Guest blog from Drury House Workshop Leader Joey Ferber
The summer heat swelled on the bluffs of the muggy Missouri. In the reprieve of good company and hard working air conditioning units, YourWords STL’s four-week songwriting session began on the first Wednesday afternoon of June. Garbed in a rolled-up Oxford, handed down from a former English professor, I was inclined to represent myself to the best of my ability as a volunteer educator with a class of young creative men I’d never met. It felt good to be putting my schooling, now a year and a half removed from graduation, to practice. Good to be making use of that not-so-practical English Degree, answering echoes of “So what, you’re going to teach?” with a confident supposition, of “apparently so.” A volunteer-turned-teaching-artist in a matter of two weeks led me to conversations with students and directors of YourWords STL that quickly caught me up to speed on the integrity of the organization. The young men at Marygrove along with the founders of YourWords STL are talented individuals who seem to have a natural inclination towards supporting others, in life and in writing.
From the onset, students and tutors sat side-by-side, in a rectangle of tables-workshop style. We each shared our reasons for being in the room- what we created and what we consumed. And specifically what we were listening to. So many students at Marygrove are musicians that we could have spent the four weeks forming a band. And while we snuck in two after class jams, we were signed up as songwriters so when it came to class, we took to our pads and pencils and got to the lyrics. Musical interests ranged from classical to country. From jazz and rap to film-scoring; finding common ground meant embracing all of the options. After day one’s free-writing session, where we could’ve spent an additional hour sharing and discussing each other’s work, it was time to craft and collectively step to the edge of our the comfort zones.
In week two, students entered the room to the sound of Kenny Garrett’s “Happy People,” recommended in the first week by a tenured YourWords STL tutor. With a prevalent interest in rap, and what many of these young students considered to be hip-hop, it was time to inspire lyricism based on the form’s roots. Collectively, country listeners and all, we wrote to a J. Dilla instrumental, looped for 20 minutes. I could only smile and share the link when several 17-year-old students asked about where to find Dilla’s refreshing sound. And it is timeless indeed. The sharing session of week 2 brought about one of my favorite moments of the workshop. One of our tutors, a pale, middle-aged gentle man, reluctantly raised his hand to drop his lines on the group. He offered a spoken word piece, ripe with parallelism and emotion addressing his adoration for a loved one. I asked the group what worked about his piece and the tutor laughed assuming I was joking. A flurry of hands shot up, and students eagerly shared their praise for the piece’s rhythm, anaphora, and honesty. The humbled tutor quietly smiled.
After a gritty third session, focusing on revision and collaboration, the fourth and final session was the clichéd moment of truth. In 45 minutes, students had to finalize and upload their lyrics for publication to allow a final 10 minutes for performance. By the end of class, each student’s work had been performed into the mic in front of their tutors, and peers. I was grateful that the students let me MC the event and the work of a particularly shyer student who preferred to listen to the sound of dark piece read aloud by someone else.
YourWords STL is a force for good in the St. Louis area with sustainable ethics for ensuring quality education to organizations they partner with. Personally, it has been refreshing to work with founders, Steve Handoyo and Anna Guzon, who are immeasurably selfless in an effort to be objective about the function of YourWords STL. With the summer as an indicator of good things to come, I immensely look forward to serving students of YourWords STL as a teaching artist this fall with the young men at Marygrove.