks to the teams that were able to get up on stage without bumping each other, going slowly and quietly, and being up ready to sing within five seconds. It worked like a charm, and they were proud of being able to get up in a professional way.
The positive reinforcement that the campbucks offer is terrific motivation for the kids, and gives us a chance to encourage a great learning environment without being negative and punitive.
Lionel Baskin praises Ray Bailey
Speaking of positive reinforcement, Ray Bailey received the strongest possible endorsement from Lionel Baskin on Friday. He said, “Ray here is an every-way pianist. He’s a gospel pianist. He is a Presbyterian pianist. He is a Catholic pianist. He is an Episcopalian pianist. He is every pianist.” Hearing him play with Mr. Baskin was one of the great pleasures of the week. Picking up the songs by ear, developing his arrangements by listening to the songs on recordings, then coming in and just doing it in performance. I think it’s safe to say that he has a job in New Orleans if he ever comes back down.
One of my favorite parts of the day was at the end, when we had some time to fill. I had an inspiration to play ‘name that tune’ with the kids. I have great associations with that game, because my sister used to play it after school when I was eight or so. She would stay on for hours, able to name any tune in two notes-sometimes in one. The video game was in an ice-cream shop, so I also associate the game with the comforting, exciting smell of vanilla ice cream.
In any case, we worked it out with the kids that they would be awarded a campbuck if they got it right. Julian played the the piano, and the kids were fantastic, guessing the tune in sometimes two, three or four notes. It prompted them to review all their pieces without going through them all, and was a nice way to reflect on their material before the concert.
I was also gratified on Friday to be able to lead another activity with the big group, this going over with the kids what they should consider for a good performance. I gave a campbuck to each team that had a nice answer.
They were terrific suggestions.
2. Stand still-don’t touch your neighbor
3. Sing loud/sing fully
4. Sing to the audience
5. Don’t bring your toys on stage
I love that list of things. Among other things, it shows how much they had been paying attention to our modeling and questions, and reinforcement of what we hoped for them.
The black team--made up of the oldest campers--sings with members of the Trinity Choir and Julian Wachner.
Ray and I had a big talk with the black team about our hopes for them in the future. Ray spoke passionately about the “It gets better” campaign, and I spoke about how we expected them all to graduate high school and college, and how we invited them to stay in touch with us so we could celebrate their successes as they move forward.
Wesley teaches the red and brown teams.
I wanted to write a few words about Wesley. Throughout our four trips down to New Orleans, he has gone beyond the call in his teaching, always willing to take the extra step to enable interaction with the kids. The first year, he took it upon himself to tune the piano while teaching all the violins –of widely varied experience-himself. This year, I saw him on so many occasions making teaching moments out of thin air.
A perfect example was Thursday, when, as we were leaving, there were a few kids in the lobby. We were all ready to get out the door, but one of them asked him about his violin, and he took it out and played for them. They gathered around (this after the slightly hectic dismissal) and stood silently next to him-a rapt audience. Half the time when you turn around you see him taking care of something important-fixing the sound system when it is broken, tuning someone’s instrument, or giving Camryn a hug.
Because it is done in the background, it’s possible to not notice, but I was really struck by the number of times I was surprised to see him taking on another possibly onerous task-such as making the programs. He is also the most fanatical fan of The Joint, where we go for barbeque. He and I went Friday and waited 45 minutes for our ribs; for him, this was the fourth time (out of five days) that he had eaten there. A man who knows what he loves!
Stephen Sands leads "Down by the riverside"
The concert was very beautiful. Lionel Baskins had them singing with heart and spirit. The young men sang “Down by the riverside” with all their enthusiasm and choreography. I thought that Nkosi Sikele Africa went particularly nicely, and the string orchestra was a tremendous success.
The evening flowed very well. I was happy to get to speak, and to give due credit to Molly Quinn, who made this trip happen, who organized it so well, who brought in great partners and had them shine in their roles. A wonderful leader she is. As I said that night, "I'm the one speaking, but all the credit for this trip should go to Molly." We all helped out a lot–but through all the preparation period, when things got too much for some of us to handle, she kept it going, made the arrangements, stayed on top of us to get all the components accomplished in the right way.
Julian Wachner plays piano and leads singing during the concert
Julian spoke beautifully about our commitment to the church, and to the parents, thanking them for their great kids, and thanked the staff of All Souls, the volunteers and directors. It’s been transformative to have him here. To have our boss, our musical leader, at the piano and working with the kids, getting them to perform musically in ways that none of the rest of us can do, to command authority in a totally different way, and to bring the music department of Trinity in full support of this program has been a huge statement, and an extremely generous act. We are all busy, but Julian is capital B Busy. And for him to dedicate a full week of his time to this work is awesome.
After Julian spoke, Father Lonell gave the ultimate thanking sermon, singling each one of us out individually, all his staff again, and all the volunteers. By the time he finished the kids were ready to SING, and they did great on the final two pieces.
Father Lonell Wright thanks Molly Quinn for her work.
Afterwards we had a reception with the parents. I love seeing the kids within their family units and only lamented that more parents didn’t come. There were a number of kids with no family present to see their success, which is a shame. But those that came were supportive and enthusiastic and joyful, and we shared a great time together.
