November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Teen Dewey Decibels Sing Out

I truly enjoy my job as a teen librarian in the community of Uniondale, NY, a hamlet located in Nassau County on Long Island. Uniondale is a working/middle class, mostly African American, Caribbean American, and Latino community. The public library is heavily utilized by residents of all ages, especially the local teens.

My goal since my first day on the job at the Uniondale Public Library, over a decade ago, has been to transform young adult services from the occasional craft or book discussion into something with a greater impact on the lives of our teens. Over the years, I’ve offered all sorts of culturally relevant and innovative “out-of-the-box” programming to entice our young people to actively participate in our programs. The Dewey Decibels is one of these out-of-the-box programs.

Twyla Sommersell leads a Dewey Decibels workshop.

Twyla Sommersell leads a Dewey Decibels workshop.

The Dewey Decibels began a few years ago as a two-part workshop in our Uniondale Public Library Empowerment Academy/Empowerment through the Arts program. The purpose of the Empowerment Academy was to promote the positive intellectual, social, artistic, and behavioral development of young adults. The larger goal was to empower young people with a greater sense of self-esteem and positive emotional growth.

The library administration and my direct supervisor at the time, Deidre Escoffier, were 100 percent supportive of the endeavor, so I had no worries trying to convince those in charge to grant permission to implement this initiative. What proved to be an obstacle was my limited programming budget, so I sought funding for the academy through grants. I was able to win $9,500 through the Best Buy Community Foundation and the Margaret E. Edwards Trust. In addition, the Uniondale School District provided grant monies from their 21st-Century Learning grant.

Using these funds, I was able to hire an accomplished local vocalist and music teacher, Nichell Taylor Bryant, to teach the vocal coaching workshop. Bryant’s performances have included appearances at the Long Island Conservatory of Music and Carnegie Hall. She instantly connected with the students and used the brief time that they had together to take them on a musical journey.At the end of each Empowerment Academy, participants completed an anonymous survey asking them to rate their level of satisfaction with the programs and the instructors.I also asked how they heard about the program, what could be improved, and whether they would participate in the Empowerment Academy again. The vocal coaching activity received an overwhelmingly positive rating, and the students expressed their desire to repeat the workshops.

Dewey Decibel students gathered around Sommersell, at the piano, while preparing for the talent show.

Dewey Decibel students gathered around Sommersell, at the piano, while preparing for the talent show.

I decided to expand the initiative and offer it as a stand-alone series of workshops in the spring of 2014. I still had grant monies at my disposal to fund the project, which I renamed “The Dewey Decibels.”  From day one, the students recognized that this was a legitimate vocal coaching program. Bryant’s objectives, verbatim, were:

  • Get each vocalist more in touch with why he or she sings with a group.
  • Offer tools and techniques to improve individual and group singing.
  • Increase each singer’s sensitivity to the power and beauty of a song, the impact on listeners, and how to effectively and intentionally communicate a song’s message as one fully connected group.

Her curriculum included:

  • A survey of individual voices
  • Breathing techniques
  • Vocal cord-friendly warm-ups
  • Proper pronunciation and diction
  • The importance of practice
  • Sound projection
  • Telling a story through a song
  • Listening to the other musicians and singers around you
  • Putting it all together

In addition to exposing teens to a free music education and some personal empowerment, another goal was to have the teens perform at the library’s annual talent show. We accomplished both, and a small group of Dewey Decibels (the all-female group also called themselves “the Jolies”—the French word for“pretty”) performed an Alicia Keys song at the show. It was wonderful to see a mixture of shy and not-so-shy teens take the stage and perform before strangers.

For 2015, I didn’t have any grant money at my disposal, but I decided that it would be good for my patrons to bring the program back. I designated $600 from my regular programming budget in order to finance six vocal workshops. Bryant was slated to teach again, but due to an accident that she is currently recovering from, I had to find a replacement. A member of the Uniondale Public Library’s Friends’ group introduced me to Twyla Sommersell, academic designer/editor at McGraw-Hill School Education specializing in music. A Uniondale native, born and raised, Sommersell is also a certified music teacher. Filling in at the last moment, she utilized both Bryant’s curriculum and her own. What happened next was phenomenal. Boys signed up for the workshop, and the majority of students who registered faithfully attended each week.

Sommersell decided to partner students, with the partners consisting of a performer and director. Utilizing skills that she teaches them, the directors help the performers sing for the group. After the performance, other participants offer constructive criticism. “I was an overseer and lent my two cents wherever it was needed,” Sommersell says.

Participants watch each other perform and offer positive feedback.

Participants watch each other perform and offer positive feedback.

Towards the end of each lesson, the students come together as a group and practice the song they will perform at the talent show. Sommersell says that the expectation is that “each week students are expected to perform in some way or another, promoting confidence.”

Once again, the hard work of the Dewey Decibels paid off. The group performed a beautiful rendition of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” at the talent show. Introducing the performers, Sommersell stated that some had never stood on a stage before, while others had. They came together as a group and supported one another, each one empowered through the art of music.

Video: The Dewey Decibels in performance.

The community has also embraced the program. During registration, a woman signed up both of her granddaughters. She explained to me that she has custody of the girls and that money is tight, so when she saw the sign outside the library for free vocal coaching classes, her heart jumped. One of her granddaughters is a soprano, and the grandmother’s desire was for her to receive proper training. She is a deeply religious woman, and we both became a bit emotional as she said that God had answered her prayers. Another parent observed some of the lessons and she told me that that she “loved” what she saw. She liked the critiquing aspect and the team building that was happening during the workshops.

The teens themselves, via survey, said that they were all pleased with the experience. They want the program to be offered again—and they asked that the workshops to be longer than the current 60-minute session time.

Thinking outside of the box can be a risky business, but the possibilities are limitless. Uniondale library has offered “Computer Construction/Deconstruction”; “Nanotechnology”; Broadway dance with the Alvin Ailey dance theater and a local parent in the cast of the Broadway musical Stomp; book discussion and art workshops with Coretta Scott King Award winners Victoria Bond, Tanya Mckinnon, and Javaka Steptoe; and much more. I brand myself as a librarian hustler who tries to bring the teens in by any means necessary. This can be stressful—but when your results include teen empowerment, the risk and stress instantly transform into a worthy endeavor.


syntychia_cropSyntychia Kendrick-Samuel is an award-winning librarian. In 2010, she received the Nassau County Library Association Young Adult Services Division, Excellent in Teen Programming award for her Junior Friends’ Kwanzaa Feast. In 2013, she received the New York State NYLA-YSS division Pied Piper Award for her Empowerment Academy for Teens. She has presented at NYLA and ALA, and her chapter “Designing and Promoting Public Library Services for Teens of Color Without Losing one’s Sanity” is included in The 21st-Century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges, edited by Andrew P. Jackson (Scarecrow Press, 2012).

Share

Comments

  1. Barbara Thompson says:

    Charming ! A very positive experience for all involved!

  2. Kristina says:

    You’ve created a wonderful and relevant program for your teens; so inspiring!

  3. D. Price says:

    What an amazing program! I hope that you receive additional funding so that you may continue to provide this service to the community.

  4. Fantastic! Love the name. Those are some talented kids! Congratulations for seeing a way to encourage them.

  5. Miss Jackie says:

    You do an amazing job with the teens!

  6. Wow, what a great program!