Monthly Archives: November 2016

meet chauntee and monique: milwaukee’s sistastrings

Monique and Chauntee, SistaStrings, People with Panache

Chauntee and Monique’s inspirations are Lianne La Havas, a soulful singer with an amazing voice; Monica Martin, the lead singer of PHOX; Erykah Badu – “If she could be my godmother, I would pass away and die,” Chauntee says; Lauryn Hill; classical violinist Hilary Hahn; and Kim Burrell, an amazing gospel singer on Frank Ocean’s latest album. Chauntee laughs — “It was funny, I grew up listening to Kim Burrell, and then I read this article ‘introducing’ her…are you kidding?!”

This Sunday at church, our priest spoke about being vigilant. Not for crime, or bad news, or others’ behavior—but for goodness.

Linking together the messages throughout the service, Father Bob did an artful job of highlighting the urgent need for all of us to be awake.

Be awake to the good things going on around us in our world.

Be awake to the fact that we can create that goodness ourselves, in moments both small and momentous each day.

Be awake to others’ challenges and victories, and lend a hand how you can.

It’s not news that those are effective ways to start making change. But the reminder is key: No matter our talents or situations, we have a little spark within us, ready and waiting to make a difference.

Chauntee and Monique Ross understand this so beautifully. These two are sisters, some of Milwaukee’s most gorgeously talented musicians, and incredibly authentic, inspiring humans—and they got their start in a church.

“We were Sisters of PraiZe,” says Chauntee, laughing with Monique about her sisters’ string quartet that toured the church circuit in the ‘90s. “I found a really heinous picture of the four of us with string instruments and our flutes just laying around—laying around!—wearing our little leather jackets.”

I wish I had access to the Ross family photo album for this gem, but instead I got a way better gift. Read on for the best parts of a few hours on the porch with SistaStrings—a violin-cello string duet making heartfelt music for expression, connection and social justice.

People with Panache: What was your first instrument?

Monique Ross: I started piano when I was 3. My parents saw I was picking up music quickly, through ear training—and so did my piano teacher. In lessons she would play the piece, and I would play it back to her. I got to a level where I should be able to sight-read the next piece, and she realized, “Oh! You can’t read music!”

Chauntee Ross: Mine was violin… I got mine when I was 3. It was the best Christmas ever. Our oldest sister was the ultimate coolest big sister in life. All of our sisters, all of our cousins, all of our friends thought she was amazing. She played violin, so I wanted to play, too.

Our mom grew up on the west side of Chicago. Her mom was an alcoholic, so she didn’t invest in her kids like she should’ve. So when my mom got older, she had a personal mission to invest in her children.

PWP: How did your parents support your music growing up? I want to be that kind of parent!

SistaStrings, peoplewithpanache.com

Monique [right] speaks so highly of Wendy Warner. “She spoke into my life so hard as a senior in high school and prepared me for college auditions. Her main focus was not technique—we’re going to work on musicality of your playing, how you feel, how you’re going to interpret this piece, how you’ll put yourself into the music. She is a very beautiful, professional solo cellist, which is so hard to do, and she saw something in me.”

Monique: Dad did IT at M&I Bank, and Mom home-schooled us. But they were also traveling street evangelists.

Chauntee: Growing up playing in churches was really good for our ears, which plays into how we play now. You go to a church and somebody will break into song, some old gospel spiritual, and you just pick up on it and go.

When we do string arrangements, playing with various hip hop groups and singer songwriters, it’s very easy to fall back into that. We also went to The String Academy of Wisconsin, are classically trained, went to college and did the whole conservatory life.

We started SistaStrings in 2014, and I moved to Milwaukee rather than grad school because I was kind burned out from the whole school scene and competitive aspect. Everyone wants an orchestra or chamber job.

PWP: A lot of my favorite songs I’ve heard of yours have a really deep message. How do you tie social justice in?

Monique: Growing up, we were home-schooled, and it was very important to our parents that we learned correct black history. You don’t hear about Stokely Carmichael in school, for example. History was very important to my parents. Obviously these things, like his work with civil rights, have been happening but you are more aware of it as you get older. We are the generation to do something—we can’t pass this up.

I have a daughter now. I can’t be like, I didn’t do anything to make this world better for you.

We start every show with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Chauntee does a great job explaining why.

Chauntee: Growing up, we were two of the only black kids playing classical music—in every class. There were maybe about five other black students in The Academy. Of course you notice a difference in how sometimes teachers treat you.

