Finding Their Voice Reply

The kids in Peabody’s Tuned-In program wanted to be heard. Tia Price and Natalie Draper have made that happen, with an empowering composition that will premiere in April.

By Joe Sugarman
Photos by Justin Tsucalas

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Draper (left) and Price,
with students from Tuned-In.

As part of a work-study program last year, Tia Price spent every Saturday serving as the secretary for the Peabody Preparatory. While the master’s degree student in voice was busy answering phones and helping parents, students from Tuned-In, Peabody’s scholarship program for musically talented Balti more city youth, would stop by to share with her stories about their days or to ask for one of the lollipops she kept on her desk.

Last spring, when Peabody began accepting applications for the Presser Award, a $10,000 stipend given to an exceptional graduate student to fund a musical project, Price wondered if she could somehow use the award to help the kids who had become so close to her. She woke up one morning with a crazy idea.

“I thought how awesome would it be if they could write down their thoughts and then somehow share them with the community. Obviously, they wanted to be heard because they never stopped talking around my desk,” she says. “And they had such great things to say.”

In her Presser application, Price, a mezzo-soprano who studies under Peabody faculty member Denyce Graves, outlined her plan: The students’ own writings would become the basis for a song cycle, a multi-movement composition, which the 50 or so kids—a mix of vocalists and instrumentalists— from Tuned-In would perform at Peabody, as well as at other venues around Baltimore. She found a willing composer in Natalie Draper, a Peabody doctoral candidate in composition.

Price applied for the $10,000 award—and won.

“Honestly, I thought the idea was brilliant,” recalls Gavin Farrell, interim dean of the Peabody Preparatory. “What made Tia’s proposal stick out was that it combined community outreach with commissioning and premiering a new work. Any of those three things would have been enough to merit consideration for the award, but combining the three is what made Tia’s proposal so special.”

Price began the project by visiting Tuned-In classes and asking the students, ages 8 to 19, to take five minutes to just write down whatever came to mind. Their responses were funny and angry and poetic. “Good kid in a mad city. Escaping society. I never get attention. Keeping my determination because I know everybody is hating. And they hated me when I was winning, but losing is uncreative. Making music. Peabody play list. Swear to God, one day I’m going to be known to the nation!”

Price knew she was onto something. “I e-mailed Natalie immediately and told her that this was going to be wonderful. I was in tears. I had no idea it was going to be this powerful.”

Draper was also blown away. “It was just incredible how much strength was in all of their writings,” she says. “How much confidence despite this feeling of not being taken seriously, of vulnerability.”

But the composition needed focus, so Price and Draper decided to have the students confine their thoughts to four specific areas: Baltimore, Love, Expectations, and Music. Those subjects would become the basis for the first four of the work’s five movements, the finale being a woodwind fanfare, performed by the Preparatory Wind Orchestra, which also includes students from Tuned-In.

For Draper, the real challenge was trying to combine all the disparate thoughts and ideas into a cohesive composition. “We had to piece together the different writings to form a narrative, something that could be set to music so it wasn’t just a series of dislocated ideas,” she says. “Tia would type up the students’ writings, and we would find connections between the ideas and pare them down to make a text that made sense. And luckily, they do hang together.”

The result is a 96-page, 20-minute-long composition the two titled This Is My Voice.

“I thought they did an amazing job,” says Elijah Wirth, who, as conductor of the Wind Orchestra, worked closely with the duo as the project evolved. “Some of the content is very intense, and some is definitely written by 12-year-olds, but at the same time, the way Natalie set it all to the music was very complex and artistic. It’s going to come off very well in the performance.”

In the first and third movements, Draper has students speaking, whispering, and clapping. She even worked in a rap as well as several rhythmic refrains: “B’more that’s for sure. Come ’round and smack you down.”

“A lot of what they were doing is very rhythmic, and I wanted that to be part of the musical texture,” says Draper. “As part of their experience in the Tuned-In program they all participated in a bucket band ensemble, and rhythmic clapping games are also a common musical language for kids. I wanted to be doing that in the piece as well.”

The second movement, “Love,” features Price singing the refrain, “Let’s not talk about love,” a line one of the kids wrote because the subject was too difficult or personal to address. And then, “Love is hard. It shows our deepest side. … Love makes you speechless.”

“It’s a very affirming story,” says Farrell. “It goes into these deeper thoughts, but brings it back to the idea that ‘I’m a musician. This is my voice.’ In the end, I think it’s very successful. It takes those ideas and makes it into an overall message of empowerment.”

Price says she sees a lot of herself in the Tuned-In students, many of whom come from low-income households.

