Making Beats, Building Community: Music Education partners with local nonprofit Mercy Works to deliver digital music lab


The room was buzzing with energy on a recent Tuesday night at the Clarence Jordan Vision Center on the south side of Syracuse. Eleven local high school students diligently worked on Macs equipped with headphones, digital keyboards, and Novation Launchpads – digital soundboards used to create drum tracks, beats, and other instrumental sounds. Students put the finishing touches on the compositions they had worked on throughout the semester using Ableton Live music production software.

A group of seven students who graduated from Professor David Knapp’s Music Education and Assessment Course served as guides and advisors, answering students’ questions about the software, giving a lesson on a component of music composition, and offering advice on the musical aspects of their songs, such as structure, melodies, harmonies and creating rhythms.

Cooper Elizabeth Klares G’21 (left) helps high school students with their digital musical compositions.

The high school students’ compositions, ranging 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 the youth of Syracuse with free STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs.

The partnership, which was conceived by Knapp in the fall of 2019, is a win-win-win for Syracuse University, Mercy Works and the students involved at the elementary and senior levels.

For Mercy Works, which has always been more STEM-focused, it expands the organization’s offering with the addition of arts-related programs. For Kindergarten to Grade 12 participants, it offers a rich music learning experience tailored to their own interests and vernacular language, exposing them to digital tools and technologies that facilitate DJing, rhythm programming and producing recordings in a guided environment.

And for Knapp and his graduate students, the Digital Music Lab is part of a larger Music in the Community (MiC) initiative that aims to reinforce the importance of community music creation and to diversify the field experience of future students. music teachers studying in Syracuse.

“Historically, music education programs have struggled to connect with varied and dynamic experiences, with our students typically going to suburban schools to observe music education classes that likely reflect their own music education experience.” , explains Knapp. MiC programming, including the Digital Music Lab, aims to expose undergraduate and graduate students to a variety of students and music and reflect teaching practices that can be applied in any K-12 classroom, especially those located in a rich urban environment like Syracuse.

MiC also includes a rock group made up of young refugees from the Syracuse area called the New American All-Stars. The group was formed through a partnership between the Music Education Program (which is twice housed at the Setnor School of Music at the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the School of Education) and the Refugee Youth Program at the Northside Catholic Youth Organization.

The Digital Music Lab program takes participants through inquiry-based music education where they develop music composition and production skills based on core questions of Ableton Live software. During each class, participants also brainstorm short writing prompts that question the meaning of their produced pieces, encouraging K-12 students to explore the extra-musical meanings of their vernacular music.

Because the upper-level class is all about assessment, Syracuse students snuggle up with Knapp midway through and at the end of each class to share insights into how participants learn and are assessed throughout. of 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 summary of the meaning behind their composition.

Professor David Knapp teaches students his graduate course in music assessment and education

David Knapp, assistant professor of music education, snuggles up with his class of graduate students from Mercy Works.

Nati Torrence, program director at Mercy Works, says the Digital Music Lab and partners like Syracuse University are extremely valuable to the students they serve. Operating on a vision-based philosophy, Mercy Works provides professional development, personal development and the development of STEAM skills to approximately 300 young people in Syracuse per year. “We want them to really have a positive view of their future, so even though we teach young people how to build robots, we still talk about vision,” Torrence says. If anyone has an idea for an activity they want to try out or a passion they want to pursue, such as creating digital music, Mercy Works does their best to capitalize on that passion.

“It’s phenomenal that Syracuse University has taken an interest in installing the Digital Music Lab here, where kids can access it so easily and benefit from one-on-one mentoring and interaction with graduate students. I couldn’t ask for a better partnership, ”says Torrence.

Graduate students who teach and coach in the Digital Music Lab share that the experience was a highlight of their time in Syracuse. “The project inspired me a lot as a music teacher,” says Cooper Elizabeth Klares G’21, who received her Masters in Music Education in May. “In our classes we discuss creating music classrooms that look like this music lab, but most of us have never had the opportunity to be a part of or see that kind of. class operate 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 relationship with the community and it also prides itself on inclusiveness – and l inclusiveness also relates to genres in music. Our ability to collaborate with these students is not just a learning experience for us, but a learning experience for them. It’s a really cool symbiotic relationship where we learn more about music, together. “

High school student Dhan Dhakal, who has her middle name Maya, is one of the participants in the Digital Music Lab. Having taken the robotics and coding classes at Mercy Works, she was excited to experience the Digital Music Lab as she loves music but never learned to create it.

“We learn to create rhythms, we learn the concepts of music and how digital music works. I have fun doing it because it’s something I’ve always wanted to try, ”she says.

high school student working on a digital musical composition

Maya, one of the local high school girls participating in the Digital Music Lab, is working on putting the finishing touches to her composition.

For her final composition, Maya describes a relaxing piece with rhythms, drums and piano. She says her favorite memory from the Digital Music Lab was when Knapp helped her create a song that sounded similar to K-Pop, her favorite musical genre. “I wanted to learn to play the music that I always listen to and so Dr Knapp helped me, taught me to play the piano and we did something similar to the K-pop sound,” she says with a smile.

“One of my favorite things to do is help a student whose work I haven’t heard for a few weeks,” says Klares. “Listening to how much they have improved in just a few lessons is a real pleasure and it’s amazing to know that they have grown so much thanks to this new musical medium.”

To listen to the latest tracks from attendees, visit the Digital Music Lab playlist on SoundCloud.


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