When Monique first started violin at the Conservatory of Music, there were a lot of great people, but the guy who was teaching her wouldn’t teach her because he said he didn’t teach ‘her kind.’

SistaStrings, People with Panache

“I know how blessed I was to have teachers who believed in me as a person,” Chauntee [right] says. “That’s what fed me and kept me going to where I am today.”

I would go to orchestra concerts, our parents would get us tickets, and we would be among the very few people of color in the audience, let alone on the stage. We would notice and carry on with our education because our parents are amazing people.

It became more prominent in how we produced music. How I relate to classical music might be different than how the next person who is white might. For example, when I hear Vivaldi, a very classical composer, he had really funky beats, kind of like hip-hop beats to me. I’m relating to it in a different way.

Now we combine “Passacaglia,” a famous classical duet, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It just spills forth.

PWP: After your experiences, and teaching young people music yourselves, what lesson do you want to share with your students?

Monique: Put your pain into your music, your happiness, your hurt—all of that is so important. That’s what I want to give.

Chauntee: The most recent impactful music moment was when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed. I had a new emotion going on; I was just feeling very helpless, and I hated how helpless I felt.

But that’s incorrect. Let me go back to what my parents taught me and what we’ve learned by talking with good people: We do matter, and we can make an impact, even a small one.

So we had a bunch of artists come together over dinner here. We laughed, we talked, we cried, we shared experiences. Now that we’re together, we asked, what can we do to make a difference in our community? Tarik Moody from 88.9, Jay Anderson, Johanna Rose, Airo Kwil, Bo Triplex, Zed Kenzo, Siren, a whole bunch of people were here—so we had a huge long dialogue. Obviously we’re all artists, and our form of protest is going to come through our music. We put together a music fest that came together the weekend of the Sherman Park situation. Then we started getting all these texts about what was going on: “You need to go home!” Actually, we were right in the middle of the right place right now, with all these beautiful people who understand. Music was the way to communicate that. Since then, it’s been a whole new mission for me.

SistaStrings stuck in laughter, PWP

What’s it like playing together as sisters? (Besides having trouble stopping laughing, like in this attempt at a photo…) “When you run into hard times with people who aren’t your siblings, you might end it,” Monique says. “With sisters, you work through it. For our Sofar session we played an original piece we’d done a million times before and since. It hasn’t happened since then, but we just vibed off each other in a different way, and when those moments happen it feels like it wouldn’t happen with anyone but my sister.”

Monique: It was a beautiful thing. Chauntee is the more vocal between us. For me personally, with everything that’s been going on recently, I realized I need to find my voice.

Chauntee: It’s sometimes very painful playing these songs. Like we have done the song “Strange Fruit” I think since the end of 2014, when Tamir Rice was killed.

I’d been to the art museum in Detroit and saw a quilt called Strange Fruit. The quilter had listed any name she could find of a person who had been lynched. And it was enormous. You know so many nobodies were not even represented. It was really heavy, and ever since then, that song meant a lot to me. There was no “Now we’re going to be social justice women.” But it was like this is what’s happening, and it’s reaching us on so many levels: our nephews, father, brother, friends.

The power of song and lyrics, the power of sound to pull on heartstrings…from there you can go and hopefully make some type of small difference in one person’s life.

Monique: The only way things change is if people make it happen. Hopefully it will spread and something will change.

PWP: When you play, your body, your heart, your soul is just so obviously part of your music.

Chauntee: I’m so glad that comes through. One of our teachers used to ask: What do you want to say when you play this? He showed us how to move our hands, our bodies, to share a feeling, get to the audience’s heart—it’s a whole different way to relate to students.

That’s why I’m so passionate about the future of musical education. So many kids are going to come up and do some shit because they have the right tools to get a message across to anyone who hears them. That’s the thing that keeps me from being down on myself, the community, the country and whatnot.

When I think about the possibilities of the future, what we can do in a feasible way makes me very, very happy.

Me, too.

Catch SistaStrings on December 10 at the VoodooHoney Unveiling Show, January 19 at FemFest, and watch their Facebook page for more.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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post-election: keep hope alive

only-when-the-last-tree-has-diedand-the-last-river-has-been-poisonedand-the-last-fish-has-been-caughtwill-we-realize-we-cant-eat-money“Hope is a verb
with its shirtsleeves rolled up.”
– David Orr

Half of America, we are feeling what you’re feeling.

And we’re thinking what you’re thinking.

And we’re scared of the future you’re scared of.

