Crystal Ludwig's former drama teacher asked her to write about her childhood, so she wrote about her everyday tribulations growing up in Landover and living in Seat Pleasant.
"I write about what we go through. One of my poems talks about why I was born and why do I have to struggle, because I didn't ask to be born, but yet I have to struggle," said the high school senior, who has participated in both years of a partnership between Northwestern High School and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.
Because of the composer-in-residence project sponsored by the arts center, Ludwig discovered a way to express the hopelessness she feels as a black teenager. "So much tension builds up, so I just write to get it off my mind and make me feel better," Ludwig said.
More than 100 other students have had a chance to realize the power of words and music as a result of the year-long project. Composer Christopher Patton, a University of Maryland School of Music alumnus who coordinates the school's William Kapell International Piano Competition, has used student poetry as the foundation of a choral and instrumental piece, "Undisclosed Locations: Stories From Beneath the Surface." His 17-minute song will be performed tonight at the College Park arts center by Northwestern's chorus, instrumental soloists and jazz band in a free show that also features performances by the student poets, dancers and a string orchestra.
Before Patton composed the piece and the student musicians and dancers began rehearsals, drama teacher Peter Spencer led his Drama 2 class through many writing exercises that focused on stories from childhood. Their poems ranged from light-hearted stories about their siblings to painful childhood memories.
"Students were wondering why they were doing so much creative writing, since it's a drama class. Individuals rose to the challenge at different levels," said Spencer, who chose five of the students' poems for Patton to use.
Patton visited Spencer's drama class once a week during the fall semester to watch the students read their work and act out their stories.
"Some were funny and some were very touching. It's an interesting process and brought out of a lot of powerful things. When I'm setting words to music, anything that adds depth to my understanding of the text is useful to me as a composer," Patton said. He drew upon the personal experiences of the students to compose the libretto of the choral piece and the themes of the instrumental work.
"I had a lot of upbeat material and was able to go with that and write jazzy, almost funky stuff to go with the reminiscence of childhood. Hearing the kids read their poems has a big impact on my rhythmic choices," Patton said.
Hearing the music to which their words are set has the same kind of impact on the students.
Ludwig, whose poetry was used last year in the collaboration, said she got a great feeling every time she walked by the choral room and heard others singing her poem.
"It made me feel so special that they're singing something I wrote. It was, like, amazing," she said. "It was amazing that I could write something and someone can make a song out of it."
Her teacher, who asked Ludwig and a few other "star poets" in school to participate in this year's collaboration even though they were not in his drama class, agrees that it's a powerful thing to hear the students' poetry set to a full chorus. He also thinks the program is important for the Hyattsville teenagers he works with.
"They experience getting their thoughts, their feelings, their stories heard and are sort of validated by the adults and other students involved," Spencer said. "To be part of a much bigger thing that involves the Clarice Smith Center -- it exposes them to an experience they wouldn't normally have," he said. "It raises their expectations of themselves and of what they will get out of life."
"Undisclosed Locations: Stories from Beneath the Surface" is at 7:30 p.m. today in the Clarice Smith Performing Art Center's Ina and Jack Kay Theatre. Admission is free. 301-405-2787.