Songwriting with a Purpose: Reflecting on November 20 – December 2, 2018

Following a very relaxing Thanksgiving, the fellows began their project with Sara Lee and Rex Horan of the Irene Taylor Trust and residency with Purpose Over Pain.

Our collaborators from The Irene Taylor Trust, Artistic Director Sara Lee and Project Leader Rex Horan, seek to create a positive impact on people’s lives by breaking down barriers through music. Purpose Over Pain is an organization that that seeks to end gun violence in Chicago. The parent advocacy group works for stricter gun control policies, and hosts a variety of events with the goal of strengthening communities while providing support to parents whose children have become victims of gun violence.

ABOVE: Purpose Over Pain participants, Father Michael Pfleger, teaching artists Sara Lee and Rex Horan, Civic Orchestra Fellows, and singers Takesha Kizart, Sarah Ponder, and Sarah Vander Ploeg perform on the December 2018 Purpose Over Pain recital. | Todd Rosenberg Photography.

Over two days, Sara and Rex led intensive workshops designed to train us to in songwriting. We began by sitting in a circle and were given short sentences. We were asked to write a rhythm for the sentence and went around the circle demonstrating what we wrote. Then, we were given lyrics and dispersed into three groups, with the assignment of writing a melody for the lyrics. Next, we were to harmonize the lyrics before finally adding instrumentals. We continued this same exercise, adding one step each time, being given a topic and writing lyrics, then being given just notes from a meeting with a parent and writing the lyrics. By the end of the two days, we felt like songwriting pros. The three groups would each eventually be responsible for writing two songs for two different families who have lost a child(ren) to gun violence.

While Sara and Rex more than adequately prepared us for the practical songwriting portion of the project, nothing could have prepared us for the following day of meeting the bereaved families. We performed an excerpt of our CSO-Connect music, followed by a performance from the singers who would be singing the pieces that we write. Then it was the parents’ turn. Sitting in a circle, each family, holding a picture of the child they lost, said their name, their child’s name, and told their story. When and how they lost their child, how they felt today and were coping, and shared a funny story about their loved one. It was humbling. It was raw. It was beautiful. Following the stories, each of our three groups introduced ourselves to the families, and we all went home for the night.

The next day, we had 90-minute interviews with each of our families. During this time, we listened to their stories and gained information on their loved ones with the hopes of getting a fuller picture of their personality in order to personalize the songs. This day was difficult. Hearing the stories of the families and watching them be completely vulnerable with six strangers was awe-inspiring. We left feeling as if we had a good idea of what we wanted to write – and a determination to give the songs the justice they deserved.

ABOVE: Purpose Over Pain participants, Father Michael Pfleger, teaching artists Sara Lee and Rex Horan, Civic Orchestra Fellows, and singers Takesha Kizart, Sarah Ponder, and Sarah Vander Ploeg perform on the December 2018 Purpose Over Pain recital. | Todd Rosenberg Photography.

Friday and Saturday were spent applying all that we had learned. We had four hours each day to produce two fully formed songs to present to the parents for edits on Sunday. With lots of hard work, patience, and experimentation, we managed to complete the task. On Sunday, we presented what we had to the parents of each group and received feedback before completing those edits on Monday. This week we will record the final songs at Chicago Recording Company, and on Saturday, we will have the culminating performance at St. Sabina Church.

Following this week and Thanksgiving the week before, I can’t help but feel immense pride and gratefulness for Sara, Rex, and all of the families in the Purpose Over Pain project. Being vulnerable with strangers is difficult, but being vulnerable with strangers about one of the most painful experiences one can imagine takes amazing strength. With this music, we hope to give these families something they can cherish forever. We are looking forward to completing this meaningful project, and we thank Sara, Rex, and all of the families working with Purpose Over Pain to create something beautiful.

By Civic Fellow and flute Alex Hoffman.


TOP: Purpose Over Pain participants and singers Takesha Kizart, Sarah Ponder, and Sarah Vander Ploeg perform on the December 2018 Purpose Over Pain recital. | Todd Rosenberg Photography.

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