Price was raised by her grandparents in rural West Virginia, and often didn’t have anyone with whom to share her thoughts. “Music saved me,” she says. “I felt all these things, but I didn’t have anyone to listen to me. But [when I was singing on stage], I had a full audience. …You might not be able to express those feelings in just speaking with someone, but you can use [the arts] to express them. And that’s what I wanted to give to the kids. That’s what music has been to me.”

Using some of her award money, Price has contracted three vocal coaches to assist with rehearsals before the production’s April debut. She also hopes to perform the work at area churches, schools, and other Baltimore venues.

She admits that during the performance she’s going to have a hard time keeping her emotions in check. “I have 50 kids and they’re all so important to me. … [Tuned In] is about creating better students who know how to express themselves. Those kids are never going to forget the experiences they had here, and whether they become musicians or scientists or whatever, this is something that is very much going to enrich their souls, like it’s enriched mine. I know this is something they’re going to remember.”

This is My Voice will premiere at Peabody’s Friedberg Concert Hall on April 4 at 5:00 pm.

MEETING OF THE MINDS

When classical music students from Peabody mix it up with Baltimore’s top gospel talent, only good things can happen.

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Peabody students make music
with members of the Ark Church.

Like many great ideas, the inspiration for Andrew Talle’s course on gospel music in Baltimore was hatched in a most unlikely place: an auto body repair shop. It was in the garage’s waiting room seven years ago that Talle, a Peabody musicology faculty member, overheard Marcus Smith, minister of music for Ark Church, talking about some musical selections at a recent Sunday service. The two began discussing their mutual love of music, and Smith invited Talle to attend a service with his North Avenue congregation. Talle, a cellist, took him up on the offer, and he’s been coming regularly—and frequently performing with the choir—ever since. Last spring, as part of his class, The African-American Gospel Tradition in Baltimore, the Peabody instructor brought his 11 students to perform, as well.

“I hoped that I could introduce my students to a style of music that they probably didn’t know very much about, just like I didn’t know very much about it seven years ago,” says Talle, who notes with a laugh that it took him that long to work up the nerve to teach such a course. “I hoped that it would broaden their horizons, that they would develop a sense for a different style of music, a different way that they could go about making music.”

As part of the course, which he is teaching again this spring, Talle invited Smith as well as other local church music directors, musicians, and singers to share with his students their backgrounds and how they learned their craft. Then the music directors would lead a selection or two from their upcoming Sunday services. Rehearsals in the classroom were casual and loose, forcing students to improvise when they performed.

“It was a very different thing than what we’re used to,” says Stephen Dunlap, who took the course last spring while pursuing a master’s in saxophone performance. “They would give us the instruction orally while we’re used to having all the sheet music in front of us. It pushed us to do things we weren’t used to doing, to play by ear. We want to play the right notes straight through. They really just want you to go for it.”

“Classical music students don’t generally create music,” explains Talle. “They re-create music written down for them by Bach or Beethoven or whomever. Trying to actually make up the music on the fly and come up with a part for yourself, that is something that is absolutely essential in gospel and something my students really benefited from trying to do.”

Talle also wanted his students to experience the feeling of having an audience scream, shout, and applaud in the middle of a performance, another aspect foreign to classical music venues but expected in the gospel tradition. Talle believes that the encouraging atmosphere is essential in helping often self-taught gospel musicians become so good at what they do.

“If you’re playing well then everyone is shouting at you at once,” he says. “Your grandmother and your cousin and your younger sister, everyone is totally enthusiastic and encouraging. It’s not like they’ve come to your recital just to be polite. They’re listening carefully and they really care about what you’re doing and it just encourages these kids on to greater and greater feats of musical accomplishment.”

“You sing one note and everyone starts screaming. It was so cool!” says GPD student Brie Pasko, a soprano. “It’s so not what classical music is. Both traditions are absolutely wonderful, but this was very, very different.”

As part of the course, students had to read histories of gospel music and keep journals of their experiences performing at the various churches. Talle also invited other guest lecturers, such as Peabody librarian Jennifer Ottervik, who had previously taught courses about African music and spirituals, and Humanities faculty member Hollis Robbins, a specialist in African-American literature. So how did the church congregants react to their visitors from Peabody? ;

“The congregation really enjoyed it,” says Smith. “The choir members loved it.

“And the Peabody students were great. They were humble and willing to do it all. Seeing the different cultures come together and seeing the respect in what they both do, all of that builds community.”

Talle hopes to expand this spring’s session by bringing several church choirs to perform at Peabody. He says he’d like the whole Hopkins community to share in something that has added so much to his life, something he literally discovered by accident. “Crashing my car was one of the best things that ever happened to me in Baltimore,” he says.

Joe Sugarman is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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