These trips become, for a week, our whole world, and as we fly back east, I’m struck again by how gratifying this work is. In New Orleans more than in any other place I know, we have the chance to have a real impact, to see the effect of our loving labor in the world. And that is a great gift to us. Father Matt Heyd spoke about this in previous years, when he said that on these mission trips, those of us volunteering can be changed more than those we have come to help. I know that is true for me. In giving of ourselves for this city and neighborhood and these people, we discover the best of who we are.
Wednesday Morning & Afternoon
Wednesday was a great day. I’d say many of us agree that it was the best day of teaching we’ve had in all four sessions here at All Souls, both for content and for the flow and concentration of the students and teachers. There was a focus and joy to the day.
It’s always hard to know what to point to as the key factor in such a great day. Was it our attitude? Did the kids sleep more than they had in previous nights?
We made several adjustments, and these may have been key. We started to work much more with our partners in the AmeriCorps volunteers. These are the five counselors who stay throughout the summer. They are at the camp before we arrive, and they stay after we are gone. So we started involving them more in our own activities and decisions, and we held a meeting at the beginning of the day with all of us and all of them and Sarah Miller, going through the schedule line by line.
The entire camp staff meets on Wednesday morning to talk about the day.
The second is that we decided to be much more active with our rewarding of good behavior. We gave out lots of camp bucks early on-five to each team for the warm-ups, three more for the first section of camp rehearsal. Then Ray began work on Firework and asked the Black team to show the kids how to do it. In one of those spontaneous group decisions, I made contact with Ray about having them come up, and we all looked at each other and said, yes, sure, let’s have them go up front. So they sang from in front of the piano and later from behind the piano, and while they didn’t have all the words perfect, they sang out and led and taught and were an example for the younger kids, so I rewarded them with an outstanding 10 camp bucks. This is a lot of camp bucks for them, and it set everyone aflutter.
In our work with the oldest kids, Ray has taught them with great alacrity the song Firework, which they had just taught the camp. So there was some time for me to work on Nkosi Sikelele Africa, the anthem of the African National Congress, sung in defiance of apartheid and then in 1997 adopted as the national anthem for South Africa (in a hybrid with other melodies and words) and for Zimbabwe as well.
James teaches the Black group
We had spoken about the history to an extent, and today got down to the words. We drilled and repeated and I prompted and they responded and they followed and I let them do it alone and they were tired and we kept going. Finally they had all three sections together, and I spoke to them about the plan for the piece, which is to have them sing along with the Trinity Choir, with the rest of the camp singing only the chorus.
And I was particularly straight with Devin, who had been acting lethargic all class. And then he went to the bathroom and vomited. All my chastisements came back to haunt me. “Sit up straight! Devin, you can do better than that.”
We then had a snack-the other innovation of the day.
Girls' sectional rehearses
One of my favorite moments in the day was teaching the chorus of Nkosi Sikele Africa to the girls section. This famous sectional, renowned for its girliness and group feminine bonding, was on the stage for this 5-minute work on one line of text. Some of the girls already knew the song, as I had taught it for 25 minutes with the Black team. But some of the girls are tiny, and had trouble with things like Thina, which uses a partially aspirated t, and Nkosi, which has a voiced n before the k. So we drilled and worked, energetically and with no surfeit of enthusiasm from me, but every time we put it together to sing, it wasn’t strong. Finally, camp staffer Markisha asked, “Could you say the words before we sing?” and so I called out the lyrics right before they had to sing them, and it clicked. They sang loud and with confidence. And then without prompting, the same.
At the outset of the boys’ sectional, Stephen had them singing and hooting and pulling the horn and stepping and clapping. And then he had me come and be a ‘model’ choral singer. They observed how I stand, how I sang-and especially, how I watched the conductor. As a professional choral singer, one doesn’t think often of being the model singer. I slouch sometimes, I don’t always warm up. It was a good exercise for me, then, to try to have perfect posture-strong but not tense-but it was a great exercise for the kids. Modeling is my favorite teaching method, and Stephen framed it perfectly. By the end, they looked like pros.
Julian sometimes has us do numbers as a choir, which requires that you think theoretically as well as practically about each note you sing. Somehow he decided to do this with the kids, and equally improbably, it worked really well. I think it succeeded because the professional choir was working so hard to get it right. Again, it was great modeling: us working our hardest to do what the conductor was asking for, and they pick up on that energy in a second.
Another great innovation today was Kristin organizing a freeze-dance activity in the sanctuary. I’ve been concerned over the years with their lack of a playground to go to, and a lack of a place for them to work off their energy. I strongly believe in physical education as being a necessary component of intellectual education, and am disheartened by the lack of gyms in so many schools. How do we expect kids to concentrate if they have not outlet for their energy. Her well-framed activity was just what they needed to get out some energy while not hurting each other or themselves.
Something I’ve noticed this week is that it feels like it is actually Wednesday night, whereas in other years, it has felt like each day was an eternity. The experience this year is fundamentally different. I’m integrally involved, but I’m not in the trenches every minute. We have such expertise on our staff, we have such experience in our staff, and we have so many more volunteers and camp staff that I can leave for a few minutes and not feel that the classroom would collapse without my support of the activity.
In past years, if any one of us wasn’t at our best, the camp would suffer collectively; this year, it has structure and consistency built in to the camp, more students, and as a result I am less needed. I have also painted myself into this role: I’ve helped to organize the instrumental staff precisely because I want this to continue through the fall.
So on Wednesday, I observed the instrumental instruction.
Wesley Chinn of the Trinity Choir leads a beginning recorder workshop.
