J-Term Class Combines Lectures and Mentoring of Local Youth

January 17, 2008
January 17, 2008 — The sheer variety of the three-hour midday classroom sessions in Heather Maxwell's January Term course, "Music, Health and Environment," was probably enough to hold the interest of her 20 students, none of whom was a music major.

One day, there was an African drum circle; on another, local bluesman Corey Harris came in and performed. Anna Cafazza, a certified music therapist, talked powerfully about her experiences working in the Blue Ridge and James River detention centers.

Maxwell, herself an accomplished jazz singer in addition to her training as an ethnomusicologist, sang and translated some health-promotion pieces she recorded in Mali, where she reputedly is a major pop star.

What Maxwell's students likely will most remember, though, were the afternoons spent mentoring middle-school-aged youth in Charlottesville's Music Resource Center. There, in small, stuffy rooms in the basement of an old converted church, they worked together to produce a series of public-service announcements — the vast majority set to driving rap beats — that they hoped would be aired on local radio stations.

"They love this part of it," said Maxwell, shortly after wrapping up the taping of the PSAs on the final day of the term. "The U.Va. students don't know anything about the local school system, don't know about this place. They appreciate the chance to get to know the community and get to know a few of the kids."

Just a few hours earlier, there didn't seem to be a lot of enjoyment evident in the first practice booth on the left. That's where a trio of U.Va. students, led by Calder Telep, a third-year psychology major, were trying to coax some words out of Josh and Buck, two of the middle-school students.

The day before, the boys decided that they wanted to rap about littering. They picked out a beat. They even had a chorus of sorts — "Keep it green! Keep it green!" But with their recording time looming, they had no verses. Telep grabbed a pen and notepad; Josh and Buck looked on expectantly. They seemed a bit taken aback when she told them that she would write down what they said, not write the lyrics herself.

The boys turned to the computer and keyboard in the room, fiddling with the mouse. "What kinds of things can you do to make it clean, or keep it green? " Telep prompted, hopefully. The boys fidgeted some more.

It was looking like a long afternoon.

Around the corner, U.Va. students draped themselves on the couch, chairs and floor of the recording studio's control room. A center staff member commanded the mixing board, while two more budding young rappers waited nervously in the adjoining sound booth. Maxwell soon popped in to explain the process; they would run through the rap once for practice, then start recording, perhaps doing several takes to touch up the flaws.

Maxwell reappeared in the control room, and the boys launched into a rap about the hazards of smoking, calling on other middle-school students to "put it out!" The run-through drew general approval from the control-room crowd, but Maxwell wasn't quite satisfied.

"Now guys, what you've got to do is put some more style with it," she said.

"Like, harder?" one boy asked.

"Yeah, maybe, but like you're talking with your friend," she said.

They attempted several more takes, wrestling in particular with one vexing passage. "Now stop and think, Joe/You're smoking cigs, bro/Your lungs in trouble, so/The Newports gotta go!" The "lungs" line was one syllable too long.

True to her professional-musician background, Maxwell wasn't content to just let it go.

"I think the kids need examples of striving for excellence all the time," she explained. "Music is fun, but it's not going to be played if it's not good."

Eventually, the line was rewritten as "Your teeth are yellow," and the boys were released from the booth.

In the classroom, Maxwell, a visiting music scholar since 2003, had outlined how different cultures use music and sound in their wrestling with issues of health and environment. Sometimes, the relationship is obvious — environmental protest songs, for example, or the musical outreach employed in Africa to educate about HIV/AIDS. Sometimes, music's effects are more subtle, like when it is used therapeutically.

If the issues she raised in the lectures sometimes seemed far off, the Music Resource Center sessions brought them home. The middle-school students were free to write about any issues that troubled them; they produced recordings about gangs, pollution, smoking and the hazards of fast food, among other topics.

Fourth-year student Ashley Feggans-Tinsley — herself a product of the Albemarle County public schools — said she was surprised by what she heard. "There is a change," she said. "There was more talk about gangs and stuff. That's not something I had to worry about in middle school."

As the clock in the control room ticked toward quitting time, Josh and Buck — joined by a latecomer — were the last ones to enter the recording booth, clutching a sheet of hard-won lyrics. Josh went solo first, laying down the main track ("The hole in the ozone is getting wide/If we don't fix it, we will die!"), and his collaborators followed, adding their voices to beef up the chorus and echo a few lines.

Sibley Johns, the director of the Music Resource Center, watched, smiling, as they touched up the recording. The center had given the participating students one-year free memberships, hoping they will continue their involvement.

Maxwell's class fits in well with the center's mission, she said; "We try to encourage the kids to look at music as a way to improve their lives and the community in general." Often, kids want to make songs about "fluffy, silly stuff, or love songs," she said. Maxwell's class forces them to think about their audience and their message; they can be change agents, not just passive observers.

When the last track was finally laid down, Maxwell gathered all of the college and middle-school students in the control room, where they listened to the PSAs one by one, and congratulated each other on their work.

It had been a unique experience for everyone; the U.Va. students got to experience the community beyond The Corner; the middle-school students met mentors who took a real interest in what they had to say. It was clearly much, much more than just another lecture class.