Great ideas often start with a ‘What if...’ Serving as a church musician for nearly thirty years, Dayvin Hallmon’s ‘what if’ wasn’t an exception. While a county board supervisor in Kenosha, Washington, before the wake of the George Floyd protests, he wondered what would happen if black and brown string players played a concert that wasn’t Bach or Beethoven?” And “what would happen, if, after the immediate aftermath of a shooting, those players arrived on the scene?”
Hallmon didn’t have an answer for his questions. While sitting with the idea over a few months, time began to slowly reveal the answer, like pieces fitting together in a jigsaw puzzle. Then, an opportunity presented itself to explore the idea further, when Hallmon became unemployed. He decided to move to Milwaukee, in September of 2018, and went to work finding players and a church for rehearsals. And the Black String Triage Ensemble was born.
"I start thinking about the music in October", says Hallmon. "During January and February, I have music arrangements. By April we do rehearsals and that is the only time there is a scheduled event. The first weekend of June, and continuing three consecutive weekends, on Fridays and Saturdays through July and August, the Black Triage Ensemble is on call to play scenes".
The players gather on those evenings, with food and drink provided by board members, about to comb through 911 calls in anticipation of playing a scene.
The music program is designed in advance, two programs for each season that the ensemble plays. The season occurs over a span of a few weeks, in the summer and on Friday/Saturday pairings.
The music is based upon the five stages of grief. But as Hallmon notes, “I don’t know if as people of color if acceptance – the fifth stage – is enough. Something must convince us that things will be better.” Thus, the Black String Triage Ensemble has added a sixth stage: faith.
Music serves to convince individuals that there is grounding to their pain, that they don’t have to remain jarred. Once the ensemble arrives at the scene, they assess the situation, and stage of grief, and that dictates which song they'll begin with. The music becomes a conversation between victims and the players. “I have to listen to where the people are and musically respond to that. I have to hear them spiritually and emotionally and deliver music that speaks to that condition. In summation, it is part psychiatrist and part pharmacist in terms of making the music choices.”
The goal of The Black String Triage Ensemble is to respond in the immediate aftermath of an event, and is usually two and a half hours after an incident has occurred. Hallmon is sensitive to “not missing the moment. There’s a sweet spot to speaking to people’s emotional need. There is the moment when it sinks in versus when it happens. We don’t want to show up too early nor do we want to show up too late.”
The ensemble’s name includes three important details; the players all use string instruments, Black for the context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade which exported people from Africa, and Triage for the medical term that defines rationing care to those who are in need the most. The players are volunteers and become part of the ensemble by invitation. They are all aged 18 and up.
“It depends on what people are going through in the immediate moment.” Hallmon tells the story of scene that included a man shot while driving his car. A man came onto the scene almost out of nowhere he recalled. He hollered, cursed, and identified the man shot, as a friend of his.
The ensemble began to play, ‘Sometimes, I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ originally performed by Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870’s. “I noticed that people started physically gathering together, getting closer, putting their arms together."
The ensemble aims to use the music to break down the incident so that those in the neighborhood, including family of the victims may find some peace, even if that means it comes in a restful night of sleep.
Hallmon determines a viable scene for the ensemble to play by monitoring 911 calls on the evenings that they are on call. Admittedly, it’s a tricky situation, as they want to show up to a scene where there is valid activity. Since they are not in coordination with the police, the work of parsing through details like ‘shots fired’ or knowledge of a known problematic area, is determined by them.
Once dispatched and on scene, the ensemble, none of whom are music therapists, don’t speak to anyone present. Chaplains travel with the ensemble and help in their own way, which allows the string players to focus on the music.
Hallmon admits this focus can be a challenge when you have a drunk grandmother proclaim they are too loud, a spectator who wants to join the ensemble in song, or someone local to the neighborhood that is extremely chatty. To that end, upon arrival to the scene, the ensemble endeavors to set up so that they might be heard by the people without compromising their space.
"I try to look for someone who is grieving heavily, but we don’t want to have a cello in their face,” said Dallmon.
Finding this balance has taken some trial and error which has resulted in successfully navigating the complicated dynamics of their peace and music keeping mission. They might find themselves playing ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley to represent faith, Richard Smallwood’s ‘Total Praise’ for an 80-year grandmother who could know the song too, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke for the stage of grief that is acceptance.
“If we can cushion the blow of tragedy, everyone’s healthier,” said Dallmon.
To learn more about The Black String Triage Ensemble visit here and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.