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Making Beats, Building Community: Music Education Partners With Local Nonprofit Mercy Works to Offer Digital Music Lab
The room was buzzing with energy on a recent Tuesday night at the Clarence Jordan Vision Center on Syracuse’s south side. Eleven local high school students diligently toiled on Macs outfitted with headphones, digital keyboards and Novation Launchpads—digital soundboards used to create drum tracks, beats and other instrumental sounds. The students were putting finishing touches on compositions they’d been working on all semester using the music production software Ableton Live.
A group of seven graduate students in Professor David Knapp’s Assessment and Music Education course served as guides and advisors, answering students’ questions about the software, conducting a lesson on a component of music composition, and offering advice on the musical aspects of their songs, such as structure, melodies, harmonies and beat-making.
The high school students’ compositions, ranging in genre from electronic music to hip hop to pop, are the culmination of the 12-week Digital Music Lab, a partnership between the University’s music education program and Mercy Works, a 501(c)3 organization serving Syracuse youth with free STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programs.
The partnership, which was concepted by Knapp in the fall of 2019, is a win-win-win for Syracuse University, Mercy Works and the students involved at both the K-12 and graduate level.
For Mercy Works, which has historically been more STEM-focused, it expands the organization’s offerings with the addition of arts-related programming. For the K-12 participants, it delivers a rich music learning experience tailored to their own interests and vernacular, exposing them to the digital tools and technologies that facilitate DJing, programming beats and record production in a guided environment.
And for Knapp and his graduate students, the Digital Music Lab is one piece of a larger Music in the Community (MiC) initiative that seeks to reinforce the importance of community music-making and diversify the field experience of future music educators studying at Syracuse.
“Historically, music education programs have a hard time connecting with diverse, dynamic experiences, with our students typically going to suburban schools to observe music education classes that likely reflect their own music education experience,” says Knapp. MiC programming, including the Digital Music Lab, seeks to expose undergraduate and graduate students to diverse students and musics and reflect teaching practices that can be carried forth in any K-12 classroom, especially those located in a rich urban environment like Syracuse.
MiC also encompasses a rock band composed of refugee youth in the Syracuse area, called the New American All-Stars. The band was formed through a partnership between the music education program (which is dually housed in the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Setnor School of Music and the School of Education) and the Northside Catholic Youth Organization’s Refugee Youth Program.
The Digital Music Lab curriculum takes participants through an inquiry-based music education where they develop music composition and production skills based on essential questions in the Ableton Live software. During each class, participants also reflect on short writing prompts that interrogate the meanings of their produced tracks, encouraging the K-12 students to explore the extra-musical meanings of their vernacular music.
Because the graduate-level class is focused on assessment, the Syracuse students huddle up with Knapp at the mid-point and end of each class to share insights on how participants are learning and being assessed throughout the process of their musical compositions. At the end of the semester, Digital Music Lab participants will present a finished product that includes their completed track and a brief abstract about the meaning that underlies their composition.
Nati Torrence, program director at Mercy Works, says that the Digital Music Lab and partners like Syracuse University are incredibly valuable to the students they serve. Running on a vision-based philosophy, Mercy Works offers professional development, personal development and development of STEAM skills to approximately 300 Syracuse youth per year. “We want them to really have a positive outlook on their future, so even as we teach young people about how to build robots, we’re always talking about vision,” says Torrence. If someone gets an idea about an activity they want to try or a passion they may want to pursue, like digital music-making, Mercy Works does its best to capitalize on that passion.
“It’s phenomenal that Syracuse University took an interest in bringing the Digital Music Lab here, where kids can access it so easily and have the one-on-one mentorship and interaction with the graduate students. I couldn’t ask for a better partnership,” says Torrence.
The graduate students teaching and mentoring in the Digital Music Lab share that the experience has been a highlight of their time at Syracuse. “The project has greatly inspired me as a music educator,” says Cooper Elizabeth Klares G’21, who graduated with her master’s degree in music education this May. “In our classes, we discuss creating music classrooms that look like this music lab, but most of us have never have the opportunity to be in one ourselves or see this kind of class operating in the field.”
Nicholas Peta , a graduate student in choral conducting, music education, and audio arts—a dual program in VPA and Newhouse—adds, “Syracuse prides itself on its relations with the community and it also prides itself on inclusivity—and inclusivity also relates to genres within music. Our ability to collaborate with these students is not only a learning experience for us, but a learning experience for them. It’s a really cool symbiotic relationship where we get to learn more about music, together.”
High school student Dhan Dhakal, who goes by her middle name, Maya, is one of the participants in the Digital Music Lab. Having been through Mercy Works’ robotics and coding classes, she was excited to experience the Digital Music Lab because she loves music but has never learned how to create it.
“We learn about how to make beats, we learn about concepts of music and how digital music works. I’m having fun doing it because this is something I’ve always wanted to try,” she says.
For her final composition, Maya describes a relaxing track with beats, drums and piano. She says her favorite memory from the Digital Music Lab was when Knapp helped her create a song with a sound similar to K-Pop, her favorite musical genre. “I wanted to learn how to play the music I always listened to and so Dr. Knapp helped me, taught me how to play the piano and we made something similar to the K-pop sound,” she says with a grin.
“One of my favorite things is to help a student whose work I have not heard in a few weeks,” says Klares. “Listening to how far they’ve progressed in just a few classes is such a treat and it feels amazing knowing that they have grown so much through this new musical medium.”
To listen to participants’ final tracks, visit the Digital Music Lab playlist on SoundCloud.