This is a transcript of the Aug. 6 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: [singing in background] You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. Right now you’re hearing a group called the Mosaic Singers practicing.
More about them in a moment. For this season of Working, we left the East Coast behind and flew to Detroit. We spoke with eight people who are drawing on the city’s complex history as they work to create its future. In this episode, which is our last of the season, we sat down with Delashea Strawder, director of music programs at the Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit.
Mosaic is this really cool arts education program that tries to bring out and develop the creativity of the city’s youth. That song you’re hearing right now is called “Pressure,” and Strawder—an alum of the program herself—wrote it for the Mosaic Singers.
Over the course of this episode, we’ll hear that song come together. We’ll also learn a lot about the ways that Strawder works from the musically informed lessons that she does with grade-school students to the large-scale productions that she puts on with older ones.
What is your name and what do you do?
Delashea Strawder: My name is Delashea Strawder, and I’m the associate artistic director and director of music programs at Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.
Brogan: What is Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit?
Strawder: Mosaic is a creative youth development organization. We use the arts to help young people explore their gifts, as well as explore different career paths to find out who they are and what they want to do. We have alumni who have been nominated for Grammys and Tonys, but we also have young people who have done medicine and law after leaving our program, who are teachers and bankers. Because it’s really about being able to present critical thinking, problem solving—all of the things that you need to put on a play or put on an amazing concert can be used in various career paths and fields.
I’m an alum of the organization. I was in the program for three years while I was in high school. I have a very intimate knowledge of the organization from multiple sides.
Brogan: What is your role in the organization?
Strawder: My long title essentially means that I’m the director of programs, and in addition to that—my background is in music—I am the principal conductor for our main-stage local ensemble, the Mosaic Singers, the group that goes on tour and our ambassadors for the city. I’m currently directing our May production, so I’m actually directing the play. And then we do arts-infused education at University Prep Science & Math Elementary School.
Brogan: Is that where we are today?
Strawder: That is where we are today. With that partnership, we go into the classrooms and do arts-infused education. I typically go into a classroom once or twice a week for about two and a half to three hours.
Brogan: What age are the kids you’re visiting?
Strawder: The school is K–5, but we do arts-infused education with young people between grades 2 and 5.
Brogan: Second graders are the youngest you’re working with?
Brogan: What kind of educational activities are you doing with them?
Strawder: We work with teachers on material that the young people are maybe having a harder time grasping. For example, say a teacher says the students in their classroom are having a difficult time remembering the multiples of 2. I would go into a classroom with our arts-infused lesson plan and teach them a song about 2s.
Brogan: Is that a song that you would have written yourself?
Strawder: Sometimes it’s a song that I’ve written myself, and sometimes it’s a song that we write in the classroom with the young people.
Brogan: Oh, fun.
Strawder: We’ll also make up a story with the young people about 2s and the multiples of 2, and they’ll perform it by the end of class. We’ll turn them into counting sticks, if you will. They’ll travel in pairs, so they can get the understanding that 2 times 3 is just three groups of two. That usually helps them to better understand it.
Young people like to play, so if you can make the material they’re trying to learn more kinesthetic, it helps it to stick a little bit better.
Brogan: It’s about finding different angles on traditional education?
Strawder: Absolutely. It’s a way to transform the classroom into a living, breathing art, so it becomes more a part of them as opposed to just material that they’re supposed to absorb and spit back out.
Brogan: Is there a song you actually have that you could sing for us?
Strawder: I will teach you the 4 song, because the 4 song is the song that I’ve been working on most recently. It’s kind of Schoolhouse Rock! in nature.
Brogan: All right.
Strawder: The song goes ... [singing]. There’s a dance that goes with it. They have to hold up the numbers, so that they understand which number they’re multiplying at any given time.
Brogan: Do they sing along?
Strawder: They sing along. They scream along, really. We’ve created music videos with them, which of course they absolutely love. They want to learn faster, so they can get in the music video. It’s a lot of fun.
