The stage is set with speakers, a foldout table with audio controls, and a MacBook. A mess of cords snake over the stage and three group members wheel a piano from the shadows behind the curtains and situate it within the temporary base. Behind them is the Bridge Music Project logo, printed on vinyl, stretched between a free-standing PVC frame. A separate table with bottled water and pizza is pushed against the wall, between the front row and the steps descending from the Capitol Theater Stage. With the elegant awkwardness of a teenager, a collaborator reads aloud from the Community Contract: “Don’t judge a book by its cover, or its prologue.”
It is Week Two of the Bridge Music Project’s program for aspiring musicians between the ages of 14 and 21. Students who participate will work with experienced musicians who act as mentors for eight-weeks. Geared toward at-risk youth, BMP provides the space, guidance, and equipment to openly express themselves and establish pride for artistic and personal endeavors through performance.
Starting simply and following the lead of program graduates
Today’s goal is for each group to choose the electronic beat for their project. Keith, a returning Bridge Music participant, warms up the group as he strums absently on an acoustic guitar. When the proper adjustments are made, he closes his eyes and leans to the microphone,
“I need you to fall for me…You make me feel like a creep”
He plays a slow melody beneath soft vocals, swaying slightly. He finishes the song,
“From afar I can see you’re not really into me”
Amanda approaches the stage and Keith yields it to her. Another past student, she gives him warm praise and slides onto the piano bench. “I’m not braindead, I’m just really tired,” Amanda chirps, joking and light. She then sings soulfully,
“My sensible ways…You’ve got something that makes me foolish”
Her voice skips playfully with the keys as she sings passionately about troubled romance.
Amanda has become a mentor after visiting the project in Week Two, falling in with a group and performing with them in the final showcase. Her talent is obvious, and her energy elevates the space. Amanda is an example for the potential of Bridge Music—creating active community members who continue to enrich the lives of creative youths through their experience and compassion, as well as being a talented and engaging performance artist.
A mission to foster healthy self-expression
This project, one of nine programs offered by BMP, builds a community of likeminded and abled peers who collaborate to write and record original songs and organize them into a final showcase. All the programs strive to assist students in achieving BMP’s stated mission and vision statements:
Through mentoring youth in songwriting workshops, we equip them with tools of self-expression and understanding that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Our vision is to create a world where every youth is free to be their true, uncompromising self; a world where through music and self-understanding, young people can overcome any trauma to be the future leaders of tomorrow.
To cover this story for WIP, I was welcomed into one of the small groups that met weekly, usually at Capitol Theater. Every meeting began with Announcements from Bobby, an overview of the group’s timeline and present focus. Each week a different student read the Community Contract as drafted during Week One, either looking deeply into the paper before them or cracking jokes between rules, like “No Biting, which means don’t plagiarize,” which was always good for a laugh. A rotation of former students performed past songs as a warmup and continued to practice their own expressions and support the new students.
Regular meetings build trust and confidence
During Week Two, the students sit scattered in the theater. Bobby reads names from a clipped list and finalizes the groups. I follow Rachel’s group behind the curtain, up narrow steps, and to the end of the corridor. A blue room with a long vanity counter, a leather couch, a squat armchair, a Z-rack, and metal foldout chair will act as the center for collaboration. Students first discuss their strengths, musical interests, and hopeful direction for their project. They settle on dramatic romanticism, a choice which seems to come about naturally from this group of vocalists, a guitar player, and a shy poet.
Listening through the pre-made beats produced by DJ TM, offering quirky comparisons and associations, the students begin to warm to one another. Working to pick a track which specifically compliments their strengths, Fiscal Funnel—with birds chirping, a subtle yet strong base, and a charming production style—is an easy choice. Again, and again the music plays, the students stare into uniform composition books provided for them and hum softly beneath their breaths. Sharing themes, general reflections, and praise, they light the kindling for an impassioned project. Other voices drift down the hallway from neighboring rooms. Similar processes are taking place across differing genres, ages, and experience level; the creative process and the consistent anticipation of progress.
Coaxing confidence and self-expression
I chose to spend time with Rachel’s group specifically, only observing that group’s interactions, within the entirety of BMP. As a group they discussed layering vocals and adding instrumental, navigating the creative process, and working together to conceptualize a song which encapsulates each musician’s strength and passions. Charlee is quiet, a vocalist and lyricist. Kira describes themself as a poet, seemingly unaware of their full potential and current talent, harmonizing and aiding in group discussion, not yet comfortable with sharing their work.
Alaina is young, energetic, and has undeniable writing ability, which describes most of the group. Apollo and Adelyn excite each other, their musical back-and-forth inspiring and whimsical to observe. Both talented performers in their own right, they are knowledgeable and humble collaborators. Liam is a gifted guitarist, layering chords with the production to create a fuller sound.