Wednesday Evening: Community meeting at Martin Luther King Elementary School, Claiborne and Caffin
On Wednesday night, Maggy, Sharon, Matt, Beth and I attended a community meeting at the local elementary school, a successful charter school that draws some of the highest-achieving students from across the city.
The meeting was about a new high school for the area. There is a new superintendent of schools, John White, who replaces a series of other superintendents who have made promises to the community and didn’t keep them. He is from New York City, and has had 6 weeks on the job so far. He was there to announce publicly that there is funding for a high school to be built.
Some background: the Lower Ninth Ward lost six schools in the storm. The city promised that every school that was damaged beyond 51% would be replaced. No schools in the Lower Ninth were replaced, but MLK was, by sheer force of will of the community, rebuilt and became under Dorothy Hicks’s leadership, a very successful school that has hosted two presidents and gained national attention.
There are two school governing committees in New Orleans-the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and the Recovery School District. The latter oversees almost entirely charter schools, and the former, a far smaller number since the storm, oversees primarily public schools in the traditional sense. Most buildings still belong to the OPSB, including the proposed site of this future high school.
The question I have about MLK is what percentage of the student population is from the immediate neighborhood. And this is information that is very hard to get. I’ve heard six different figures. I’ve heard that 95% of the students are from the Lower Ninth Ward. I’ve heard that of the 900 students, 100 of them are from the Lower Ninth Ward. And with equal confidence, I’ve heard that 46% of the students are local.
Mr. White said during the meeting that he believes in neighborhood schools, but that he also believes in choice. At present, an absolutely astonishing 92% of students in New Orleans are bused to school. One of the figures we heard from Mr. White was that it was unacceptable that 17 students from the Lower Ninth travel more than one hour to school every day. What we had heard from a lot of neighborhood parents was that you see kids waiting at the bus stop in the dark, and they don’t return until after dark again.
But who determined that forty-five minutes is acceptable, but an hour isn’t? Is it acceptable to have a kid live across the street from MLK and take the bus even twenty minutes away when the parent may not own a car? One parent said-do you know what it’s like to have a sick child across the bridges and you have to wait for public transportation to take you there?
I was very impressed with the passionate and articulate way the community represented themselves. They had an answer to everything, particularly about which site the new high school should be built on. They had discussed the matter thoroughly, and had determined it should be on the site of the former Alfred Lawless Elementary School. The other site that is being considered is the Holy Cross site, which would have to be purchased from the archdiocese. One parent said, “Tell me why, in a time of tight money, it makes fiscal sense to go out and buy land when you already own a better site?” Another told of soil samples that they had had examined and determined that the site is not toxic. Another about how there is no reason not to build on land of that elevation-the Jackson Barracks (the longest standing army base in the country) was completely rebuilt already after the storm, and sits at the same elevation as the site.
There was tremendous passion about the history of neglect since the storm.
Every neighborhood was told that they would have schools, police, and fire departments rebuilt as a matter of course after the storm, but the Lower Ninth still has no police substation, no fire substation, no supermarkets, no health facilities. As a result, insurance is double for them than if they had a fire substation. They have to cross over to Poland Avenue just to get groceries. There are businesses returning, but it is only with the greatest determination the people return.
They have been lied to so many times, been told to wait, been told that there was no money left for them. But as one of the people at the meeting said, whenever New Orleans wants money, they bring people to the Lower Ninth Ward where they see the destruction, and see the overgrown grass in abandoned lots, and they get the funding, and spend it elsewhere.
There was a lot of anger in the room, but it was always expressed well. One phrase we heard several times was, “we are sick and tired of being sick and tired of being the neglected step-child of the city.” And this idea of a step-child being this ultimate perjorative has stuck with me.
Senator Mary Landrieu designated $1.8 Billion dollars for rebuilding after the storm, in what was called Phase I. The Lower Ninth was left out of that phase, and the new high school is coming in Phase III, which is not funded unless it is within the city council budget (please check those facts).
We have also heard that $91.4 million dollars was allocated for schools in the Lower Ninth, but has, criminally, never been spent. This number came up over and over again, but wasn’t completely addressed.
Within Mr. White’s budget, it seems he is making tough choices. But why should the Lower Ninth have to choose between having a high school OR an elementary school when they were promised that all six of their schools would be rebuilt? Mr. White said that there was not enough money to build an elementary school.
After the meeting, we had dinner with John Williams, his associates Joel and Tom, and heard about his role in the neighborhood. He has attended, he estimates, 1,000 community meetings. He has given countless hours of his time to design buidings, and his title is master planner of the Lower Ninth Ward. And he has seen first hand the phases of the community rising up and presenting a united, organized front, only to be denied their basic rebuilding rights.
And he is a founding member of All Souls, and has helped design and transform that building, which was just a shell of abandoned scraps, to the beautiful community center it is today. He has attended church there for four years, and seen the building consecrated by the Archbishop.
I asked him why he didn’t say anything in the meeting, and he said it was far better to have this community speak for itself. They don’t need anyone from the outside representing them-they do it better for themselves.
Indeed, towards the end of the meeting, a young woman asked all the elected officials to stand. Immediately, those around her asked her who she was, and where she was from. In these meetings, everyone identifies themselves first-she didn’t, and after a very saccharine speech about how the officials are representing these people, she introduced herself. The feeling of hostility in the room was palpable. The Lower Ninth has history, and if you haven’t lived there for thirty years, you aren’t from there, and they don’t need you trying to come in and speak on their behalf.
