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Arts & Culture

Teen Vocalists Express Emotions Through Words, Painting and Song

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Artist and Roosevelt High School Senior, Shelby Wright, holds the painting inspired by her peers’ thoughts and emotions related to the pandemic and racial tensions. ";

Students’ thoughts and emotions related to the pandemic and racial tensions are being heard through art and music. A Sioux Falls high school choir director teamed up with a student artist and professional composer to create something unique. SDPB’s Lura Roti has this story.

“Art is a reflection of the culture around us. Music is a big piece of that art and reflection of the culture,” says Robyn Starks-Holcomb.

Robyn Starks-Holcomb is the head choral director at Roosevelt High School. Shortly after in-person school resumed this fall, she saw a self-portrait painted during the isolating months of summer 2020 by choir member Shelby Wright. Wright references her self-portrait as her “COVID Journal.”

“I found myself looking through a lot of news articles and social media and I was hearing a lot of stories and opinions of things that were happening in our harsh political climate. Politics and with the virus spreading around and deaths increasing and I was beginning to realize how, sort of uneducated I was about a lot of what was going on in our world. So, I decided that I wanted to look more into what was happening and the more that I tried to research and look into these stories, I just had this constant feeling of being overwhelmed because it was very abrasive between the left and right side and being raised one way, but having friends the other way, you don’t quite know where you want to stand. And being caught in the middle of that, just made me feel really stressed. And that was the way that I could think to best illustrate my emotions and feelings at the moment,” Shelby Wright says.

After seeing how Wright expressed her feelings through art, Starks-Holcomb was determined to give other choir members an artistic venue to express their pandemic experiences and emotions.

“I thought, wait a minute, if that’s how Shelby feels, I bet there’s a lot of similar feelings in the room of her group, of her friends of her choir family,” Starks-Holcomb says.

Starks-Holcomb’s idea was ambitious. It involves all 65 members of the Concert Choir and included three artistic mediums. Concert Choir members were asked to anonymously share their feelings and experiences through a written survey. Starks-Holcomb commissioned Wright to use her peers’ expressions as inspiration for a painting.

The painting, along with students’ responses were then shared with composer, Kyle Pederson to create music and lyrics for the Concert Choir to perform spring 2021.

“It’s a tangible, final outpouring of what they’ve been feeling for the past year. It’s something they can actually put together, something that feels productive, and feels like it makes a difference, and feels like they’re all together instead of separated,” Starks-Holcomb says.

Juniors and seniors make up the Concert Choir. Of the 12 choirs offered at Roosevelt High School, Concert Choir, directed by Starks-Holcomb, is the top academic choir. And unlike years past when students gathered daily to practice in their beloved choir room, they now gather in the school’s enormous auditorium, spaced apart and wearing masks.

Absorbing Shelby’s painting and reading the pages of copy typed by these talented teen vocalists, Kyle Pederson says he was impressed.

“The depth and breadth of them, it was extraordinary. They would talk about family difficulties, difficulties with mental health and substance abuse. Friendships failing and new friendships coming and difficulty with keeping up and struggling with relatives getting sick. Their use of language, their turn of phrase, I’m convinced that several of the students in that class are gonna be writers or poets,” Kyle Pederson says.

Pederson says being asked by Starks-Holcomb to compose “Choked Air” was a responsibility he felt honored to carry.

“It’s a big deal to be invited into a classroom of people that she cares for tremendously. I mean she has unbelievable care and love for these students she works with,” Kyle Pederson says.

And the fact their emotions, their words, their experiences inspired “Choked Air,” is not lost on the students. Shelby Wright.

“I got chills when I first was able to hear a sample of the piece. And I think that Kyle Peterson did an excellent job portraying my peers’ emotions and the theme and the feelings and the imagery of the painting. It’s been super awesome and its really cool to start seeing it all come together,” Shelby Wright says.

Throughout this story you have heard rehearsal clips of “Choked Air.” Roosevelt Concert Choir will perform the final piece this spring, spaced apart in a local church sanctuary but united together as one through song.