Preparing a solo audition
After practicing for a month at Capitol Theatre, the group temporarily assimilates their process during Week Five at the Olympia Family Theater. The stage lights are low, every bulb visible. A painted, standing backdrop hides the narrow “backstage.” Glossy wooden seats with muted patterned cushions mirrored the backdrop along the opposite side of the room, framing the stage. A foldout table, two microphones, and a speaker define the performance space. This theater is much more intimate, and students sit closer together, practicing lyrics, chords, and encouraging one another to audition for a solo performance. Three musicians from Rachel’s group perform original songs.
Charlee. Usually shy, using strong descriptive and poetic imagery, Charlee performs a slow, narrative piece exploring personal trauma and the feelings of anxiety and depression associated with social injustice. “I never knew this world was so cruel. People die for this reason every day.” Reflecting deeply on racism and a seemingly cruel, apathetic society, the familiar feelings of doubt and hopelessness, but also their perseverance and obligation to act define the narrative. Throwing her head quickly aside between verses, she clears her throat of an ill-timed tickle.
Adelyn. Coming prepared with original beats and beginning by vocalizing in their native tongue, Russian, Adelyn demonstrates strong control and precision of craft. Transitioning in and out of English seamlessly, their strength as a performer, lyricist, mixer, and rapper entices the crowd. “A hunter lives a thousand lives. One is a nightmare, the other he survives.”
Apollo. Keith lingers around Apollo, adjusting the microphone in front of his acoustic guitar. A soft melody and poetic lyrics dance from Apollo to the audience, “I apologize for being a dead daughter.” A beautiful folk song, an impassioned performance, Apollo returns to their seat with hot cheeks, avoiding the gaze of well-deserved praise.
Addressing creative and financial success
Week Three opens with a Zoom conference with Krizz Kaliko, most known for his collaborations with Tech N9ne and Eminem, who is projected over the stage larger than life. Bobby frames his questions to guide the discussion about pursuing a musical career, the songwriting process, and seeking wisdom from a notable musician. Krizz discusses many motivational sentiments—his upbringing, how he stays true to his values and intentions, and being a performer and a father, “The mind is powerful—you can’t let anyone deter you.”
Krizz talks about the importance of production, and the power of the “DIY World” emphasizing self-motivation and marketing. Bobby opens the floor to students, who ask about past songs, networking, and achieving work-life balance.
Most of the discussion is around how to be “successful” or making money from music. I wonder to how this emphasis on monetization of passion may taint a collaborative environment but say nothing.
As the Zoom call ends, the group gathers onstage to take a picture with Krizz. Once the screen is empty, the students returned to their seats, and after a quick catch up, filter back into their groups. We return to the room at the end of the corridor, and students resume their discussions of metaphor and creative approaches.
One more practice
During the final meeting, students listen to their recorded tracks and work out the kinks before the approaching performance. The stage was fitted with free standing, colored lights and speakers, a piano forte, an electric and acoustic guitar, and the staple transient Bridge Music sound equipment. Before the meeting officially begins, students fill out final surveys, and mentors test a fog machine. Students gawk and a few make comments to the entire group. “Don’t worry, it’s not a fire,” Bobby jests from stage.
When Rachel’s group is presented, they feign embarrassment and hide their faces as their song plays. Utilizing soulful harmonization, vocal layering, multiple guitars, two languages, and flowing spoken word, the group translates their collaborative potential into individual experience and expression.
The theater fills slowly with friends and family. Fourth Avenue is still busy with Arts Walk festivities. The Inspire Oly campaign prop excites the space, along with additional art exhibitions displayed in the auditorium. Students are outside, scattered backstage, or jamming in one last-minute practice, either riding adrenaline, or calming their nerves. I meet briefly with Alaina backstage; she is happy to perform live, given the past disruptions of performance art due to COVID-19. Patrons flash ID and proof of vaccination and resume a practice that might have been taken for granted—budding talent presented and nurtured by a knowing and supportive audience.
The show is a curation of current and past projects, and individual artistic endeavors within the Bridge Music Project. A range of projects and genres are showcased by the students and mentors, creating an energetic and satisfying conclusion to “eight weeks of hard work and dedication” as Bobby states in his opening remarks. Rappers, folk singers, impassioned vocalists, well rounded musicians, and a “Pizza Star” (you had to be there) all braved the stage and held it joyfully. Presenting one’s work is always a worthy endeavor. Walking onto stage is daring and often the scariest step. The crowd is engaged, cheering, and clapping for every performer; in the wings, the students mirror the audience.
Jaina Elaine Nehm is a student at TESC pursuing a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology. This project was part of her work to practice ethnographic skills under the supervision of WIP and professors Eric Stein and Toska Olson.