Do you know how tired we are, one of them said, of other people coming in and claiming to know what is best for us?
By Luthien Brackett
When I settled into bed last night, Wednesday, June 29, I was a little bit sad, because it meant that one of the best days of my life was drawing to a close. It seems trite to say that it was a magical day, but no other adjective seems to be as apt.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that made the energy at All Souls music camp so special yesterday. Stephen Sands actually asked one of the All Souls staff members what the children had for breakfast yesterday morning, the change in their level of engagement and focus was so dramatic and palpable. (As it turns out, the children had cereal yesterday, and yogurt on Monday and Tuesday – food for thought)
Mr. Julian leads the numbers game
Mr. Julian (as he’s called by the campers), started the All Camp morning rehearsal with a catchy little four-part round that the children have come to love. Since they have become so familiar with the tune, he asked them to sing it on numbers representing the degrees of the scale in that key. I think all of us were a little bit skeptical that the children would be able to do it (more than one of the adults has had trouble with that exercise on occasion!). Not only did they do it, they mastered it in a matter of minutes and continued to do it as they lined up on stage for the first song.
My second “wow” moment of the day occurred in my sectional rehearsal with the blues and greens. In my first blog, I referred to a game I like to play with them called “bouncing ball.” The thing you have to understand about this game (which was taught to me by my cooperating educator, Maureen Fernandez, when I was a young student teacher) is that it has super powers. It’s designed to get the kids singing on their own, in a way that almost makes them forget that they’re doing it. On this particular morning, we played a variation of that game called “button.” The children sit in a circle, close their eyes and hold their hands palms up behind their backs. I walk around the circle as the children and I sing the button song together, and deposit a button into one of the little waiting palms. Then the children have to guess who has the button, but they must sing their guesses and responses. A 5-year-old boy named Melvin, who had struggled in previous sessions, was so engaged in the game that he not only participated and sang beautifully, he remained completely focused for the entire sectional and won a camp buck for his color team by figuring out that colored notes move faster than blank notes on a musical staff.
In addition to teaching, I spent many years working as a grant writer for a regional theater in New Jersey. Anyone who works in fundraising will tell you that 90% of the job consists of devoting hours and hours of work to a proposal that will ultimately be declined. But, it’s the remaining 10% that makes it all worthwhile, because the feeling of accomplishment you get when you are awarded a grant is so euphoric, it sustains you through all the rejection. Teaching elementary school students is a lot like this, and moments like the one I experienced with Melvin are like getting a $100,000 grant.
Lionel Baskin, a New Orleans legend
Another moment of pure magic occurred as the campers were transitioning into their late morning rehearsal with Lionel Baskin, a formidable New Orleans gospel singer. Traditionally, this has been the most difficult time of day for the children, because they are tired and hungry and they are required to be quiet, still and attentive for a long period of time. We knew that in order to lay the groundwork for a successful rehearsal, we would have to make sure that the children were calm and focused as they came in to the rehearsal space from other activities. As the children began to arrive and walk up to the stage, Raymond Bailey began playing “Sanctuary,” one of the gospel songs Mr. Baskin is teaching them, on the piano. One by one, they all began singing, and singing more beautifully than they had ever sung before. It was full of emotion, but quiet and calm:
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
And with thanksgiving,
I’ll be a living sanctuary for you
All of us, including Mr. Baskin, were in awe. It was evident to everyone that there was a divine presence in the room. I will never forget that sound.
When the time came for us to go to lunch, Molly Quinn and I took our amazing leftover pulled pork from local hot spot The Joint to a beautiful, secluded promontory overlooking the bayou not far from the church. It was an incredibly hot day, but the bayou breezes were soft and cool as we sat planning our afternoon elective session: speech and drama. The kingfishers glided silently down to the surface of the swamp and dragon flies buzzed past our ears.
Molly on the bayou
That afternoon, the drama class paid tribute to our missing colleague, Adam Alexander, who had had to leave us prematurely in order to organize a concert at Trinity back in New York. On the first day of drama, Monday, Mr. Adam had taught the children a game called “And Then,” which teaches children how to collaborate to create a story. Each student takes turns composing a line of the story until the last remaining student concludes it. On Wednesday, the story they wrote was particularly special, and I’d like to share it with you:
My dog Peter died in my house. Everyone was so sad that they went to a memorial service in New Orleans, Louisiana in his honor. They gave a bone, and put it next to him. The bone they gave him was a magic bone. So, the next day they came back and the bone was gone. Then they found the bone in the ground near the graveyard. Then they used some kind of magic potion to make the dog come back to life. On Sunday, in church, we heard a mysterious dog barking. And then Mr. Adam came to see where the dog was. And they found a piece of paper in the bone’s place. It was a flier, it said "lost dog found" and listed a phone number. And then they took the flier and went to the woods to look for the dog. They called his name, “Peter,” and found him. They took him to the veterinarian to make sure he was okay, and they returned him to his owner. Mr. Adam, this story is a little sad because we are sad you had to go back to New York.
The wonderful experience we had at All Souls would have been more than enough to constitute a banner day, but there was so much more to come. Finding ourselves with a rare free evening in which to explore a beautiful city many of us had never visited before, we took the opportunity to treat ourselves. Some members of our merry band went wandering in The Quarter, while others of us enjoyed a pre-storm dip in a beautiful rooftop pool at a New Orleans hotel, followed by incredible food and jazz at The Palm Court. The jazz in New Orleans is wild! It’s so different from the jazz in New York City. It’s just as brash, spicy, a little bit sinful and delicious as the Jambalaya and pecan pie.
