Music teacher Jamie Sokolowski believes everyone has a little music in them, whether they like to stretch their pipes and sing out loud, hum along to the tune of their favorite melody or express themselves with words that might make others feel connected in thought and feeling.
But when she set out recently with her Nock Middle School sixth-grade classes to write, produce and record their individual songs, she wasn’t prepared for how immersed the kids would become in the process of recording their own musical compilations.
They started out writing quietly at their desks, she said, scratching down ideas and piecemeal lyrics in their journals. And then bit by bit, Sokolowski started hearing a chorus of young voices grow strong in some surprising ways.
“I was a little nervous about how the students would respond to it, but then they got into it,” Sokolowski said. “At first they were really shy and we basically stuck to writing song lyrics in our journals and not really singing together. The idea was to get them comfortable and starting to write on their own.”
Sokolowsi’s songwriting project is a pilot program being sponsored by the Newburyport Education Foundation and the Education Business Coalition, which partnered Sokolowski with audio engineer Chuck Walker at The Musical Suite in Newburyport to help take the assignment one step further. He’s teaching the students how to record their own album.
“It’s wonderful. Through the NEF they have a grant where you can pair up with local businesses and they fund the project that fits into an education curriculum,” Sokolowski said.
“Chuck Walker was willing to take on this project and teach the kids about the recording process, the microphones and the whole editing project. He’s recording it for us and doing the post-production. Without him, this whole aspect of the project wouldn’t be possible, so I’m so happy about that.”
The four songs that the class is recording were created through a group effort, Sokolowski said.
“They worked independently to write their own lyrics and chorus,” she said. “They gave them to me and I typed them up and cut them up, and we kind of scattered them over the floor and picked the ones that we thought were really universal and spoke for the whole class. Then we created a collaborative class song from all that.”
One was inspired by discussion in Sokolowski’s class following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and it reflects a message of hope and strength for the future, she said. Another takes pride in Newburyport and focuses on the beloved landmarks and places that make students feel safe and protected in their hometown.
Three of the songs might be classified as soft pop, or easy listening in the spirit of Taylor Swift, and the fourth, she said, is more of a reggae/rap song based on the popular cultural slogan “YOLO,” or “you only live once.”
“They took the concept of YOLO and said we’re in school now and we’re going to do our best in everything we do to pursue our goals,” Sokolowski said.
Three songs have been recorded in the studio and the last song is set to record after February vacation. Those final recorded songs will be combined with four songs created by students in the spring semester to create the first original CD by the Nock Middle School music department. At the end of the school year, she said, all the sixth-grade students will get a copy of their eight-song CD and share a credit on the inside cover.
“It’s all very exciting,” said Sokolowski. “The grant we’re getting is giving us a chance to make this as professional as possible.”
One aspect of the project that’s particularly nice to see is the number of surprise musicians that emerged to take on solos or to play an instrument for final recording, she added. They may have started out shy, but a number of kids in the sixth grade have blossomed this year from the work they’ve been doing, she said, and spread their musical wings for the first time ever.
“It’s showing them a side of enjoying music that they might not have been able to experience otherwise,” said Sokolowski, who plays guitar on the album accompanied by student musicians playing various instruments. “Overall, there’s probably going to be 150 different students between the eight classes. The students could volunteer to do solos or duets or sing in groups of four or five if they wanted to. But everyone sings at some point.”