Brogan: My producer is loving that song. I am loving it. It’s a better song than I think I would have expected to hear for young kids. How much time do you spend writing these songs, working on them, figuring out how they should work? It’s not just like a parody of an existing song—it seems that you wrote something new, something fresh, something original for this very specific purpose.
Strawder: Absolutely. One of the pillars of our organization is excellence. That’s excellence in art, on stage, and in life. There are awesome nursery rhymes, but I’m sure you already know that young people have a resistance to kiddie things.
It’s important to us to bring them high-quality art, even when we’re doing things like teaching multiples of 4. Sometimes it takes me five minutes—an idea will come up and as I’m driving or in the shower—and sometimes it takes me a few days to figure out what the melody is. We usually survey the young people when we’re preparing to go into the classroom, and we’ll ask who their favorite artists are, what type of music do they like to listen to, what their favorite dance moves are.
Then we try to use that to inform whatever lesson we’re going to teach them, so that we know it’ll be something that they’re interested in.
Brogan: It’s relevant to them, and not just something people think will be relevant to them.
Brogan: Presumably you have artists you must get inspired by as well.
Strawder: Because I’m the director of music programs, I listen to all types of music all the time. Most recently, I’ve been studying trap music, because our May production is HeartBEAT: A Story of Love, Hate, and Rhythm. HeartBEAT infuses hip-hop, step, percussion, dance, vocal music and acting.
There’s a scene in HeartBEAT called “The Pits,” this place where people are wallowing in misery. They’re upset with each other all the time. When we asked the young people what kind of music they thought would capture that type of environment, they said trap music. I’m a classically trained musician—I’m not well versed in trap music—so it took me a while. The structure of the song is pretty simple to grasp, but I’m a jazz head by nature. I absolutely love jazz and neo soul music.
I’m making sure that I’m really paying homage to that style of music. It took me a few days to grasp it, so that I totally had it down.
Brogan: When you were learning about trap music, were there particular artists you went to, particular features of the music that you started recognizing in the process?
Strawder: Absolutely, there were specific artists that I listened to, but I can’t tell you any of their names. I would post a question in a private group chat or on our private social network, and the young artists would just start flooding my inbox with videos.
Brogan: Students in the program?
Strawder: Yes. Our young people would send me messages with artists they listened to or they thought were the epitome of trap music, and I would listen to the music. What I noticed the most is that there’s a heart-driving percussion that is juxtaposed with this really smooth, balanced melody. Overall, the structure is really empty besides those two things, and then there’s whatever lyrical content that you want. In theory, it’s pretty simple. We classical people have a tendency to make things complicated.
Brogan: When you turn that into something for the show, you’re writing lyrics, I assume, but are you also writing every other element of the music there?
Strawder: We’re writing every other element, and one thing that is particularly different for our show is that all of the music is created by the young people on stage, so essentially it’s a capella, with the addition of some percussion and step. That trap beat is done by steppers and/or young people hitting boxes and chairs—kind of à la Stomp or Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.
Brogan: Then you were able to write that into the—
Strawder: Yes. We wrote a piece for the scene “The Pits” that is in the style of trap music.
Brogan: Are all the productions you put on here original productions?
Strawder: Most of them are. In our 25-year history, we’ve tried every year to do an adaptation of a classic—Shakespeare, some Greek tragedies, things of that nature—and then as we progressed through our history, we also commissioned a playwright, OyamO, to help us create a story about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how and why they came about.
Traditionally, we’ve done plays about young people making change or young people in the City of Detroit, or we try to tell stories about young people, so the characters are essentially the ages of the young people in our program, and the stories are more relevant to what they’re experiencing.
HeartBEAT is completely original. It talks about stories of our young people and our alumni, and how they’ve experienced or seen love and hate played out in their lives. It’s loosely based on a Greek play called Peace, but when I say loosely, I mean very loosely.
Brogan: I assume you must see some of these young people go from the very early years of their education all the way into their advanced education. What’s it like witnessing that development over time?
