Community conversation about “A Child’s Requiem”

ChildsRequiem posterIn March of 2015, the world premier of a A Child’s Requiem was one milestone of an emotional composition by Lehigh faculty, choral arts director, and composer Steven Sametz. The piece was written in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. In order to present a quick reference to the work, a brief CBS news video produced before the world premiere summarizes it pretty well. Please watch the 2:44 segment that originally aired on March 14, 2014.

There are a number of links I can share about this work. However this post will focus on a different milestone associated with this work of art.

Last summer, Steven asked me to consider facilitating a community converation to complement the promotional activities supporting the upcoming November 6-7th LU Choral Arts performances of the work. We brainstormed a few ideas. The topics I thought I could be most sucessful in making connections would be:

  1. The compositional process of this particilar work: the trust and relationships between artist and schools.
  2. The healing power of giving the children affected by gun violence a voice through art.

The composer wanted a conversation about “keeping kids safe.” Knowing that topic has tendrils that can go way beyond the objective focus of this performance, I gathered samples of expertise within Lehigh’s academic community as a way of showing him that some of these topics have been covered. Lehigh’s College of Education presented research from LU gradaute Peter Langman: “The Mind of a School Shooter” and “School Safety: Avoid Reductionist Thinking.” Peter’s work was featured in the College of Education research journal in December 2013 (at the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre). More research on school shooters can be found here.

There is one group of educators I thought would resonate with a conversation with the composer. The College of Education has a monthly Socratic Rounds discussion group that is part of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leadership. I’ve worked with the director of the program in a number of activities. Jon Drescher was willing to schedule the October 17th session to be a discussion of Steven’s work and the issues that can be unpacked with it.

Steven gaciously shared his personal time. He was also willing to take a risk and talk with a group of strangers without really knowing the objective of the gathering. Steven understands as I do, that stewardship with community takes humility and generosity of resources. Three years ago, I choose to attend these monthly sessions regularly in order to more fully understand issues that urban educators face. If I aim to facilitate more arts connections in urban schools, I must understand the multiple barriers that exists due to funding, policy, or equity. It also takes consistent presence to develop trusting relationships. We can’t expect educators to understand our objectives only because we intend them to be noble. We must put effort into listening to their needs and try to see where we can partner with mutual benefits. I’m only so grateful to Steven that he was willing to share his valuable time with the group; despite the crazy start to the morning with a building evacuation.

IMG_4259The conversation yesterday went very well. Steven shared the story of how the piece came to be; including the challenges of connecting with schools willing to take on a creative partnership in which he would work with children affect by gun violence. He wanted them to be collaborators on a new composition. The conversation from the group included stories from the field; including one particularly omnious perspective from a school counselor, some incredible insight from a school resource officer (that’s a policeman stationed at the school), and horrific month long sequence of incidences at a local elementary school told by their principal.

One attendee remarked that the situation of helping kids through violence is a human rights issue. He is a PhD candidate in Comparative and International Education. Plenty of war-torn countries provide training for teachers who work with children growing up in violence. Why not here? Teachers and administrators as a whole agreed that there is a signficant lack of training for teachers to be able to offer the support kids need – especially kids surrounded by violence in their homes and neighborhoods.

What I heard was that often times elementary teachers are presented with the pictures from their students that express violence and they don’t know how to deal with it. Right there, the student is using art to express something terrifying. So why is art NOT considered a viable way to help the kids process this growing concern? Shootings are becoming more frequent. We can’t wait to figure out how to help these kids find a way to process the fear, grief and anger.

This conversation was just the beginning of discovering ways we can work together. Jon Drescher posed the option of coming together again next summer with the full session of the C-DUELS. I made a connection with the principal of the elementary school as well. The only way we are going to figure out SOMETHING is to talk with each other. This is culturally responsive partnership. It will take time and conversation. I’m willing to commit more of my energy to this issue. The challenges will be aligning the resources to meet somewhere in the middle of what we can offer, and where the need lies.

It was a very successful conversation. But that was only one.

I will present the pre-concert lecture before both performances. In order for me to prepare for that, I will become more informed of the piece musically by studying the score and libretto. I’ll attend a few rehearsals. Knowing the intensity of the work, and the empathy it will pull from me, I’ll need to exercise my own emotions before I present the lectures. Perhaps have a few conversations with members of the Lehigh Choral Arts Union, both students and community members. I hope to be able to represent their thoughts about performing the work before the audiences hears the piece.

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