Youth Experience Music Program

If you are currently enjoying, or have ever entertained the notion of, a career in music – whether it be performing, producing, representing a band to the press, or lugging that amp onto the stage and testing the mics – chances are you were met with some bemusement and skepticism, if not outright shock and horror, from the adults in your midst…especially your parents.

Why all the adversity? Why the instant pleas to pick a “real career?” And why, for us who let the idea fade into memory, did we listen to their fearful ignorance? Could it be that, back in the day, the number of people and programs that taught the merits of such a career choice to both kids and parents – infusing us with hope in the process – was slim to none?

Flash forward to 2010, and The New Black Centre is providing kids from all corners of the city with just that: a place to come and learn what it takes to have a career in music, to understand that it’s not as scary and pointless as many adults still believe, and to gain a sense of optimism and creative drive.

Jay Sinclair, the New Black’s resident in-house producer and show technician, is the face of the Youth Experience Music Program, a partnership between the New Black and the City of Calgary.

For eight Tuesdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., kids get a chance to learn about the history of modern music, talk to and learn from Sinclair and a host of local musicians and other notable figures about the nature of the music business, and ultimately write, record and produce an original song using the New Black’s well-equipped studio space.

“From the very beginning, when we opened the New Black, we wanted to galvanize the community, particularly the all-ages scene, and we knew that you need to provide more than just shows: you need rehearsals, lessons, ways to train and educate the next wave,” says Sinclair on the genesis of the program.

Sinclair met a representative of the city’s parks and recreation department at X92.9’s 2008 Toast ‘n’ Jam – a battle-of-the-bands competition for junior high school students – and the conversation quickly turned to the possibility of a partnership and a music program for youth.

“It was actually the city that was looking for a place to hold this program they had approved, so I jumped at the chance to offer us up as the place to host it,” remembers Sinclair. “They were looking for a community-based atmosphere, and that’s what we pride ourselves on, so it was a perfect fit.”

The curriculum of the program is intense due to the short time frame: for a combined 16 hours spread out over two months, Sinclair takes his students through the genesis and legacy of modern music, particularly “how two styles that may seem like polar opposites actually came from similar places and ideas, which makes new fans out of the kids and gets them listening to music they may have ignored before,” he says.

Along with the history lessons and workshops with local industry notables – Sinclair says he’s brought in everyone from punk rock drummer and recording engineer Casey Lewis to bluesman Mike Watson – the students also get a stab at learning how to record and produce music, ultimately walking away with a professional recording of an original composition.

The opportunity to take advantage of free studio time and one-on-one council with Sinclair was the main draw for Connar Thornley and Neilinder Saini, both of whom are 14 years old.

“I was recording stuff in my basement when I heard about it, and getting to learn about professional recording with Jay and experiment with my own stuff is great,” says Thornley.

Adds Saini: “They have the latest technology here, so we’re learning about what the professionals are using today, which is very cool. It adds to the experience and makes you feel like you’re a professional.”

At the same time, what the two have learned from Sinclair outside the production booth has been extremely beneficial.

“I come from hip-hop, and it was amazing to learn about how everything has a little bit of hip-hop in it: jazz, blues, rock, all of that stuff can be found in hip-hop today,” says Thornley.

“I grew up with acoustic pop stuff, but I loved learning about how guitar distortion was created and evolved, and now I love listening to that sound,” says Saini.

For Sinclair, the opportunity to give young people a leg up and a boost of confidence in their passion for music is what it’s all about.

“I wish I had something like this when I was a kid, a program that teaches you that it’s not wrong to love music and to want to contribute to it,” he says. “No mater what these kids want to do – perform, produce, manage, whatever – I try to teach them that it’s all equally important and equally fun to do. You don’t have to be a rock star to have a career in music. You just need someone to tell you it’s okay.”

Originally published January 2011