Grace Notes

All Photos Courtesy of HHW Choir

It’s a Thursday night at First Presbyterian Church, and the Henry Hendricks Weddington (HHW) Alumni Choir is holding practice–or trying to, at least. This is only the second week of rehearsal, and the darkening autumn days bring with them work, school, and other obligations. Tonight’s choir is considerably sparse.

Director Jean Hendricks sports braids and sparkly rhinestone earrings. She doesn’t look a day over 40, although she admits to being 60. Her eyes are soft and brown, but a tenacious spark burns deep within her pupils.

The Henry Hendricks Weddington School for the Performing Arts arose from a partnership between Hendricks, a former Chicago Public Schools music teacher; Daniel Henry, a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus; and Brian Weddington, a professional actor and theater instructor at Malcolm X College. In 2000, Hendricks, Henry, and Weddington decided to combine their skills and fulfill a dream of Henry’s: to found a performing arts school. Henry Hendricks Weddington School for the Performing Arts was officially created in 2002. A generous grant from Good City Chicago, an organization dedicated to serving underprivileged South Side areas, and a grant from Chase Bank allowed the three to start the program.

HHW is what Hendricks calls a “school without walls.” The group goes into the Chicago Public school system and offers after-school workshops with experts in the arts. The school has three branches of study: theater, vocals, and dance. HHW has been able to forge partnerships all across the city of Chicago–with the Joffrey Ballet, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chicago Public Schools, and the greater Chicago community. Many individual partners teach pro bono: a retired CEO gives kids jazz lessons. The program is becoming cyclical: alumni return and give back through lessons and directing. “We have been very, very blessed,” Hendricks says. The vocal branch of HHW is Hendricks’s personal project. HHW now has three choirs under its vocal program–the HHW Vocal Arts Ensemble, comprised of mainly high school students, and two newer branches: the College Choir, made up of college students, and the Alumni Choir, made up of past HHW choir members. The College Choir and the Alumni Choir practice at the Woodlawn Collaborative, a shared space for students at the University of Chicago and members of the surrounding communities in the First Presbyterian Church on 64th and Woodlawn.

Opera, country-western, classical, baroque, gospel–no genre of music goes unexplored by HHW’s choirs. The group chooses songs and composers based on personal preference, keeping in mind that certain audiences won’t perceive or appreciate the intricacies of intentional dissonance. Performance is a natural supplement to singing, and concerts usually include acting and dance. Students will oftentimes create their own choreography for the pieces (“But we don’t want any of that hoochie-coochie stuff!” Hendricks is quick to add). Even as it incorporates a variety of modern musical styles, HHW’s program is deeply rooted in classical, rigorous vocal training. Students are taught music theory, history, and technique. At the moment, Whetstone is helping to direct “Geographical Fugue,” a choral arrangement by modernist German composer Ernst Troch, made up entirely of chanted and spoken words. It’s challenging, the students admit, but it’s pushing them artistically as well as mentally. Whetstone adds, “We student directors have spent many a night in the library and a lot of time on YouTube viewing operas to research and make sure we are doing it right.”

Each group has between ten and 25 performers, who each had to pass an audition to join the choir. But even among the cream of the crop, Hendricks makes it clear that standards extend to character as well. “I don’t care how good your voice is,” she declares resolutely. “I want to see how disciplined you are and how you deal with my attitude.”

“[Ms. Hendricks] is a mother figure to us all,” says Tierra Whetstone, a graduate of the program. “But she is very tough, strong, and high-strung.” Hendricks is a drill sergeant at heart. “I expect them to be adults and to discipline themselves and follow rules,” Hendricks says. Hendricks even uses Facebook snooping as a means of judging her singers’ characters. “I read between the lines,” she says.

Hendricks means business, both literally and figuratively. The directors at HHW try to involve students in business and administrative work as much as possible in order to help them acquire the skills necessary to succeed in or out of the arts world. This even includes letting students take the reigns in directing some performances. Whetstone, an incoming freshman at Harold Washington College, has been with the program since 2007 and is now getting a taste of directing–she’s in charge of the Alumni Choir and proud of it. “It’s been great seeing myself grow, seeing my peers grow,” Whetstone says.

Hendricks herself perpetually seeks and applies for new grants to obtain much-needed funding. “I’m always a-hustlin’.” The grunt-work is beginning to take its toll, and as HHW and its programs are expanding, so is its need for funding and space–almost 300 students are connected with HHW programs. The address on HHW’s website is for Hendricks’ house. She laughs, “Yeah, my entire basement is overrun with costumes, amplifiers, equipment; I would very much like our own building.” She adds distantly, “I want a place around 16th to 18th Street–a central, neutral zone to accommodate students from all around the city.”

There’s no new location yet, but the business model is expanding. In an experimental move this summer, the HHW College Choir took marketing and public relations into its own hands. This put the responsibility of booking gigs, finding venues, arranging for security–all the grunt work of music performance–into the hands of student singers. HHW has professionals come in to coach marketing, including a professor at Columbia College and a workers’ union representative, and the directors of HHW are striving to bring more speakers in. For now, though, the singers are keeping things DIY. Whetstone cites one guerilla marketing strategy: “Sometimes we will just sing on the train on the way to the movies.” The choir struggled this summer to get on their feet but managed to book several paid gigs and are hoping to develop the program. The students have to face some unexpected hurdles. “It doesn’t work in our favor that we’re so young. People don’t take us as seriously,” Whetstone says with a shrug. But in spite of the difficulties it presents, the students see the importance of this new strategy. Myttie Cowan, a senior at North Park University and long-time veteran of HHW, says, “HHW’s programs get you ready, ready for the real world where you won’t have people to hold your hand. It makes reality kick in. It’s more than singing, it’s much more than that–it teaches you how to make it. Teaches you how to function in the real world.”

Chicago has its eye on HHW. Weddington was invited to speak at CUSP, an arts conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Vocal Arts Ensemble was invited to sing the national anthem at a Soldier Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Gigs have popped up at the Chicago Cultural Center and at churches all over town. Upcoming performances include the WTTW Channel 11-sponsored Greater Chicago Leadership Prayer breakfast, an interfaith event to pray for the city and its leadership on December 3.

It is clear that HHW is being shaped into something that transcends its original intent; more than just a music program, it is a growing family and support network, a place that transcends race, social class, and background. Students seek out their directors and fellow singers for advice and support. “I call them all my children. They used to call me ‘mama,’ but now it’s more like ‘grandma,’” Hendricks says with a laugh.

Whetstone strikes a note on a piano in badly need of tuning. She hums the note. Cowan does the same and jumps an octave. “How does it go again?” Cowan asks. Hendricks hums a measure. Cowan’s face lights up in recognition and takes her place in the front of the classroom with Whetstone. Their facial expressions convey pure focus. They make eye contact with each other, inhale in unison, and sing. The air of small classroom quivers with the pure, unadulterated sound of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” Ave, ave verum corpus natum, De Maria virgine Vere passum inmolatum. The voices are mesmerizing. Whetstone’s rich alto combined with the lilting soprano of Cowan creates warm, glimmering sheets of sound. Hendricks nods in approval.

To learn more about HHW School of Performing Arts, please visit their website by clicking here

*UPDATE: HHW will be holding a Friends and Family Thank You Celebration performance December 21st, 2010 at the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 5th floor from 6:00-7:30 p.m.  There will be performances and homemade refreshments.

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