Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Phoenix Academy Hosts Arts Residency

For two weeks in February, the students at Phoenix Academy experienced a daily music smorgasbord, courtesy of award-winning playwright and professional teaching artist, Anita Woodley. Woodley also received a lot of Help from Her Friends - a cast of successful local musicians who represented a variety of musical genres. They arrived each day before lunch, and students seemed to leave with more energy and bounce than when they had arrived. “She was always trying to make me smile,” said one student on his participant evaluation. “So I finally broke out in a smile.”
Woodley likes to speak about her goals as a teaching artist as “looking for ways to serve up plates of creativity and positivity.” During her work with the students at Phoenix, she rarely stopped smiling herself, and she sang and danced and exhorted the young people until they had little choice but to sample those plates of positivity. To say Woodley’s enthusiasm for music is infectious is an understatement.
A student wrote on the final evaluation, “Thank you soooo much for expanding my horizons,” and another wrote, “I found out how much I love different music.” Although many students were quiet observers and listeners during the first week of the residency, the level of participation increased steadily through the second week.
“I always want students to believe in themselves and have hope,” Woodley said. “And to know how to create that in themselves.” She offered lists of positive affirmations, in addition to all of the music, and she spoke each day about how to frame experiences into validating expressions. “Everyone has to have self-love. If you have that, you stop looking outside all the time, thinking about how people are treating you.”
The residency was sponsored by the Town of Chapel Hill Community & Cultural Arts, and the choice of Woodley was a great match for the students at Phoenix. “Someone might look at a group of high school students and assume, okay, they all want rap, but then we start to look at diverse tastes,” she said. “You might find inspiration in a mandolin, but you didn’t know.”
Lex Parker said that he often turns on the radio when he’s stressed out. “After hearing the bluegrass they played, I realized it was kind of relaxing.”
During the first week, Woodley performed a medley of songs that represented some of the genres they’d been exploring, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Bob Marley’s “One Love” and “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday. She led them through activities for group songwriting and showed them how lyricists, like poets, “make a chain of words.”

The students learned about the history of foot stomping as a musical accompaniment, and Woodley encouraged them to recognize the importance of hand clapping.
As the list of visiting musicians grew - Vattel Cherry, Charles Pettee, Yah-I Tafari - the number of instruments also mushroomed beyond guitars and stand up bass. Students also experienced the banjo, flamenco guitar, harmonica, djembe drum and mandolin. Students noted on their final evaluations how much they appreciated learning about different instruments. As Cherry played his guitar the first day, he used his “old school style, it makes you think of cutting grass and delivering papers.”

Throughout the discussion of musical genres, Woodley and her guests shared tidbits of cultural and social history, and they often returned to questions like “How can music be used to comment on social issues and to bridge gaps?”
TayNov El, a guest musician who calls himself a “Conscious Rap M.C,” spoke at length about his deep roots in the African-American community of Chapel Hill-Carrboro. “I keep my grandparents’ voices in my head all the time. They went to Lincoln High, right here where we are today.” His grandfather played in a gospel group, and as his website shares, “His uncles used to spit freestyles to him when he was single digit age.”
When TayNov was in eighth grade at Culbreth Middle School, he cut his first hip hop album, and later went on to perform as a member of an iconic group, TyFu. He shared many of the lessons he’s learned from integrating music into every part of his life. “When you’re not at peace, not satisfied with what’s going on, music gives you the chance to speak out,” he said. “Hip hop was created out of hard times.”
Brenda Whiteman, CHCCS Arts Education Coordinator, said, “I think the biggest thing that the students got from the residency was the opportunity to learn about and explore a wide variety of musical styles and instruments - bluegrass, jazz, hip hop, spirituals - drums, harmonicas, percussion, mandolin, guitar, banjo.  They seemed genuinely interested and many of them learned things about themselves and their preferences.”
Anthony Hairston, a freshman at Phoenix, said he really enjoyed the entire experience. “It allowed me to express myself in ways not usually available in schools. To be myself.” On the last day of the residency, as Woodley invited students to engage in a rap battle, Hairston was front and center, full of confidence and energy - being himself.