 

Today, we don’t want to extend the echo chamber that is social media, so there will be no predictions or justifications here. We also certainly aren’t expert prognosticators about the repercussions of this current president-elect situation, though we have sure talked to a lot of wise women who have taught us all about planning and working and hoping and making dreams reality.

Although we carry heaviness in our hearts (perhaps to post about another day), today we share a few reasons to hope. No matter who we are, we all have reasons to hope. Here are some of our reasons, and we would love to hear yours in the comments!

  1. Change starts with the people, not the president. Hello civil rights, women’s suffrage, Standing Rock protests, GMO labeling, job opportunities for people with disabilities, life-saving drugs becoming increasingly affordable—I could go on and on and on and on. And on. Our voices get heard when we get loud, especially in the right moments to make change—and make history. (Just yelling all the time? Not so much.)
  2. Our president is only one person, surrounded by checks and balances even his or her power can’t eliminate in four years—or ever.
  3. The House of Representatives gets re-elected every two years; lots of local changes happen much more quickly than our president. Did you get passionate about this election for the first time, or do you vote in every single election in your community? Either way—great. Keep that election energy moving and don’t forget to cast your ballot next time and every time. Or better yet: Run for office!
  4. Organizations like the Sierra Club, NAACP, ACLU, National Immigration Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Boys & Girls Clubs, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Emily’s List, Union of Concerned Scientists, Victory Garden Initiative, and oh so many others exist. And they will continue to exist, with our support. These teams of incredibly hard-working, passionate, intelligent human beings give us local, national and international platforms to be heard, collaborate with like minds, and work toward change with an excellent team.
  5. We get to choose how we treat our families, our coworkers and our planet, continuing to live out love in our daily lives.
  6. Freedom of speech remains a core tenet of our nation.
  7. Younger generations have a more progressive lean, and Millennials have recently surpassed Baby Boomers as the “nation’s largest living generation.” Knowing people on both sides of the aisle in our Millennial age group, this fact alone gives us hope.
  8. We have four years to plan and scheme and ORGANIZE. (Cry break: over.)
  9. Change continues with our efforts! That space that feels like it was carved right out of our spirits and stomped on? Now, we get to fill it right back up with hope and light and love and compassion and all the good things that we can shine throughout the world—one interaction, one choice, one moment at a time.

No matter who is president, the hashtag is right on: #LoveTrumpsHate. Every. Single. Time.

We started on a quote, so let’s end on another, from a book that might just be the inspiration you need to keep moving:

“When we love,
we always strive to become better than we are.
When we strive to become better than we are,
everything around us becomes better too.”
– Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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women’s dream conference + the people’s music school’s anniversary

The Women's Dream Conference

The speakers at the Women’s Dream Conference

Two Fridays ago, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the 3rd annual Women’s Dream Conference—an inspiring and eye-opening event by local Chicago celeb Andrea Metcalf. A huge thank you goes out to Shruthi Reddy of Reddy Set Yoga! for inviting me. I already can’t wait for next year.

The day began with Andrea’s keynote. She related her trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro to starting a business, with many setbacks on her way up the mountain—including when she threw up in her goggles, and it immediately froze, rendering them useless. She was forced to blindly continue the trek through the snow for the rest of the journey. Unexpected moments like this can easily be compared to the harrowing, bumpy path toward starting your own business, Andrea says. When they finally reached the peak and were going to take a picture, a man from another group stripped down to his skivvies and leapt into the frame. “So the view from the top of the mountain may not always look how you imagined either,” Andrea dryly remarked.

Undies aside, my favorite message was Andrea’s advice on how to get what you want in life: Be direct. Once, when she wanted a certain position at a TV station, she called up the guy in charge and literally said, “I’m a health and wellness expert, and you should give me a job.” Her point was that if you know what you’re talking about and know what you want, you have to ask for it. By the way: She was hired.

Women’s Dream Panel No. 1: Wellness

The Women's Dream Conference Health and Wellness Panel

The health and wellness panel

The first panel was about health, wellness and balance. The theme that emerged was around the benefits of meditating, something I’ve been really interested in learning lately. But I was surprised to hear that it was something almost all of these women practice. Panelist Kathy Hart (of Eric and Kathy from 101.9 the Mix) was the first to stress the importance of making time for yourself to meditate or relax or do yoga or reset however you need—no excuses.

I like to think of it as the ‘putting your mask on first’ mentality—you can’t be your best self for others if you don’t take care of yourself first. (Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, almost all of our Panachies! But we digress.)

