November 26, 2021

Next generation music

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Elliot Brown works on his guitar part in Cortland Modern Band.

We all should put music in our lives, Tara McMahon said. “Creative outlets help you with mental health and other things. Music is a gateway to better things. Everyone should have the opportunity to play an instrument,” said the 17-year-old senior at Cortland High School.

McMahon, a drummer in the band Hungry for Water, will be one of 15 bands featured at Jamfest on June 6, a concert by musicians in Cortland Modern Band Class at the Center for the Arts of Homer.

Musicians in the class wrote and recorded their own songs and will perform 6 to 10 p.m. at the 72 S. Main St. center. They will debut a CD of their work, “Life as We Know It.”

The bands will be perform in three rooms.

“You can walk through the center and see all sorts of activity,” said music teacher and department chairwoman Jennifer Rafferty, who co-teaches Cortland Modern Band with Jon Keefner.

The acts will gather at 8:30 p.m. for their world premiere. Copies will be available at the show.

Jamfest started five years ago as a little show at the Cortland Youth Bureau, “Which was wonderful. It quickly grew,” Rafferty said. They moved to the center for more space.

McMahon and her band will reflect on poverty in a song called “Crossroads.”

“We want to empower students to understand that they have a voice. They can express themselves through music,” Keefner said.

Jennifer Rafferty, left, looks on as co-teacher Jon Keefner records music.

Rafferty and Keefner are not standing in front of a class lecturing in Cortland Modern Band. They move through classrooms, helping when needed. Students decide what direction to take.

Sometimes, the kids are at the same level of expertise in their bands. Sometimes they are not, and leaders emerge. Kids help each other and Rafferty and Keefner help the student leader to get to the next level.

For the song writing, teachers brainstormed with the kids: What do you love about Cortland? What don’t you like about Cortland?

“They picked ideas that spoke to them,” Rafferty said.

Their songs explore depression, poverty, LGBTQ rights and drug abuse. And agencies like Catholic Charities and the Cortland LGBTQ Center will have booths set up at the show.

Chris Merkley, musician and head of Old Boy Records, came to class and helped the kids work through the song writing process, Rafferty said. He received a music education grant through CNY Arts for the project. His band, Digger Jones, took the stage and walked the kids through the process of writing a song.

The teachers saw the students were afraid of their ideas. They thought they were not right and, they worried about judgment. The teachers broke through that mentality.

“Once songs were written, they arranged them with the bands and worked on recording them,” Rafferty said.

Three little recording studios line one music room at Cortland High. Keefner manned the sound board and computer system outside the studios, communicating with the kids, all through ear phones.

“I am acting kind of a duel role: acting as a sound engineer, doing the physical recording, making sure all the levels are where they need to be, and recording,” Keefner said. “Then, as a producer, making it sound as good as possible. It’s the editing process. There’s a lot of cool things you can do to make it high quality.”

Ethan Lyle learned basic guitar in seventh grade.

“That’s what got me interested. Everyone in the family plays an instrument,” Lyle said. “They are really musical. I didn’t have an instrument until I came here to the high school and started playing.”

Mason Coville, left, and Ethan Lyle at Cortland Modern Band class.

Now a junior, Lyle, 16, wrote and recorded “Ballad of Walter.” Teachers said it was so good he entered it into a national song writing contest.

“Being able to have something to put my emotion and energy into, like my song, it’s just a fun thing to do to express yourself and be creative,” Lyle said.

Ben Warholic, singer and guitarist, also took up the guitar in seventh grade in general music. “As a senior, I found this class,” he said.

Now he is learning both bass and guitar and can add songwriting to that.

His band, Fox Hollow, wrote “Tall Trees,” its unofficial name at this point.

“It was a fun experience,” Warholic said. “You get together with all your friends and create something.”

Sophomore Mason Coville, 16, is a singer and is “trying to learn how to play guitar.” His song was inspired by a cousin who has struggled with life-threatening health issues.

“I did my voice and my guitar,” he said. “I have to redo my voice. I messed it up.”

The class has been especially helpful getting him comfortable performing in public.

“I did this last year. I performed a lot and got used to it,” Coville said. “And it’s a great community to perform around. You only get advice on how to get better.”

McMahon said she will take away three ideas from the class: “Trust your instinct. Trust the people around you and find as many creative outlets as you can.”