“Where are you from?”, I ask one of the seven or so teens in the small, echoey box of a room. “Far ROCK.”
“How about you?” I ask another.
I have never been to Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in the outer reaches of Queens that is home to a number of housing projects. I was sent to the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center from Carnegie Hall to help teens write songs for a chorus project, which would culminate in a performance. I find that, no matter the differences between us, enjoying music is a reliable commonality. When prompted, the kids name me their favorite artists, who are surprisingly old school (including Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG). Then I have them write. I offer that they can use rhymes, phrases or prose, and themes can include hopes, dreams and ideas about their past, present and future. Some of them write about glorified gang life, but others compose inspiring words about changing bad habits and making the right choices. One kid comes up with a groove for his rap, I play guitar chords with his rhythm, and we’re rolling.
As a teaching artist, trombonist and guitarist for Carnegie’s Musical Connections program, I have had the pleasure of performing prison inmates’ big band compositions, writing songs with teens in the justice system, and writing lullabies with young mothers, all of which we arrange, record and perform. Each project shares a spirit of creativity and collaboration that is exciting and engaging. Helping people connect to and musically bring out their inner sentiments is a rewarding experience.
The Lullaby Project, which I have worked on for two seasons, pairs professional musicians with pregnant women and mothers of young children. Our objective is to assist the mothers in writing personal lullabies for their children that can be sung, or played as a recording by CD and online. I have seen many mothers grow their confidence as they find their artistic voices. Women who start the project by saying they are not musical and never sing or write songs soon are making detailed creative decisions, directing me to use one chord instead of another or to arrange for specific instruments.
One Lullaby Project that stands out is from Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. Love, a nine year old girl, came in with her pregnant older sister and wanted to write a lullaby for her soon-to-be niece. She quickly wrote some lines, starting with a beautiful opening, “Goodnight, my little darling, you are my everything.” I played a few progressions on guitar, and she took to one that was folky, mellow, and arpeggiated. We put a melody to the lyrics, and I had us sing together to try it out. Love sang perfectly in rhythm, on pitch and with a simple and pretty delivery. After performing our draft version for the other participants, the teaching artists agreed that it could work to have Love sing on the recording instead of a professional. At the studio, she nailed the tune in one take. (The recording, called “You are My Night Sky,” can be found by going to https://soundcloud.com/carnegiehalllullaby/you-are-my-night-sky.) The Lullaby Project is wonderful because it works for both children and mothers. Children have lullabies written for them to remind them that they are important and cared about. Mothers who often do not have time for themselves are creatively empowered. Women who declared “I can’t sing or write music” end up confidently directing professionals to bring their lullabies to life. They also make new friends, bonding with the other mothers.
Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program gives a diverse group of artists the chance to use their skills to inspire and empower members of New York City communities. I value this work highly, because I get to compose, arrange, perform, record, and teach as a kind of therapy for families, mothers, and teens, many of whom are in difficult circumstances. This type of fun, challenging, and rewarding project drew me to music in the first place and still excites me today.
Daniel Linden is a trombonist and a member of Local 802 since 2011. His web site is www.DanielLindenMusic.com. More information about the Carnegie Hall Teaching Artists program can be found at www.carnegiehall.org/MusicalConnections.