In our first Artists-in-Schools residency of the season, the seventh-graders of Chatham Middle School (CMS) experienced an epic 10-days of Beat Making Lab, led by Grammy-nominated musician Pierce Freelon and the other talented artists of Blackspace.
Classroom Workshops :: “It Turned Out Really Cool”
The program commenced with an in-depth exploration of analog equipment. Guided by the teaching artists, students delved into looping, sound manipulation, tempo experiments, pitch adjustments, and integrating of instrument sounds like a kick drum or snare. Students learned how to layer sounds, sort of like building a musical sandwich.
Students joined in a beat-making circle, collaborating by layering their own self-made sounds.
Pierce reminded them that–while they’d be learning to make beats with sound equipment and laptops–“The first instrument is the human body.”
Rem, Blackspace artist and sound engineer, introduced students Bandlab, a digital platform that would soon become their creative playground.
For two weeks, students took their newfound knowledge and embarked on their own beat creation journeys.
They listened in on each other’s beat experiments and got pointers from artists Rem, Zone, and Katie Blvd. Those beats had something, and the kids started to feel the power of making music.
They stopped teachers in the hallway, asked folks in the community, questioned friends: “Will you listen and tell me which one you like best?”
More than one student mentioned that they were skeptical at first: “What is this?” But in the end, “It turned out really cool.”
Showcase at the School :: Mr. Burriss Dances to the Beats
After the creation days, it was showcase time–two opportunities to share their beats with an audience. The first: At a schoolwide assembly in the gym. With $20 each for two first-prize beatmakers (according to the audience-o-meter!), there was a little extra incentive to be brave enough to share.
A total of 26 courageous kids shared their musical creations. The gym was full of spontaneous dancing, big smiles, nervous energy, and joy.
“The assembly, as a whole, created a moment of unity and positivity for everyone, and students’ musical creations were the spark for that experience,” shared AIG Teacher, Mark Spring.
There were indeed some beautiful moments: Four initially skeptical buddies, who slouched in their chairs and giggled at everything on the first day, transformed into confident performers. Teachers called onstage to provide a voice sample–laughing hard when they heard themselves say I love these kids two octaves lower than usual. Students on the bleachers locked in to call and response with the artists: I say ‘hip’; You say ‘hop.’ Hip. Hop. I say ‘don’t’; You say ‘stop.’ Hip. Hop. Don’t. Stop.
And then there was Mr. Burriss. This seventh-grade teacher danced to every beat, setting an example of joy and vulnerability for everyone–and more teachers jumped up to join in.
Showcase at Shakori :: All Joy Under the Tent
When you partner with Shakori Roots in the Schools and Shakori Grassroots Music Festival, you get a little extra magic. At the close of the residency, CMS students had the chance to showcase their musical mojo at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival on Saturday, October 7.
Two super-brave students brought their families and waited as the stage changed over and folks milled nearby. There was some last-minute beat perfecting with help of Rem’s laptop.
And some audience volunteers to help kick off the showcase.
By the time an enthusiastic crowd had gathered, it was time. First one student shared.
And then the other.
They each found their voices–strong, confident, proud.
Upon Reflection :: “They Just Need the Opportunities”
This residency was a first in so many ways: first time working with Blackspace, first time at Chatham Middle School, first time partnering with Shakori. And huge credit goes to Chatham Middle School–from the students to the parents to the administration–for embracing it just weeks into the school year. Teacher Liaison Michelle Pinto went all out to facilitate, that’s for sure.
As Principal Kevin Leake reflected on the residency, he underscored the importance of the arts in engaging students. He noted that not every child finds an entry point through sports or through academics–and he’s committed to the additional pathway that the arts provide. Mr. Leake believes in CMS kids–he was one of them years ago. “They just need the opportunities,” he said.
A seventh-grade teacher agreed: “I saw some ‘fly-below-the-radar’ kids begin to engage and participate.” And another teacher: ” I saw some students who were traditionally very quiet and introverted last year open up a bit through their ability to express themselves with music.”
Students also shared their perspectives, reflecting on their initial doubts giving way to genuine interest and excitement. “They were helpful and welcoming,” observed one seventh-grader. Another is excited because now, “I can make new songs.” And another said, “I could be myself around them.”
That feedback feels particularly good to Teaching Artist Rem of Blackspace. “I didn’t have this kind of opportunity growing up,” he said. “And I really could’ve used it.” Now he works with Blackspace to make sure kids can see the possibilities that he couldn’t see then.
It was a joy to be part of Chatham Middle School’s creative journey–and to witness Blackspace, the staff, and the students create a sense of belonging through the arts in just two weeks.
This residency was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield NC, with special thanks to our partners at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, Shakori Hills’ Roots in the Schools program, and the NC Arts Council. It is part of the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative.
Arts for Resilient Kids programming is made possible by partnerships with Chatham County Schools, Chatham County, the North Carolina Arts Council, and many individual, foundation, and business donors. If you feel inspired to help continue this mission of education kids through the arts, click here to donate.