All of this, though, was made so much more joyful and transcendent for me by being shared with my wonderful, talented, funny, brilliant and compassionate colleagues and friends. I am so grateful for the gift of their presence in my life, and that Trinity Wall Street brought us together.
By James Blachly
A vital part of our trips to New Orleans have been the concerts we give at Trinity New Orleans in the Garden District. Our namesake, they have a flourishing population of 3,000 active members, a very strong school and summer camp, and one of the more beautiful acoustics for choral music.
The first year our concert was recorded and released on CD. It is passionate performance, dredged from our sleepless states, and the resulting concert was something of a miracle. The second year we performed very well, but had a small audience.
This year, we had a huge audience, thanks in large part to an article written in the Times-Picayune and posted on their website. Right before the concert a storm began in earnest, with pelting rain and bolts of lightning. A reminder of that frightening power and somehow charging the concert with humility and gratitude for safety.
It was a bittersweet concert for me. It was beautiful and satisfying to sing and emotionally charged to be back in that space again. But it was hard, because it was my last concert as a Trinity Choir member before I head back to school for graduate studies in orchestral conducting. So every piece felt like a farewell, and something to hold on to before I go.
Julian led us well, and we sounded far better than most of us thought we would, after teaching for 6 hours and driving kids home and racing across town and forgetting to eat dinner. He improvised on Amazing Grace on the organ, and the floor-boards shook.
I loved especially listening to my colleagues sing William Byrd’s Bow Thine Ear O Lord, which I did not sing. It was so calming and meditative to hear them perform this beautiful piece which laments the destruction of Jerusalem. “Desolate and void,” they sang. And it was wonderful to sing Precious Lord and several great Dawson spirituals-pieces that you can let your whole heart and spirit get involved in.
The penultimate piece was my own, and I was asked to say a few words. I began by saying that this was the fourth trip down to run the music camp for some of us-and was interrupted by applause. They seemed to really appreciate that we keep coming back, that we keep growing the program. And I said that it felt like home to be back-and that it especially feels like home to go to All Souls, and had Father Lonell stand to rousing applause. The fact is that we are not only raising money for that church but raising awareness about it in other communities.
We left the stage feeling we had given a great concert-one that we put everything we had into, and that gave back the same energy. We have been so welcomed in that church, especially by Manon and Albinas Prizgintas, directors of the music program. They have been so warm and inviting, helping with all sorts of smaller things (like eye trouble), as they open the church to us to perform, and provide added publicity.
Molly Quinn of the Trinity Choir with Manon and Albinas Prizgintas
Afterwards, we looked for a reception that wasn’t there, and met the audience in the lobby instead. Maggy Charles and Sharon Hardy and Matt Heyd had run the door, and said that the enthusiasm was great–all the CDs sold out, and people were very generous also with their praise.
At the end of this day, it feels that we have made an impact, showing that we are here not just once, but over and over again, and that we care about this city, these people, these kids, and this neighborhood.
Ray Bailey of the Trinity Choir leads rehearsal of "Firework."
By Luthien Brackett
A word about camp bucks:
Camp bucks are rewards for merit that are part of the All Souls camp disciplinary structure. Camp bucks serve two purposes. Since one of the camp’s chief curricular goals is to help the children improve their basic math skills, “bucks” can be accumulated and saved in the camp “bank,” which allows the children to practice their addition and subtraction. They can also be redeemed for merchandise such as toys the children want, which provides a strong incentive for good behavior.
The Trinity Choir's Stephen Sands gathers the red group.
Campers at All Souls are divided into color groups according to their age. Preschoolers (who my fellow choir members and I agree are preternaturally adorable) are pastel colors, such as pink and purple. We are working with students in the blue, green, red, brown and black groups (in order of age – kind of like musical karate).
One of the things that first struck me about this particular group of kids was how different the reality of teaching them was from my expectations. Since I knew when I volunteered for this trip that the children we would be serving are poor and disenfranchised, I expected them to have unusual behavioral problems.
It’s true that these children are poor, and that many of them come from households with one parent and more than two siblings. Some of them come to camp filthy, having had little or no sleep, with shoes that are several sizes too large. As a group, they certainly do seem to have an overabundance of pent-up energy, owing in large part to the fact that there is no appropriate place (such as a gym or playground) for them to run and jump and play in safety. No such facility exists in close proximity to All Souls, and playing outside is far too dangerous in that area. However, for all practical purposes, teaching them is just like teaching any elementary school class, with all of the behavioral issues that entails. Furthermore, I was way off the mark about how the children would react to our presence. They are more trustful and openly affectionate than any group of students I’ve ever taught. Many of the children have siblings and extended family members in the camp, and I have been so moved by how physically affectionate and protective they are toward one another, with older siblings often taking a parental role in taking care of their younger brothers and sisters during the course of the day.
"I need somewhere to run around and play!"