Women’s Dream Panel No. 2: Wealth

Panel No. 2 was about building wealth. Two points especially stuck with me:

  1. Financial advisor Mohini McCormick from Calamos Wealth Management talked about the emotional connection to money—and that it’s important not to make financial decisions when emotions are high. She says when you work with a financial planner or advisor, you put together a plan. Many of her clients will come to her and say, ‘Oh no, the economy is doing this! Shouldn’t we respond this way with my money?’ Her response is usually no, we have a plan to cover these sorts of things—let’s stick to it.
  2. “You can have it all, just not all at once.” Another panelist shared this sentiment, which was very heartening—and makes me even more excited for the future.

Women’s Dream Panel No. 3: Branding

The final panel discussion focused on personal branding. Sue Koch, social media consultant and owner of Soaring Solutions, told us that your brand is made up of 10 percent what you actually do, 30 percent how good you are at what you do, and 60 percent what people think of you—illustrating that it’s just as important for your bottom line to think about your brand as it is to perfect your offer.

Later on in the discussion, Micae Brown, host of The Micae Brown Report, created one of the most powerful moments in the room. She talked about how imperative it is for women to support each other. She acknowledged that there are times when your first instinct is competition, and thoughts like “There isn’t room for the both of us to succeed” permeate the brain—but that’s just not reality. This world is a big place, and there’s a space for each of us in it. If we spend more time helping each other and lifting each other up, we will accomplish a lot more.

The day was full of powerful reminders, and I couldn’t get over how many supportive women we are surrounded by each day whether we know it or not. My favorite part of the conference was the conversations: honest, earnest and full of real emotion. It was fantastic to be in a room full of women who just want to help each other live the best lives they can.

Anniversary Party Time!

Jazz Ensemble, People's Music School

The kids’ jazz ensemble

Later that night, I attended The People’s Music School 40th Anniversary event—and it was spectacular. As a quick reminder, this is the only tuition-free music school in the country, and kids and their families camp outside for days every year before registration to gain a coveted spot. Growing up as a band kid, I understand the value of music education, and I was grateful to be a part of an event that helps kids learn music skills and gain self-confidence in the process. They ended up raising over $230,000 that night!

The young musicians of The People’s Music School kicked off the evening with an impressive jazz ensemble, and that’s when my nostalgia really kicked in—I used to play the flute. Later on, a young girl belted out “Tonight” from West Side Story while President and Artistic Director Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa herself played the piano. Right after that, Jennifer accompanied a young boy on “Wipe Out” on the drums, blowing the audience away.

Besides the music, a theme of the night was captured by a father of three children who attend the school. He said: “What makes this music school special is the experience you have with these great people. The idea of having my children around good people is what we want and what we need so that one day, they can become good people.” This sentiment was echoed throughout the night.

Smashing Pumpkins

40 students performing “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin

The event culminated in one epic performance: honoree Jimmy Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins’ drummer, joined an ensemble of 40 students. They played their own rendition of “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins—the event’s namesake song. Jennifer told me the theme was “Tonight, So Bright” (a lyric in the song) because they want to focus on the present.

“We’ve had 40 years of this great history, but we don’t want to be lost in the ‘before,’” she says. “The future isn’t fully formed yet, so it’s almost limitless—just like our kids. They’re not fully formed adults yet, and the work they’re doing now is planting the seed for them to become leaders and socially responsible, contributing members of society, as well as innovators, dreamers, executors.”

Whether we’re talking with women dreamers of today or the children that will create our tomorrows, that is something we can all believe in.

[Conference photos by Kate. Music school event photos courtesy of The People’s Music School.]

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meet jennifer: empowering children through music in chicago

Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, People's Music School, People with Panache

Jennifer is a mother of 2 children: a 7-year-old violinist and a 6-year-old cellist. “This is very strategic because I’m a pianist,” she says, “so now I have my trio.”

First, I have to get this out: CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIIIIIN!

After 108 years of disappointment, Cubs fans everywhere are overwhelmed with emotion at the World Series win on Wednesday night. I’ve been a Cubs fan for the past 11 years that I’ve been living in Chicago, and the electricity in the last few weeks has been really fun to witness. I’m not the first to say it, but my absolute favorite part of the whole thing is all of the people who got to experience this with or for their grandparents, who have waited MUCH longer than everyone else. Hey Chicago, what do you say? Cubs won the World Series (yester)day!

Now, Alysse and I want to say thank you for your patience. We’re back! After a couple-week hiatus due to grad school and weddings and work, we’re so ready to bring you more stories of women in our cities who are making their passions reality, single-mindedly pursuing their dreams, and paving their paths toward the lives they want to live. We’ve really missed you! Continue reading