Re-printed with permission from Georgia Music.
The thud of an expertly dribbled basketball. The click of a table tennis racket swatting a tiny white sphere. The murmur of a hundred-odd kids, the squeaking of their sneakers on a gymnasium floor. To anyone who's ever visited a Boys & Girls Club, it's a familiar, if harsh, cacophony.
But today at Athens' newest and spiffiest club, sweeter, more melodic sounds are filling the air of the expansive Fourth Street facility, from loping guitar riffs and piano sonatas to ballads sung by the teenagers who composed them. As of yet, there are no gold records lining the walls of the Joel E. Smilow Boys & Girls Club's ballyhooed recording studio, but there are plenty of junior musicians chasing them in their dreams.
"What interests kids changes year by year or day by day," says Mike Hackett, president and chief officer of the showcase club, which opened in June. "They're really intomusic right now."
The $85,000 studio, designed by University of Georgia professors and local record producers, was the most anticipated feature of the organization's newest home — partly underwritten by Smilow, a well-known philanthropist — which stands across from a school. It replaced a dilapidated, underused club that had operated for 37 years in another section of town.
Insulated from the thrum of bouncing basketballs and other clatter by double-thick, soundproof walls, the studio gets high marks from industry pros like Bruce Burch, who runs UGA's Music Business Program. "The acoustics are amazing," he says. Burch is dispatching his students to Smilow, where they'll tutor youngsters in the creative, technical and business ends of the music world.
Aimed at middle and high school students, the studio, part of the club's teen center, is equipped with guitars, drums, bass and keys. For would-be crooners, there's a vocal booth that helps them modulate their voices and hit difficult notes without having to tune out other studio sounds. Mixing boards, synthesizers, monitors and other control room technologies will be phased in over the fall.
Top marks from the pros
"I've been in professional studios that are not this nice," says Burch, a veteran of Nashville's recording scene who returned home to Georgia to teach what he learned in one of the country's music capitals. "We could definitely record a record here. I've seen hit records recorded in worse places."
Burch insists the next hot star could be discovered in the Boys & Girls recording hall, just as a future NBA guard might be fast breaking on the other side of the divide. Potentially, a studio like this could inculcate musicianship in the very young, just asLittle League teaches baseball fundamentals, he says. As far as youth training and development go, it could begin to put music on a par with athletics, at least in the Boys & Girls Club culture.
Other clubs have converted classrooms into studio space as songwriting, recording and performance have risen dramatically in the estimate of educators in charge of student activity programming, Hackett says.
"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the expense of building such a studio would have been enormous," Hackett says. "You would have had to buy huge mixing boards, analog tapes and the storage for the tracks...But now, with the studio and mixing software that's available, it's a whole lot easier and cheaper. You can do almost everything with a single laptop and studio software."
Hackett, who has 25 years experience with the organization, has identified what he believes are the reason for the burgeoning interest in all facets of music production: technology and the combination of song and dance.
"In the last five or six years, more and more kids have gotten computer access," he says, "and they're downloading music videos rather than sitting in front of the television on Saturday and waiting for a certain video to come on. Now you can watch the video that you want to see, and watch it over and over again." He goes on: "It's the videos that have captivated the kids. R&B. Hip-hop. And those [genres] that are crossing musical lines. And of course, the dancing."
A pipeline to the biz?
Most of the 230 youngsters who pile into Smilow after school still will participate primarily in sports. The club, however, is "identifying kids who are interested in studio activities and hooking them up with" UGA student volunteers from Burch's program, says Hackett, who envisions classes of about 30.
The first groups will encompass those interested in playing the guitar and keyboards and those interested in "the beats on the computer," Hackett says. Eventually a class in vocals will be organized. The goal is to establish four or five classes.
"Our mission is youth development," Hackett says, "to make kids more successful in the classroom. There's an epidemic in Clarke County of kids not graduating high school and we believe music can turn it around. Music requires focus and discipline, and you have to make a commitment. You have to practice. Those habits will translate in the classroom."
"Most of the families of these kids can't afford instruments and certainly can't afford a studio," says Burch, who hopes the Boys & Girls studio becomes "a pipeline" to university music programs like the one he runs at UGA. "Personally, I don't know where or what I'd be if I had not found music. But I'll tell you this, I bet it saved my life."