AUBURN | Sure, there are plenty of academic studies in support of the music instruction on burgeoning student minds, but when it comes down to it, learning to sing or play an instrument can simply be good, clean fun.
Take, for instance, the dozen students from three Cayuga County school districts who want to learn how to form and play in a band. They're participating in Exchange Street Records at Auburn Public Theater, a new program through the theater's Auburn Public Studio educational arm that began Jan. 13 and runs through May 26.
The students gravitate to the two-hour class, which meets Tuesdays in the same casual, inviting venue that hosts Auburn Public Theater's popular open mic night. There, the sixth- through 12th-grade students hop onto the stage and grab any of 20 instruments available to them and learn how to jam, rock, slash, shred, groove to and own the music they perform.
The class's free tuition is made possible by the generosity of Downtown Deli Cafe, Fox Toyota Honda, Rotary Club of Auburn and individual donors.
Taught by Amanda and Brian Franco, music teachers in the Weedsport and Union Springs school districts, a few of the musicians in the 5 to 7 p.m. class are their students in school. But all the participants had to apply for the afternoon APS class by writing an essay outlining their musical objectives.
"They filled out a questionnaire, too, about what songs they like, what instruments they play or want to learn how to play, and what they would like to create musically," said Amanda, who last spring helped a group of music students from Union Springs win $10,000 from the New York State Lottery for their music video entry into a contest called New York Sings.
During the four-month course, the young music-makers in Exchange Street Records will learn band basics: How to cover tunes, write songs, film music videos, perform and record.
"We want to make sure they get out of it what they want to get out of it," Brian said. "The kids just want to perform and create music."
With a generous deal struck with Speno Music for 20 guitars, electric basses, keyboards, ukeleles and drums where APT purchased them at cost, the students have ample opportunity to pick one and try their hand at them. A drum kit and grand piano fill out the range of the in-house symphony, and students are welcome to bring others from home to add to its sound.
Tony Sylvester, 13, a drummer, wants to add the piano and guitar to his instrumental repertoire.
"I want to get better at performing, in general," he said. "The class is really fun and unique; everyone here is really friendly."
Tony Daddabbo, an APT board member, joked that the theater was akin to a "YMCA for the arts." On a recent Tuesday, the theater buzzed with activity, the building reverberated with a Zumba class, technical tweaks were in the last stages in the theater's 199-seat black box, and final touches were administered to the downstairs studio, where the Exchange Street Records students will eventually record the music they create.
Students will record using four JamHub devices, a multi-plug electronic mixer that allows musicians, often situated very close to one another, to don headphones, plug in their instruments and play or sing at volumes that afford them the ability to hear how they're weaving into the tapestry of sound.
"JamHub has really allowed this pop music idea to take off in the classrooms," Brian said.
That's the genre the music teachers selected for the class's first meetings. They chose the repeating chord progressions of Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound" to get the students to play together.
"It's easy to catch onto because it's so repetitive," Amanda said. "It allows them to be immediately successful."
In a nod to the legends of rock 'n' roll, the instructors have "every intent" to heed the requests of their teenage students and cover tunes by Bob Dylan and The Beatles, too, they said.
While the Francos are themselves schoolteachers, they don't plan on recreating that environment with Exchange Street Records.
"We're not treating this like school, where we give them everything," Amanda said.
Students will have assignments and be asked to conduct research on songwriters and music history. They'll also be asked to stretch themselves and sing a solo into a microphone, for example.
Or, in the case of Leah DeGraw, 15, they'll learn how to master the maroon four-string electric bass she demanded her parents give her for Christmas in 2013.
"I told my parents, 'I need to learn this,'" she said. "I brought it here to learn it."
On the first day, another student was nervous not only about learning something new, but being in a new social environment, and shared with Amanda her apprehensions. "But by the end she was like, 'Yay, I have friends,'" Amanda said.
The Francos, who've been making music together since their school days at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, appear in their element around the eager musicians. The respect they possess for music and those who play it is evident in the way Amanda hugs a ukelele as she provides direction, and in the way Brian speaks to his student bandmates, as if they're equals in the moment and not separated by years of experience.
"I think we kind of both feel these students can build a foundation to participate in music for the rest of their lives," Brian said.