In Memphis, the music is everywhere: the streets, the parks, the bars, the venues. It’s often free and always great. Well, at least it was—and we hope it will be soon. But the music is still out there, happening in ways that might surprise you, with nationally known and award-winning pros training up the next generation of Memphians who will keep this town on the musical map.
There’s a legacy of sound in this city that tells stories of joy and pain for all of us—and those stories matter a lot right now. So listen in as we see how music is shaping the future for young Memphians.
Picture the scene: An opera singer teaching Cordova High kids. The second violin of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra giving lessons for East High School students. The founder of the Memphis Jazz Workshop and an award winning jazz pianist leading Bellevue Middle classes.
Or what about a producer for Chance the Rapper giving feedback to a student at Stax Music Academy?
Now stop in at Rhodes College, where students are creating new arrangements of protest songs from the ‘60s and creating a virtual performance with local composer, producer, and sound designer James Oliver. Keep scrolling to hear some of their magic!
One more stop: the (almost) empty Germantown Performing Arts Center, where the GPAC Youth Symphony Orchestra has gone to extraordinary measures to safely allow students to play together on stage—or to join via Zoom for an experience that is rich in its own right. And all of this augmented by the exposure the kids receive to world-class musicians through the GPAC and the IRIS orchestra.
If these scenes surprise you, let me tell you about the Memphis music scene, because it’s a great story of artists who are determined to pass on the skills and the stories that are captured in everything from opera to rap, from jazz to gospel, and from Handel to W.C. Handy.
In-school music reduces students’ stress levels and leads to higher graduation rates. The folks at the MMI know this and they’ve partnered with Shelby County Schools to provide instruction to 2200 students in K-12th grade.
With the onset of virtual learning, MMI shifted from an almost exclusive focus on music skill development to a hybrid that also includes an emphasis on developing a creative growth mindset. What does that mean in real life? It means helping kids open their minds and listen to things they may not have heard before—and think about those sounds and experiences in creative ways. Developing that mindset helps them think creatively about problem-solving and other learning experiences, and that’s a win.
And when we mentioned that opera teacher working in Cordova? We weren’t kidding. Check out Shannon Lowe from Opera Memphis and the incredible line up of MMI Fellows who serve students across our city. They all agree that one of the biggest wins of music in virtual school is that it motivates kids to be present for—and do well in—all of school. Applause!
Have you driven by the GPAC recently and felt some nostalgia for those performances that make it such a landmark? As quiet as things appear right now, students may have been inside, learning, playing, and growing as artists.
Knowing how central music is to his students’ experiences and identities, GPAC Youth Symphony Artistic Director Jonathan Schallert created various opportunities for engagement, both in person and from home.
Early in the pandemic, students processed and responded to their feelings through musical selections for The Listening Project. Selections range from Alabama Shakes to Haydn, and there’s a playlist, too.
As the pandemic wore on, science taught us more about how to play music safely in small, distanced groups. GPAC then adopted incredible measures for those children who wanted to gather in person. Incredibly, these students—along with those who continued working from home—recently performed together for a recording session that included in-person and virtual participants.
Dr. Schallert shared his pride in the students, “I was so inspired by their professional approach to the recording process. They were well prepared, focused, and dedicated to beautiful musicianship, even through multiple takes.” Thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the work of the GPAC staff, the GPAC Youth Symphony hopes to share this recording early next year.
Last month, Stax brought star power to a Songwriting Workshop that paired 25 Memphis high school students with top songwriting and music publishing experts. SMA Executive Director Pat Mitchell Worley explained how it came about, “Historically, SMA has been more of a performance-oriented music school—but when COVID-19 caused us to shift to virtual learning, we found new opportunities to help students create original music and study music business.”
The seeds for the Songwriting Workshop were planted last year when Stax students visited Concord Music Group in Los Angeles. Execs there were impressed with the focused and professional questions from the teenagers and thought they might like to work with them again.
For the Workshop, students wrote original compositions over a six week period, while Concord execs brought in songwriters and producers to critique the work. Working over Zoom, industry pros like Nate Fox—who has worked with the aforementioned Chance the Rapper as well as DJ Khaled, and Teddy Sinclair—who has co-written songs for Madonna and Rihanna, offered professional critiques to the work.
When leaders of the Rhodes College Orchestra realized that there would be no “normal” for the fall semester, they shifted gears. Group discussions, with plenty of input from students, led to a decision to study the music of the Civil Rights era. As studies progressed, students gained a new perspective on the music’s relevance to the events of 2020—and also began to understand the ways they could use their own talents as catalysts for social change. Check out this arrangement of “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” with Rhodes student Tim Daso. Students also developed their understanding of production and performance, working with James Oliver to create the final piece we’ll share—the Blue Ridge Reel, performed by the Rhodes Orchestral Ensemble, bringing some unexpected joy to that ubiquitous grid on the computer screen.
So as we navigate the winter of this pandemic, feel inspired by the diversity and depth, the creativity and commitment, demonstrated by each of the students and teachers we’ve profiled here. There’s magic in Memphis, and a lot of it’s in the music.
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