Day two of camp was Tuesday, June 28. We made some valuable adjustments to the teaching schedule of the second day, after hashing out what didn’t work well on the first. For example, we quickly realized that the children were much better able to absorb new material and information early in the day, so we allowed more time for vocal warm-ups and music rehearsal. Though the day started well, the afternoon dismissal period was quite chaotic, and became a source of frustration for many of the adults. The fine art of classroom management, and, in particular, moving children from place to place while maintaining a calm energy and focus takes years to perfect, and although it was not an ideal way to end the day, we would learn many excellent lessons from that experience which served us well on day 3.
Though it made for a long day, our concert that evening at Trinity Episcopal Church was a welcome diversion from the immersion of the camp. Since we are all singers by trade, we feel confident and secure in that role, and, speaking for myself, switching gears into “singing mode” felt like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers after two hard days of teaching. The Times-Picayune had run a wonderful feature about the concert, so there was a gratifyingly large audience in attendance in the beautiful wood and stained-glass church. We sang chamber-style, with our fearless leader, Julian Wachner, fearlessly joining us as a baritone. It was only slightly satisfying for us to watch him squirm (he hasn’t sung publicly in many years), when he’s ordinarily so indomitably confident. Of course, the last laugh was on us, since he transitioned seamlessly from conducting, to singing, to playing an astonishingly beautiful organ improvisation on “Amazing Grace” that was one of the highlights of the concert.
By James Blachly
In past years, we experienced a group rhythm of having a good day followed by a bad day. While that seems extreme, it really did feel like we collectively could not get their attention on one day, and on the other, things flowed beautifully. This year, with a much bigger group of kids and many more staff, the rhythms are faster. We have a good session, a good morning, and lose them at other times. Yesterday, the rhythm was a good morning and a pretty rough leave-taking. In between, many different great things to report.
Up at 6:30 to leave at 7:30. Beds so uncomfortable it makes waking up a pleasure. Stephen made coffee in the jumbo device so we were all able to have our teacher’s brew. Good morale in the morning, and everyone ready to leave promptly on time. No one’s dragging. Drove in the Summer of Fun mobile, Adam’s vehicle with running jokes, Luthien and Leah and Luke laughing like loonies.
Father Lonell encourages the campers.
Today Father Lonell returned. He hugs us all, and his voice booms through the space. “It’s so good that you are here,” he tells many people. And he means it each time. What a presence-what a loving presence. “You are the one,” he said to Luke, “who called me the ‘violent torpedo of love,’ aren’t you?” “That’s me,” says Luke. And it is the right description. He enters the room and we all are embraced. No one escapes his vision for welcome.
Audio engineer Luke Mess mics up Devin for an interview.
The day started off with discipline. Kendell, a very strong and articulate AmeriCorps volunteer, has the kids in absolute silence in the hallway preceding the day. Sarah Miller has five kids–one from each color group–read the five camp guidelines. We Walk. We listen. We help each other…
And she says that if we need to ask for silence more than once, we’ll lose camp bucks. If we can get ready and line up in orderly ways, we’ll gain camp bucks. Throughout the day, camp bucks are lost and then regained by some redemptive act. I’m glad I’m not the treasurer for this bank, and I wonder at how easily the kids can keep track. Getting from their seated positions to a circle, they do it within twenty seconds and earn bucks-at least for the Black team. The other teams, who straggled, don’t respond well to other groups being rewarded-they both lose and are not yet organized. It takes another few minutes to get everyone really ready to go.
Adam’s exercise with untangling the human knot worked for the older kids. The blues–the younger ones–and I, however, got tangled up in the most serious human knot in history, compounded by arm lengths. Adam and Luthien supervised but could not extricate us and the exercise ended with a valiant effort but no end. I am one to solve problems, but that knot is something I could not see being solved. Surely there is something about the equation that has to factor in limb length.
Julian’s warm-up worked like a charm, with the different groups singing in a round and leading nicely into all-camp choir. They sang full-voiced, and all the Trinity members took positions in the choir, encouraging and listening as they sang.
Julian Wachner and Adam Alexander observe the girls' sectional.
All the sectionals were fantastic-each group responding well to the smaller setting. We heard of the girls sectional with movement and dancing and I loved watching Stephen and Wesley lead the boys’ sectional. Stephen has taught kids for more than a decade, and knows how to get them moving and with clear directions-and singing. They were singing an arrangement of ‘Down by the riverside,’ and he made great teacher faces when they did some of the physical movements-it calls for a ‘honk your horn’ gesture and stomping–a mix of humor and gladness at their getting involved.
Leading Nkosi, asking: can one song change the way that history is written, the way that people behave, the way that people feel about themselves? The quiet one, who said that every night while Mandela was in jail his family sang that song. Nicholas said he didn’t. D’angelo said he did, but because we had already talked about it. Shaquelle was sure it couldn’t. It was slow going with all the words, and I hope we can get through the piece by Friday.
Tiny people, tiny violins
The end of the day was rough. Everyone seemed tired, and after ten minutes of getting them in a circle and one nice animal game, there was no getting the kids back from the chaotic abyss where they found themselves unable to get into the second movement game we had planned for them. So there was yelling and there were punishments, bucks deducted, disappointment expressed. Counting and failure to accomplish within counts.
In general, in between great teaching moments there was a lot of sitting and standing, and as we take our teacher-siesta I have various successes and failures on this front flash through my head. The moment of indecision on our part that leaves room for a squirmy child to take over attention. The resorting to yelling that leaves us with no cards to hold, and having reduced us to competitors in a decibel contest. This contrasted with successful, wily comments that get their active minds intrigued.
