Ellen Hao

Like many musicians, JoVia Armstrong’s journey began early: she went from playing on pots and pans as a kid to becoming an accomplished percussionist, as member of the band JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, and an experienced teaching artist. JoVia is now onto her latest project: a music school that she runs out of her own apartment called Sounds About Write, which she started last September. Students can take lessons in a variety of instruments and sound technology, both in groups and one-on-one sessions. With different lessons taught by different teaching artists, the lessons range from guitar to songwriting to conga drums, and nearly anything in between. The school aims to make music education more accessible, and to instill a passion for the arts in every household.

Armstrong has been studying percussion since sixth grade and began learning Afro-Cuban music as a freshman in college. Since then, her involvement in music performance and composition has led to an illustrious performing career and teaching experience that earned her the 2011 3Arts Siragusa Foundation Artist Award. But it was through her work at YOUmedia, the arts program for high school students that originally started in Harold Washington Library, that Armstrong learned the innovative teaching methods that she now uses with Sounds About Write. “At YOUmedia, it was just whatever we can do to get to these kids,” Armstrong said. “It allowed me to make a super creative curriculum.”

Sounds About Write is a culmination of all this experience. “The school started because I was struggling,” Armstrong explained. She had worked for several nonprofits alongside her performance work, but many of those organizations encountered funding issues that limited their ability to provide consistent employment. The instability of nonprofit work spurred Armstrong to utilize her own space and experience: her loft with three bedrooms that she had originally gravitated towards because it gave her room to practice and her years of teaching music in new and innovative ways.

Armstrong was also compelled to start Sounds About Write because she noticed a gap in the community of students she was teaching. As a mentor for Street-Level, a youth media education program, at Jane Addams Elementary School, Armstrong interacted with several music and arts teachers who gave her a better sense of the state of arts education in and around South Chicago. “The music teacher [at Jane Addams] was the one who told me there’s a gap here, you know? Music is not being taught in this area,” Armstrong said. Students who wanted to learn music were forced to either go to the North Side, learn with the limited resources they had at school, or never receive formal training. But her work at different elementary schools had shown Armstrong just how strongly music can impact a student’s overall behavior. One eighth-grade student had a history of disrespecting his teachers, but since Armstrong introduced him to music in Street-Level, he has become incredibly focused. “He’s skipping lunch to make beats,” Armstrong said. At this point, Armstrong realized that she had both the means and the space to make a difference. “And so I decided, maybe it’s time. I’ve always talked about it, maybe it’s time to start my own school,” she said.

Sounds About Write is open to all ages, but currently, all of Armstrong’s students are adults. Many of them had lost touch with music over the years and were excited to return. “After my shows, a lot of people walk up to me afterwards saying, ‘I wish I had stuck with it, I wish I had just hung in there, I gave up playing my instrument,’” Armstrong said. “I’ll always try to encourage them and say ‘Hey, you know, it’s never too late.’”

For Larry Redmond, a Sounds About Write student, that sentiment definitely rings true. Redmond, who lives in Orland Park and is seventy-three years old, had tried to play instruments when he was younger but never had the time to devote to it completely. He saw Armstrong perform at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival two summers ago, and subsequently became her first student. “When I retired, I had some time on my hands…and so now I play conga drums,” Redmond said. Redmond had taken some group lessons on conga drums before, but Armstrong’s teaching gave him infinitely more experience, filling in the technique that he was missing.

Sounds About Write is most successful, Armstrong believes, because of the instant gratification and stress relief that it provides students in comparison with the boredom that can come from being sent home with a scale sheet. “When I was growing up, that was what every class did. You’d take the scales, go home, and learn it,” Armstrong said. “And if you mess up then you lose points.” The curriculum that she has developed for Sounds About Write is intended to allow for student exploration, in the same way that YOUmedia provides a space for students to hone their passions. “Everyone knows you can’t learn music overnight,” Armstrong noted, so motivating students to practice on their own is key. “We’re not showing them how to play Bach or Beethoven,” Armstrong said. “This is, bring in your favorite song. I don’t care if it’s by R.E.M., I don’t care if it’s by whoever, Sting, whoever, but bring it in and we’re going to teach you how to play that.” As a result, students find their own sites of inquiry, creating knowledge that they can easily retain.

Most importantly, Sounds About Write has further supported a growing arts community in South Chicago, which Armstrong describes on her website as a “forgotten neighborhood.” “No one—and when I say no one, I mean very, very few people from Chicago—know about South Chicago,” Armstrong said. The youth arts program SkyART sits across from Armstrong’s apartment, but it primarily focuses on visual arts, whereas Armstrong’s goal is both to introduce more music to the neighborhood and to introduce more people—particularly artists—to South Chicago and the South Side as a whole. That is why, outside of Sounds About Write, Armstrong opens up her apartment as a rehearsal space for artists and music groups in the surrounding Chicago area: when artists visit South Chicago, they are drawn to the potential of the community and see the neighborhood in a different way.

“The community doesn’t seem to be very interested in having big box stores coming, and that’s what I really love about it,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s what is going to help this community grow, these artists coming down here.” If the neighborhood is more defined by the unique projects it implements than the influence of overbearing corporations, Armstrong believes it will create a stronger sense of identity: “I feel like the school is introducing more people to South Chicago, and I feel like we’re presenting it in a positive light.”

Both Armstrong and Redmond agree that the impact of arts education on any community is revolutionary. “The gap that I’m trying to fill is more dealing with the psychology of where our community is right now, to deal with the tension and the stress that we’re under,” Armstrong said. Redmond added that music is indispensable in providing a reprieve from daily life: “Many of us do not get these opportunities,” he said. “When we go to work, we’re so stuck in the groove that the employer wants.”

Armstrong hopes that Sounds About Write will, above all else, make music more prominent in her neighbors’ lives. “My focus is just for people to have music in their households, to turn to music or the arts in general,” she said. As Sounds About Write expands to meet the needs of South Chicago residents and youth, a thriving arts culture should continue to grow and make the neighborhood unforgettable.

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