A! Magazine for the Arts

Virginia High School students Wyatt Chadwell and McKenzie Anderson practice the art of songwriting during the Upward Bound summer program at Virginia Highlands Community College. (Photo by Andre Teague | Bristol Herald Courier)

Virginia High School students Wyatt Chadwell and McKenzie Anderson practice the art of songwriting during the Upward Bound summer program at Virginia Highlands Community College. (Photo by Andre Teague | Bristol Herald Courier)

Upward Bound a 6-Week Music Opportunity

July 1, 2008

***This story was published June 30, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

BRISTOL, Va. - A group of teenagers studying the wordplay and emotion behind the art of songwriting stopped by a burger joint Wednesday to pick up some vibes from country music legend Hank Williams.

Williams is rumored to have stopped by the Burger Bar on Piedmont Avenue in Bristol, Va., one day in 1953 ? the same day he later died.

"It's really cool," Nikkie Crick, a 15-year-old Chilhowie High School student said while sitting at the counter, finishing her burger. "Who wouldn't want to sit at a place where somebody famous for their songwriting has been?"

Nikkie is among a group of a half-dozen high school students who will tuck that experience away for now, perhaps bringing it back to memory when they're teaching music themselves one day.

The students are participants in six-week program at Virginia Highlands Community College called Upward Bound, a federally funded educational opportunity offered through the TRIO Program.

This summer, Nikkie and her classmates seem to be having a hoot in a program called songwriting/storytelling. The students already have visited ETSU's bluegrass program and will soon be visiting Nashville and Memphis to round out their "music tour."

"We get lyrics, read them, and break them apart piece by piece to learn more about the writer's real intent and emotions they're trying to get across," Crick said. "I listen to more alternative rock, but we deal with all kinds of music."

TRIO was created by Congress in 1965 when it originally established three educational programs, thus the name.

Students whose parents do not have a four-year, college degree are recruited as early as the eighth grade. Once in the program, they are monitored while in high school and must attend at least two, six-week summer sessions, including their normal curriculum.

The goal is to motivate and support students through the academic pipeline from middle school to graduate-level success at universities.

"In the beginning, I had them each write down the names of five songs that they'd like to learn more about," said Gill Braswell, who teaches the program. "It's been neat to see the wheels begin to turn. One day we're talking about Hank Williams; the next day we're talking about Kurt Cobain [of Nirvana]."

Braswell is a songwriter who lived in Nashville for a time and had a dream of making it big.

"It didn't happen, but I learned a ton - how to learn a hook; how to write a title. I've been teaching different songwriting formats and giving them assignments to go home and come back with a song. These kids. Man, I'm learning from them!"

Each student was given a new acoustic guitar when class started June 9. Their experience with the instrument at the program's start ranged from knowing a few chords to none at all, Braswell said.

"You wouldn't believe it, they're at that point in their lives where they can choose almost any avenue they want," he said. "But man, are they picking this up. Songs are stories and stories can be converted to songs, and I think some of them are serious about doing this for a career."

Before eating at the Burger Bar, the students visited the Bristol Public Library. Braswell had them walk up and down the aisles and asked them to jot down book titles or phrases within books that interested them.

Braswell said the exercise was aimed at removing the teacher from the equation and allowing the students to find something of interest on their own terms.

"He's pretty awesome," Allison Hawking, a 14-year-old Chilhowie High School student said of Braswell. "I know a lot more now about how much goes into the development of a song, and it's all about words and phrases. Not everyone stops to really look at lyrics."

Allison, who enjoys listening to some of her father's favorites, such as Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent, said she hopes to teach music someday.
McKenzie Anderson, 15, a Virginia High School student, already plays guitar. But since starting the program, she says that when she gets home, she picks up the guitar and plays longer than ever before.

"There's something in every song for somebody," she said. "And this really helps in other way - I mean English literature, for example. What I've learned is how to identify symbolism in language, like metaphors."

TRIO programs help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education, said Beth Page, Virginia Highlands' Upward Bound director.

"Since 1999, when Virginia Highlands first got the funds to provide the program, we've had a college graduation rate of all students in all programs of about 70 percent," she said.

As mandated by Congress, two-thirds of the students served must come from families with incomes under $24,000 where neither parent graduated from college.

TRIO services include assistance in choosing a college, tutoring, personal and financial counseling, career counseling, assistance in applying to college, and workplace and college visits.

"We recruit the students before they enter high school, and during the school year we meet with them and look at their grades and into possible college applications," Page said. "What we're really trying to do here is help them break through those barriers that face students when they want to get into college."

Though the students' grades are not tracked after high school, their whereabouts and additional information about their performance in college is checked for six years, beginning the first year of college, Page added.

"We want them to maintain a B average in high school, and we expect them to stay enrolled in college," Page said. "I've got to hand it to them. Four years in high school and school during the summer - it's a really big commitment."