Strawder: It’s cool, exciting, and it can also be scary when you start looking at the kids of people you taught a few years ago and you’re like, “Wait. I’m not gray-haired just yet.” I’ve been here just about 16 years, so there were young people in the program who were seniors in high school when I came back to teach—and 16 years after that, they have kids who can be in summer camp.
It’s really cool to see how they progress over time. I have young people in the program who may have started as sixth or seventh graders. In fact, there’s one in particular I can talk about, Jack Williams III. He came into our program having never sung before a day in his life. He played the cello. He was always good in school, and he came to do an audition. He wanted to audition for acting, but we encourage them to audition for everything.
Never put yourself in a box. He ended up in the music program. Since he started with us, he’s consistently gotten more confident with his voice. He’s completely fallen in love with music. He just got a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan in their voice and music education program. He also competed in the Michigan Youth Arts Festival. This was someone who had never sung before a day in his life, and now he is getting ready to go to one of the top schools in the country for music.
It’s really amazing watching those journeys.
Brogan: Imagine that some young people—and here I’m thinking of my own experience—just aren’t great at music or some other art. I mean, I spent years playing violin, and I apologize to everyone who ever had to listen to me, because I am tone deaf. Not every young person is going to be super talented. I still gained something, I think, from spending all that time playing violin. What’s it like working with folks who are maybe struggling to excel, but are still struggling through all the same? Is that important?
Strawder: My argument would be that everyone is excellent at something, and that everyone’s individual journey is their individual journey. One of the things I take pride in doing is helping you figure out what that thing is. Because of course there’s only one Beyoncé, but there are tons of people who helped make Beyoncé who she is, or who help make the spectacle you experience when you go see a production.
Beyoncé has background vocalists, and you have to be good to be a background vocalist. She has background dancers. She has production assistants and lighting designers. There are all of these jobs. Just because you’re passionate about the arts doesn’t mean you have to be the person on stage doing the art. But you use that passion to inform the things you will do.
Absolutely, it’s important, even if you aren’t planning to pursue the arts in a performance-related capacity, for you to pursue excellence in every single last thing that you do. You just don’t give up. You use it to do whatever it is that you want to do.
Brogan: How about the flip side of that though? I’d imagine, especially as young people start swimming in the deeper waters of adolescence, that a certain amount of resistance starts to come in, for some. Are there ever times when young people are sort of sent by their parents to study with you, and they don’t really give their all?
Strawder: I would say that we very rarely face that challenge, and the reason is that our program is extremely intense—10 hours a week—if it isn’t something that you really want to do. Detroit doesn’t have the public transit systems that New York and Chicago have. If your parent has to listen to you complaining as they’re using their gas to drive you to our locations, that’s going to end it pretty quickly.
We experience much more often young people who aren’t really sure this is something they want to do, who fall in love with it. Because everyone here is so passionate. You have to audition to participate. That’s a part of our process that kind of makes you think, is this really something that I want to do? Then you have that commitment of anywhere from 6 to 10 hours a week. If you’re showing up, it’s something that you want to do.
That’s not to say that someone isn’t going to have a bad week or a bad day, or that someone isn’t going to be disappointed by the role they were cast in. But again, we talk to people about being excellent in whatever you do, because it’s not just about the stage. It’s about your life and your journey. If you’re not going to put your best foot forward, then what are you doing?
Brogan: What does the audition to get into the program itself involve? When someone is auditioning, what kind of skills are you looking for them to present? What process do they go through?
Strawder: We ask the young people to come in and do something that they feel they do best. To audition for acting ensemble, you perform or recite a monologue, or you can get a side, which is essentially a monologue written down on a sheet of paper that you read through in front of us (after looking over the piece, of course).
For people who are looking to join our vocal music program, they come in with a one-minute a capella piece prepared—whatever song they think they sound the best singing. Classical, pop, whatever they want, as long as they feel it best showcases the things they do well. Then they perform that piece in front of me and a few team members. We may ask them to perform it again with a different set of objectives. For example: Sing it like you’re on the top of Mount Everest. Sing it like you are a circus clown.
