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Keeping it Upbeat with a new kind of music education

Derek Vincent Smith, Aka Pretty Lights, teaches the basics of scratching

Derek Vincent Smith works with a student at Upbeat Academy. Photo credit: Sean Ambrose

Across from the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas, inside a nondescript office building, sits a small room that contains a whole lot of magic.  The room is the “classroom” for Upbeat Academy, an after-school program that gives at-risk teenagers the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of music production from local rappers and producers.  The room holds four computer workstations with MIDI keyboards, drum machines, digital turntables, and samplers.  Six high schoolers carefully tinker with their compositions, experimenting with different sounds and rhythms as beatmaker AF THE NAYSAYER coaches the young producers. Think of it as The Roots of Music for hip hop and electronic music.

Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Upbeat Academy director Matthew Zarba picks up students from across the city for their weekly classes.  “We try to eliminate any obstacles so we can get kids here and get them learning,” says Zarba.  The students come from a variety of backgrounds and schools, but they all come for the same reason: They love music and want to uncover its secrets.

The students spend an entire academic year in the program, working through an innovative curriculum that covers everything from music theory to writing lyrics. By the end of the program they're ready to perform and record like seasoned pros.

AF THE NAYSAYER works with a student at Upbeat Academy

AF THE NAYSAYER works with a student at Upbeat Academy

Upbeat Academy was dreamt up in 2012 by local concert promoter Winter Circle Productions (which puts on the annual BUKU festival, among other events) and national promoter MCP presents.  Both organizations wanted to give back to the New Orleans community by providing young people with the equipment and training necessary to pursue their musical dreams.  Local rappers and producers volunteer their time to work with the students, teaching them the skills they need to succeed both on stage and in the world.

The program has picked up steam over the past three years, growing from two students to 24 and roping in A-list talent to help with the program.  Upbeat students have gotten the chance to mingle with rap superstar Kendrick Lamar and freestyle for the legendary Nas backstage at BUKU.  Derek Vincent Smith, the world-renowned DJ known as Pretty Lights, recently donated equipment and taught a class on sampling from vinyl.

Classes typically start with the artist-instructor presenting one of his own songs and  showing students how to deal with various challenges within the songwriting process.  Students then get to work collaboratively as they tackle similar challenges, such as writing a catchy bass line or finding the perfect sample for their hook.  The small class sizes allow the artist-instructors to work one-on-one with every student and provide the hands-on instruction necessary for teaching the complex material.

Students work on their original compositions

Students work on their original compositions

Matthew Zarba, a New Orleans native who bounced around various high schools before graduating from New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, says he wouldn’t be surprised if more programs started teaching this type of music.

“If you tried to teach jazz in schools in the 1920s, people would have said, ‘Teach this music? No way!’ But now it’s hard to find any school music program that doesn’t have a jazz component.”

With the continued popularity of electronic music, and more affordable production equipment hitting the market every year, it’s only a matter of time before more music programs start incorporating electronic components.

Providing young people the opportunity to learn and perform the music they enjoy can be a very powerful draw. Kanika Harvey, a student at Renew Accelerated High School, says, “If I wasn’t here [at Upbeat], I’d be out running the streets. This gives me something to do and something to look forward to.”  She says the program has taught her positive ways to deal with her emotions and pushed her out of her comfort zone. “When I feel like I’m about to blow up, I can deal with it now by writing a poem or making a beat.”

Tai'wan Vail, a former Carver student who has been with Upbeat since the beginning, puts it simply: "I want to do this for the rest of my life."  Thanks to the support and training of Upbeat, Tai'wan will have no problem pursuing his dream.

Stay up to date with Upbeat Academy by liking their Facebook page, consider making a donation, or contact Matthew Zarba at [email protected] for more information.

Shane Colman writes about music for NolaVie. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on [email protected] and on Instagram at shawncoolman.