Students from the Philadelphia School District got a lesson in music-making straight from one of the industry’s biggest modern breakout artists: Corinne Bailey Rae.
In an intimate session held before Rae’s Union Transfer show on Wednesday night, the British musician and two-time Grammy winner got “personal-ish” about her own journey to stardom, how she battles professional doubt, and bucking the pressure to fit in with today’s music landscape.
“I definitely feel and have felt pressure,” Rae told the group. “When you’re amongst other people, you compare yourself to other people or compare yourself to others’ success or sound. But I don’t think I need to get on to that bandwagon because I feel excited about doing things that are different. … I think sometimes the people who are most successful are the people who don’t or can’t fit in.”
After wrapping her soundcheck, Rae sat down with 30 students from Franklin Learning Center, Thomas Edison High School, and Benjamin Rush High School and took questions, dished out encouragement, and offered tips for breaking into the industry. While some students took the opportunity to ask Rae about how she handles fame and met musical giants like Beyoncé and Prince, the singer also fielded questions about her songwriting process and what to expect out of label meetings.
“This is like the nitty-gritty of everything rather than like, ‘Oh here’s a sheet of music. Learn it,’ said Luis Perez, a 17-year-old student from Northeast Philadelphia who attends the Franklin Learning Center. “She’s helping us start to understand what it’s actually like to perform and what it actually feels like onstage working with people.”
Rae has done a number of similar music education events. She says talking directly with youths is something that she enjoys, mainly for the inspiration and honesty it offers. She saw the question-and-answer session as being as much about confidence-building as an opportunity to prepare students for a business that has dramatically evolved since Rae rose to fame in 2006.
“When my first record came out, you had to go to a shop and buy it, and now it’s completely different,” Rae said. “They can just go on YouTube and Pandora. With that income stream, such a small amount of money goes to the artist and young musicians have to deal with that. But on the other hand, it’s easier to actually make music. You can have a studio just in your computer. You can make music on your phone. You can put it out there in front of all these people.”
As part of the event, students were invited to stay for Rae’s show.
“A lot of our barriers as students are economic because we’re kind of working from absolutely nothing — saving money and getting what we can get and doing what we can do while trying to learn whatever we can learn for as cheap as possible,” Nyla Ellis, 17, a student a Franklin Learning Center, said. “So for me this experience is really a confirmation that I can do it. Even though I’m not working from much, if I’m passionate about it, I can do it.”
The evening was hosted as part of a partnership between Philly public schools and the Grammy Music Education Coalition. Launched two years ago, the GMEC partnered with three districts to design a music education program that responded to student interests, addressed holes in the current curriculum, and ultimately offered skill-building and fostered job readiness.
Mentors and educators from the local Destined to Achieve Successful Heights (DASH) program are placed directly in classrooms where they offer composition, technology, and business training beyond traditional band or orchestra opportunities. The program, which teaches youths how to make and sell music through the recording process or business marketing, currently includes three schools with plans to scale to 15 or more in the near future.
“We’re looking at music through the lens and archives of Philly musicians or a modern band initiative,” Nick Costa, a music teacher who specializes in drum lessons for the School District Of Philadelphia. “We’ve noticed a huge increase in numbers with students now interested in music because they’d rather get together with their friends and learn a pop tune than sit in a classroom and learn about orchestra or concert band or styles of music they might not listen to outside of school."
Rae’s relationship to music started in elementary school, and she says programs like this can be important — especially in light of how very little her own educational experiences prepared her beyond the building blocks of music composition.