After a few days, we’ll post our announcement, which generally consists of which program we are recommending you for. Usually there are somewhere between 150 and 300 young people who show up to auditions, and we’re really lucky in the sense that we have so many different programs. I would say the hardest thing is for the young people who have, for lack of a better term, aged out of our neighborhood programs.
If they’re over the age of 16—so those juniors and seniors in high school—and they aren’t selected for our main-stage ensemble, which does have a cap, then there aren’t any programs that we can recommend them for. That is a challenge, and there aren’t a whole lot of other programs for them outside of our program. But we usually try to recommend everybody for something. If they aren’t recommended into one of our programs, then we will suggest they talk to Detroit Repertory Theater, which is one of the oldest theater companies in the Detroit area, or to Brazeal Dennard Chorus, which has extreme historical significance to our city, or to any other community partner or theater or vocal music troupe where we know they could fit in.
Brogan: Do you remember your own audition?
Strawder: Totally. I was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I was shaking like a leaf during a windstorm. I sang the song and I went through our sight-reading thing and after my sight-reading assessment, everybody was just standing there completely silent. Apparently I was the only person that day who could sight-read a piece. But yeah, I was absolutely terrified, and when I left I told my mom there was no way I was going to get in. Six months later I was teaching for the organization.
Brogan: Have there been songs you’ve worked to teach and to create with the young people that were especially difficult or challenging to get the group to cohere on?
Strawder: Absolutely. This year we did a piece by Adolphus Hailstork called “All Praise the Lord,” and the piece consistently changes meter signatures, in addition to having two different meter signatures in the same measure. Our young people felt like their heads were going to explode any time they got to this measuring, so we worked it over and over and over again. They killed it when they performed it in March, but it’s a piece that we started working on in October.
It took that long—in addition to the other 28 songs that were in the show—for them to get confident with it, but once they did, man, talk about the level of commitment and confidence and just overall pride they have in that experience, knowing that they could nail it.
Brogan: Do you ever seek out things you know are going to challenge them, for that reason?
Strawder: I seek out things that are going to challenge them all the time. You want to give them material they’re going to be able to attack in a way and nail rather quickly, but you also want to give them material that’s going to challenge them, that they’re going to have to step up to another level to achieve. Then you surround them with the support they need to be able to tackle it, so they don’t ever get into a place where they feel completely defeated and give up on themselves.
That’s a part of our process all the time, be it in terms of lyrical content, rhythmic content, choreography. I say choreography, dance and step, but you never heard me mention a dance program. We only have an acting ensemble and a vocal music ensemble. I also mentioned percussion, which they are doing. Most schools don’t have theater or music programs, so they don’t have dance programs or instrumental programs either. We’re bringing in professional mentors as resources to help them do all these things.
Brogan: Detroit is a city that has a really rich musical history of its own. Do you see the work you do fitting into that tradition?
Strawder: I see the work we’re doing fitting into that tradition and filling a gap, to be completely honest. Mosaic was born out of the fact that 90 percent of our public schools didn’t have theater programs, and 70 percent didn’t have vocal music programs, in the city that birthed Motown—which is beyond me, and that was 25 years ago. There was a period when that number started to decrease and more schools had those enrichment activities, and now through various obstacles and financial struggles, we’re back in a very similar situation.
That it is extremely important because the arts tap into so many different things outside the arts. Statistics everywhere will back that up. As we are offering these opportunities and pushing young people to be their best selves at all times, we’re also filling a gap and tapping into that rich legacy and history of Detroit. There’s a lot of brilliance in our city and in our youth, and they just need opportunities to showcase that and tap into it themselves.
Brogan: Thank you so much for sharing your work with us today and telling us about your program.
Strawder: Thank you for coming and for allowing me to share my story.
Brogan: It was a pleasure.