We hope for redemption again tomorrow, and for giving them more opportunities to succeed.
By James Blachly
As I flew in to New Orleans today and raced across the city in a cab, I knew enough to not try to predict what it would be like at All Souls. Each year when we return, another miracle has taken place in this building in an abandoned Wallgreens in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The first year we came down as a choir to start a music camp, envisioned and organized and driven by Molly Quinn and Nacole Palmer, the miracle was that the church had gained electricity the first day, and air conditioning on the last day of camp. The second year, the
miracle was an addition of a beautiful sanctuary space, including wood that had been salvaged from destroyed houses, and that a row of had been donated by Trinity Wall Street, installed by Dean Wiltshire and driven down by Emory Edwards.
All Souls' sanctuary
Earlier this year, I had traveled to New Orleans in April to lay some groundwork for an ambitious project that has been developing: to help provide year-round music instruction, in the model of El Sistema, five days a week. So I had already seen some of the truly miraculous physical transformations that had taken place. New walls, ceilings, rooms. A professional-grade kitchen, with equipment donated and sold at price, and a stunning parish hall/dining room where there had been last year a construction site. An instrument room donated by Trinity Wall Street parishioner (and true New Orleans devotee) Jackie Yang. A quilt donated by Grace Yang in place in the chapel, and kids' art all over the walls.
Americorps volunteer Rae with campers.
So today, I didn’t try to predict the physical transformation. There are still more usable rooms, and there is a beautiful new logo outside church. But it wasn’t the physical transformation that was so shocking this time. It was something else. What has changed from last year’s camp and this is the tremendous energy and organization. That is due to big additions to the administrative team at All Souls, larger enrollment, and successful grants that have involved state and city agencies.
In addition to Father Lonell Wright, the man who has inspired us so much to be here, who is an unflagging fount of energy and commitment, who upon his back has created this magical place, and to Jean Massey, who has tirelessly organized previous camps and church activities, All Souls has seminarian Sarah Miller, a miracle worker, and Rebecca who is the all-important intern.
Camp staff member--and All Souls' parishioner--Markisha Frazier. Americorps volunteer Kendell is the background, as are members of Trinity Wall Street's team.
But the staff is far greater than that. There is a great team of staff- volunteers, mostly parents from the area, and AmeriCorps staff, who are consistent from week to week as the kids go from literacy activities last week to music this week to math and art in future weeks.
The first thing that struck me as I walked around at noon (my flight arrived late) was that all the kids were reading or journaling, and that there was a sense of order and calm. The kids we have met and worked with in years past are bright, full of energy, and can sense a well-designed lesson before you even begin. They always take all of our focus and dedication and then some. They are not easy kids to teach, and rambunction is the norm. But this year, the sanctuary was quiet at lunch time. Food was distributed in an orderly way and with literacy on either side. Was this the same camp that we ran two years ago?
Music education professor Dr. Beth Hayes works with a camper.
I missed the morning session today, but my focus has been to coordinate a staff for an instrumental music program, one that will feed directly into next year’s work. And soon I saw Beth Hayes, professor of music education at the University of New Orleans and our program director for the week. She had put together a staff of seven, provided recorders and music stands, put together a the curriculum for the week, and asked Rebecca Crenshaw to provide extra string instruments, which consisted of violin, viola, cello, bass, recorder and piano, with drama as another option for those who did not select to have an instrumental music focus.
Rebecca and Denice lead an introductory cello lesson.
Soon the rest of the Trinity staff returned from lunch, and we geared up for the afternoon sessions.
As can be predicted, some students wanted to change their electives, and we were fortunate that equal numbers switched in and out of each. Jeffrey was able to play violin. Nicholas switched from violin to cello. Sherman went from strings to drama. And Shaquelle, who has played such a huge role in this camp from the first year, elected to take bass again, this time with James Hauseman, a professional bassist from New Orleans who works for four different strings organizations. And this gifted and headstrong young man earned a camp-buck for his work in that class.
Elishaba at the keyboard.
I had the freedom to ‘float’ from group to group, and got to help teach and observe each class. I was thrilled with the level of instruction, the quality and content. Kristin and Stephen Sands were leading the keyboard instruction, and focused on teaching the kids how to locate specific notes based on the patter of black keys. I saw five kids be able, with complete certainty, to play all the C’s on the piano. And at the end of the class, Diamonds was upset-it turns out because he hadn’t learned to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” yet. “Go from strength to strength,” I told him. “You learned a lot today, and tomorrow you will learn even more.”
Rebecca and Denice taught cello; Trenton and Amelia taught violin; Ray and Beth taught recorder. Each group had their own space to work, materials, and good energy.
Part of me missed being there for the morning, and missed being a head teacher, with that most difficult of tasks: to focus and teach a large group of kids. But the great part of not being a head teacher today was being able to observe my colleagues in that threshing activity of teaching.
I saw dozens of fantastic learning moments going on, one on one and about all sorts of topics. Julian Wachner, our Director of Music and the Arts, taught conducting in the last all-camp moment, incorporating physical gesture and humor in learning the round Dona Nobis Pacem. Wesley Chinn helped organize the strings teachers, hands on as he always is. Molly, who has organized almost everything for this week, was whisked away towards the end of camp to take care of an infected eye (she is fine, and is healing rapidly). I saw Stephen work with the big group, and Sarah Miller speak quietly into the microphone, a calm and decisive presence with the kids.
