A Look at SongWorks 2020! 

Artwork by teen, Mikel R., for this year’s SoundCloud release!


We had a great start to this year’s online SummerWorks series with SongWorks!

SongWorks is one of AIR’s most popular programs! It provides teens with musical opportunities both unique and collaborative. Teens are taught fundamentals of song and lyric writing, and are paired with professional musicians who mentor them through creating an original song or piece of music. In addition to original songwriting, teens are instructed by a professional vocalist, who guides them through learning the musicality of a group choral piece. This summer, AIR created a virtual adaptation of SongWorks, and we were elated to welcome back Rachel Pantazis as vocal instructor to lead us through the program! 

Here some highlights…

A slide from vocal instructor Rachel Pantazis’s Guide to Motown and the Supremes

First Day!

Rachel kicked off our program by guiding us through a lesson on the history of Motown Records, The Supremes, and racial prejudice and discrimination in Detroit. The slideshow served both to introduce, and provide historical context for our ensemble song: “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (originally made famous by a Jean Terrell-era Supremes). Rachel explained that our group would be learning an arrangement by Tom Kitt from the Off-Broadway musical, Everyday Rapture, that featured a faster tempo and expansive, three-part harmonies. It was, in Rachel’s words, “a real bop!,” and our group was so eager to dive in! 

The excitement didn’t stop at our song reveal! Next, Arts In Reach program director Becca Romanoski unveiled our 2020-21 program theme: “Both/And: Celebrating Contradictions.” With this year’s theme, we’re exploring and honoring the duality and coexistence of opposites in the identity of ourselves and others, and our environment. To put the theme in perspective, we examined “Up the Ladder” through its lens, and brainstormed dichotomies together via the prompts  “I am both _____ and ______” and “The world is both ______  and ______.”

Guest poet, Maya Williams, performs a poem for our group

A Special Guest

We had a very special guest at our second session… poet Maya Williams! This was Maya’s third year facilitating a workshop at our SongWorks program, and we were thrilled and grateful to have them back! Their workshops are powerful for inspiring our teens’ writing and for getting them thinking about using language creatively. Maya also has an innate ability to create a safe space for our teens to express vulnerability and big emotions, which is very valued at AIR. 

This year, Maya led our group through a lesson on spoken word, which is performance-based poetry. We learned the what, how, and who of spoken word, including its foundation in African oratory tradition, its renaissance during the 1970s hiphop movement, and different contemporary artists who work in the medium. Next, Maya performed a poem for us so we could experience spoken word firsthand! Maya ended their workshop with a writing prompt around words, attachment, and release, and we had an optional share of poetry or process. 

 “Art is a way to have open dialogue about how we’re feeling and also the world that is surrounding us, that is super scary and beautiful – complexity  worth holding” – Maya Williams 

Our teens were so excited to meet their musician mentors!

Meet Your Mentors! 

On day three of SongWorks, teens were introduced to our dedicated team of returning guest musicians: Elissa Margolin, Amanda McCarthy, Amanda Reimers, and Jenna Sarno. Each teen had an opportunity to meet with their mentor individually to discuss goals for their song, and we began work on “Up the Ladder to the Roof” with Rachel. 

We also talked through our process for this program. For virtual SongWorks, the collaboration and rehearsals would happen on Zoom, but recording would happen individually. Rachel prepared a wonderful list of best recording practices for our teens to equip them with confidence for taping. She also prepared videos and audio recordings of her singing individual parts to help our teens rehearse! 

Rachel Pantazis leading us through a vocal warmup

Learn & Create

The rest of our sessions were spent in a rotation of choral harmony work with Rachel, and individual meetings with musician mentors. We took full advantage of Zoom’s breakout rooms! Each day after check in, Rachel led us through a unique vocal exercise to both warm up our voice and diaphragm, and to inform the phrasing and intonation of our ensemble piece. In musician meetings, teens and mentors were immersed in collaboration, exchanging instrumentation and lyrics. The collaboration continued after our sessions too, with staff, artists and teens forwarding recorded tracks to one another. We aren’t kidding when we say that this program is jam-packed! 

Congratulations to our 2020 SongWorks participants!

Our Celebration 

SongWorks culminated in a celebration of participants and their work, and it was a blast We began by sharing one thing we were grateful for about our group, and one thing we learned in the program. Next teens watched congratulatory videos from AIR executive director Deb Holloway and teaching artist Roxanne O’Connor, who extended an invitation for our group to participate in a community singing event! Teens then had the opportunity to share something about their individual songs –  the title, genre, a line of lyrics, or something that surprised them about the process. 

Rachel had two surprises for our celebration! First, she shared a sneak preview of our compiled ensemble piece! Since we had been so engrossed in our individual recordings, it was enthralling to hear our voices all together. Next, she talked with us about her background and professional work. She spent this last year as the lead female vocalist on a Carnival cruise line! It was fascinating to hear about her life on the ship and the day-to-day, and inspiring to hear about her journey and pursuit of the position. We ended our celebration with a certificate ceremony, and a final farewell and cheer. 

What’s Next

Just because our meetings are over doesn’t mean this program is finished! Teens will have time in the next few weeks to finish recording parts for their original songs as well as our group choral piece. Once all of the finished recordings have been submitted, they’ll be sent to Chris Chase, owner/audio engineer at Dover’s Noise Floor Studios for compilation and production. Our SongWorks group will reunite this summer for a SoundCloud release party. Stay tuned for information! 

AIR would like to extend a special thank you to Rachel Pantazis, Elissa Margolin, Amanda Reimiers, Amanda McCarthy, Jenna Sarno, Maya Williams, Nick Cela, Andrew Morrissey and Patrick Dorow for their hard work and support of AIR, and for creating such a memorable program for our teens.


Click here to see Rachel Pantazis’s Guide to the Supremes! 

A Writing Prompt from Maya Williams 

Step One: List words you are holding on to 

Step Two: List words you are letting go of

Step Three: Circle 1-3 words from each column, and take the next 15-20 minutes to write a poem. Use those columns and those specific words that you circled to write your poem 

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