Portland schools, Yarmouth center help students make digital music

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PORTLAND — Laying down a musical track no longer requires a studio filled with expensive equipment and musicians; it can now be done with a laptop computer, or even a cell phone.

That’s one reason Jake Hoffman, partnership program coordinator at the 317 Main Community Music Center in Yarmouth refers to this digitized form of music as the new folk music, or music that can be made with limited tools and that’s “contemporary and accessible.”

But just because beatmaking and sampling are now widely available and simplified, it doesn’t mean there’s no value in learning the basic rules of composition and music theory, especially for students interested in a career in music.

So, 317 Main has partnered with Portland High School to offer a free, after-school digital music class, which is being taught by local hip-hop artist, songwriter and producer Patrick Jones, whose stage name is Just Plain Jones.

“A lot of public schools already incorporate digital music into their curriculum, but this is a real opportunity to delve into it and work with professional artists, particularly for students who are really interested in this kind of music,” Hoffman said.

The class consists of 10 sessions. It started last week and will continue through March 16, according to the 317 Main website.

“We are hoping this project can be a space to support an inclusive beatmaking community where young people can share their art and give feedback to each other, work on collaborative projects and delve into the fundamentals of being a producer and musician,” Hoffman said in a press release.

Hoffman said this week that 12 students are taking part in the digital music class. Five are from Portland High School, four are from Deering High School, and three are from Casco Bay High School.

He said the class is designed to meet the mission of 317 Main, which includes collaborating with community partners “to provide greater access to high-quality music education.”

Hoffman said he first saw Jones’ “skills, talent and passion when he saw him perform at the Abyssinian Meeting House in downtown Portland last year.

Hoffman had already begun thinking about offering a beatmaking class through 317 Main when Jones told him one of his own goals was to teach his art to young people.

Hoffman said he and Jones then spent about seven months designing a curriculum for the digital music class with the core ideal of “allowing as much collaboration as possible.”

“Our greater vision,” he said, “is to create an open community that will meet all year round. We want to create an artistic community,” that’s student-driven. “The beauty of this class is that there’s peer-to-peer learning going on and we’re building genuine relationships through music.”

“We’re always trying to teach technique,” Hoffman said, “but the true focus here is on collaboration.”

The end goal is for the students to share the music they’ve created, although the final details of a class-ending, public performance have yet to be worked out, he said.

Jayne Sawtelle, music teacher at Portland High School, said she jumped at the chance to offer the digital music class when Hoffman first contacted her.

She was particularly interested because she has a student who is “very interested and proficient” in beatmaking and wanted to have a digital musical composition be his senior capstone project.

“But, I couldn’t really help at all and didn’t know where to start,” she said. So it was fortuitous that Hoffman approached her when he did.

Sawtelle said that while she’s not particularly “well versed in this medium,” she always wants to “support students in whatever peaks their musical interest, from opera to jazz to sampling and digitizing.”

She’s also hopeful this new partnership with 317 Main will continue and said the organization definitely has “a role to play in offering interesting and different classes outside the normal (public school) curriculum.”

Like Hoffman, Sawtelle is also interested in helping to build a community of musicians and what she most likes about this initial class is that the enrollment is “very diverse.”

For instance, one student is a football player, several are English language learners and there’s one girl.

“These kids really don’t know each other from other activities,” she said, “but they’re all getting together and learning from each other because they have a passion” for this type of music.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Hip-hop artist Patrick “Just Plain” Jones is teaching a beatmaking class to Portland High School students through a partnership with the 317 Main Community Music Center of Yarmouth.

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