It is hard to describe just how difficult it is to move kids from one place to the next, if they can see right through the arbitrariness of decisions. One has to be absolutely clear about what is next, and keep the directions clear. There were a few moments when we had to improvise physical shifts, organizing them by color (age) or section, and these were the difficult times with the kids. They will step in to a moment and fill it.
But they give back what you give in.
“Hey!!! I know you!!” Nicholas yells as he sees me.
Pooh, one of those who attended the first year, and who is now a proud and tall 13, asked after Ms. Nacole, who is in Abu Dhabi. I told her I’d show her on a map where that is.
I guess I take it for granted now, but something that strikes me about this work is how very fleeting our time is with them, but how close a bond we form. It overjoyed me to see Elishaba again, this very bright young girl who has serious musical skills. And what they want to know, at least what they asked me is: will you be here all week? Will you be here every day? Consistency, showing up. That’s what matters. To that end, I was disappointed to not have more kids continuing from last year. But there are 80 kids- 54 in our instruction age-range, and they are all getting a great, possibly life-changing experience.
At the end of the day, after all-camp choir, we were to transition to the staff for their orderly departure, but that wasn’t ready, so I stepped in and asked the kids to reflect on their day. Dewey said that there is no learning without reflection; Eric Booth has hammered that home in all the training I’ve had. It wasn’t a perfect time to ask for quiet energy, but we heard a lot. “I learned to play the open strings on the cello.” “I learned about drama.” “I learned to play C and D on the piano.” “I learned that summer can be fun and we can learn without having homework.”
And think of what we didn’t hear them say. What else they learned from each other, and us, and from the AmeriCorps volunteers.
On the other side, I’m trying to imagine how to share with the kids just how much they teach us. How by diving in with all their heart to the activities we frame well, we reinforce the good work we do. And similarly, by throwing back at us that which is half-developed, they remind us to bring our best work to the table. When they test the boundaries of good behavior, they are checking in on our system. When we present these things in a consistent and clear way, they respond accordingly.
In addition to the great larger organization, this day was in the ten thousand small decisions and interactions by every member of the staff, in which the miracles of this week began to happen. It was in the encouraging and the corrections and the celebrating and the challenges.
The choir rehearses for tonight's benefit concert at Trinity Church New Orleans.
As the day ends, I realize that this is a blog about experiences, and not only about the structure. Much could be said, then, about rehearsing at Trinity New Orleans with Julian and the choir, and to remember our artistic skill as we prepare for tomorrow’s concert. And our dinner which featured by far the best fries any of us had tasted, with time to reflect on what went well and what we need to improve.
And much can be said for the cookies that Molly baked, and the hilarity of what Luke and Leah experienced today when they first encountered 5-year old Trent. But we’ll save some adventures for tomorrow and call it a night.
Trent--future member of Trinity's communications staff?
Reflection--and french fries
By Luthien Brackett
This has been a year of firsts. My name is Luthien Brackett, and I am a member of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Not only is it my first year as a full-time member of the Choir, it is also my first year as a New Yorker, and my first year as a professional free-lance musician. Most importantly, for the purposes of this blog (another first!), it is also my first year as a member of the team of teaching artists who traveled to New Orleans this week to help lead the music camp at All Souls Church in the Lower Ninth Ward.
I have a degree in Music Education from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, so when the opportunity to participate in this wonderful ministry presented itself, I was eager to take advantage of it. I have always loved teaching music to children, even though it’s been many years since I taught in the classroom.
We arrived on Saturday evening, and attended a morning prayer service at All Souls the following morning. As we drove to the church, I was struck by how omnipresent the spectre of Katrina is after all these years. Though the flood waters have long since receded and many homes and businesses have been rebuilt, the chilling spray painted numbers and X’s are still visible on a large number of homes whose owners were either killed in the flooding or cannot afford to return to repair and rebuild them. Still other homes remain badly damaged, but their occupants are still living there, trying to make the best of a terrible situation.
The Sunday service and the cook-out that followed gave us a wonderful opportunity to meet the All Souls’ staff and volunteers, as well as many of the campers we would be teaching on Monday. As All Souls’ pastor was visiting New York, I and my fellow Trinity Choir members sang two anthems of praise in lieu of a sermon: “Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal” (arranged by Alice Parker), and “Ain’t a That Good News,” a spiritual arranged by William L. Dawson.
Our first day of camp was today, Monday, June 27. What an extraordinary day it was! We are responsible for teaching approximately 60 children ranging in age from 5 to 15. About 90% of these children cannot get to camp without transportation provided by All Souls. We started the day with movement exercises involving the entire group, and vocal warm ups to prepare them for singing together. From the first moment, the children were so bright, energetic and engaged. It was impossible not to be inspired with their abundant joie de vivre!
Dr. Julian Wachner works with a camper at the piano.
Kristin Sands teaches a piano workshop.
Throughout the day, it was wonderful to have the support of All Souls’ staff, volunteers and camp counselors. Although I am continually amazed by the talent of my fellow singers and our brilliant director, Julian Wachner, I was even more impressed to see them work with these children. Their skill, humor, wisdom, and creativity was never more evident than it was today, and though it has only been a day, the experience has bonded me to them in a way that I don’t think I could have imagined before taking this trip.
Author: Trinity Wall Street
Created: June 24, 2011
Join members of the Trinity Choir and Trinity's music staff as they lead the third annual summer music camp at All Souls Episcopal Church in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.