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Music for the Whole Community, One Backyard at a Time
Libby O’Neil, Co-Founder and Executive Director, East Lake Expression Engine
East Lake Expression Engine (ELEE), which began in 2014, serves the East Lake neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee. We usually serve 75 to 100 kids each semester. Our program meets in a church conveniently located between the elementary and middle schools that serve our neighborhood. East Lake is wonderfully walkable; our staff members walk to the elementary school to pick up our students there, and our middle and high school students walk to us. Several of our staff members live in the neighborhood. This has long provided us with daily opportunities for casual, neighborly relationships with our students’ families. During 2020, that proximity has been invaluable.
When Expression Engine closed in March, I wondered how we would be able to support our kids. We had a few initial ideas about continuing to serve our neighborhood through online teaching, but after just a month of school at home, our kids begged us not to do anything virtual. (One student said he could not look at another screen for another minute.) Instead, they asked for their instruments and for worksheets. So we put together binders full of worksheets: some were academic, some musical, and we added coloring pages as well. We were able to deliver art supplies and instruments to each family. For the first few months, our student interns (all current students aged 14–17) called every family every week to check on them. Those calls and deliveries helped us stay in touch with the specific needs of our students’ families, as our neighborhood experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases.
As our team sat down to plan our summer, we brainstormed how we could continue to learn and make music together safely. We came up with socially distanced, masked yard sessions: we would drive to our families’ homes, unload our instruments, and play song requests from our students—sometimes pop music, other times their favorite choir songs. Often, students brought out instruments and played or sang along with us. Parents, relatives, and neighbors all came outside to watch and listen. We got to meet family members we hadn’t met before: younger siblings, cousins, grandparents. People stopped by or pulled over. “Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you here?”
The students were thrilled. We began to write music together outside, with sibling groups. Staff members split up into teams at different homes, sat in socially distanced circles on the grass, pulled out poster boards and markers, and put together songs. The kids had a lot of thoughts—most often with this focus: “We want to write a song about how much quarantine stinks.”
Our program has a custom of choosing a new theme every summer for the coming year. Our repertoire often connects to that theme, and we have focused conversations around it during the course of the year. For our theme this year, we chose community, and our kids had a lot to say about it. “We miss being together!” was a common refrain. One staff member and group of kids decided, “Community is any group of people doing life together.” As they listed the communities they are part of, they shared that they were missing the Expression Engine community.
Six years ago, when we started the East Lake Expression Engine, I had a dream that one day, if you drove into East Lake with your windows down, you would hear music—hip hop, jazz, rock, folk, classical—all kinds of different ensembles and combinations of people making music together. One day not long ago, as we stood on the road making music with one of our families (a song the student’s mother requested), neighbors drove by with the windows down. “Hey, I recognize y’all,” they said. “You were in somebody else’s yard the other day, with different kids. Who are you folks?”
I realized that in fact my dream was coming true in a way I could never have imagined. We began to reach more people in our neighborhood when our programming had to turn into family ensembles in their yards. The results have been surprising and chaotic and joyful. Most of all, the sounds are beautiful.