Songwriting workshop

Songwriter Andrew McKnight leads a Chords of Courage songwriting workshop.

“I’ve never really written a song before,” said Vivian Renkey, the 12-year-old seventh-grader at Monocracy Valley Montessori Public Charter School. Still, that didn’t stop her from becoming one of four finalists in the Step Up! Frederick Student Songwriting Contest.

This inaugural competition was founded by Chords of Courage, a nonprofit that inspires students to spark social change through music. The contest included participants from three middle schools (Oakdale, Monocacy Valley and Mother Seton) and four high schools (Middletown, Frederick, Linganore and Tuscarora).

Renkey’s song on Harriet Tubman followed the contest’s focus on famous (and not-so famous) people who demonstrated courage and changed society in a positive way.

On April 6, Renkey and her fellow finalists will have their songs performed at an Awards Concert at JBK Theater on the campus of Frederick Community College. Finalists will discover where they finished at the event, as well as win up to $400 in cash, recording studio time at Torchlight or Shab Row Studio, YMCA summer memberships and more.

To get ready to write her song, Renkey attended songwriting workshops hosted by Chords of Courage that were facilitated by Andrew McKnight of the Frederick Acoustic Music Entereprise, or F.A.M.E.

“They had some activities where you wrote everything that came to your mind, and I think that helped me open up and get some thoughts about what my song should start like,” Renkey said. “So I had to kind of think about what it was like for Harriet Tubman, what her life was like, and what choices she had to make and that kind of helped me start my song.”

She also researched Tubman.

“She ended up escaping [her slave plantation] with two of her brothers,” Renkey explained. “But they turned back. But she kept going. So I was talking about her determination and grit and how she was really scared. The journey was probably terrifying for her, but she kept going.

“I wanted to make it sort of wistful and sad,” Renkey added of the beginning of her song. “But as it reached the chorus, I wanted it to be more inspiring. And showing that if you really persevere, you can do whatever you want. You can help people.”

Tubman went on to free hundreds of slaves, as well as become a valuable spy for the Union in the Civil War.

Caron Dale, the founder and CEO of Chords of Courage, wanted students like Renkey to immerse themselves in courageous stories like Tubman’s.

“For young people today, there are so many incredible people in the world for them to look up to but nobody is following them,” Dale said. “They’re not the messages that media generally captures.”

Throughout the submission process, Dale found herself moved by the songs.

“They inspired us,” Dale said, referring to the contest judges, Marlene Young, Fran Tucker, and Todd Coyle. “When I saw the quality of some of the work, I was dumbfounded.”

She said that students were so hungry to improve their songwriting skills that they asked — and were granted — a fourth workshop session.

For the awards concert, finalists have the choice of performing their song with a band or having a band perform the song on their own. Tomy Wright, of F.A.M.E., was preparing for students to arrive to rehearse their finalist songs recently.

“We want to make it a collaborative effort and make sure we’re not adding more or embellishing it,” he said. “It’s still the young people’s song. We want to be in partnership with them. The lyrics on their own are just pretty phenomenal.”

With the success of the first Step Up! Contest, Dale has plans for this competition to happen next year. She plans to extend the contest to nearby counties, but still make Frederick the central hub thanks to support of local organizations in the area.

“I see the potential of this generation,” Dale said.

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