A child in a white polo pokes his head into the studio window. Just outside, several other kids are clamoring round ping-pong tables; this guy, however, wants to come in and bang on the drum set in the corner of the room, prominently stationed under an actual light truss. “Is it all right with Miss Jenny if I come in?” he asks as I open the door. I’m fairly sure she won’t mind, but I glance behind me to make sure. In the adjacent room, the teal-haired youth instructor Jen Hodges waves from her computer. “Hey, Emmanuel,” she says. All clear. So the boy runs by me, sits down on the throne, and pounds away. Before long, another boy — same age, but a more reserved demeanor – walks in, and seats himself on a box beside the drum kit. Only when he beats at the sides do I realize he’s on another instrument. I’ve wandered into a jam session.
I’m not at any typical recording studio, of course. We’re in the Notes for Notes studio space, located inside the Boys and Girl Club in Lakewood. The national non-profit has provided kids free access to professional instruments and recording software for nearly a decade, but Atlanta’s branch has only been around since 2015. And while they’re in no dire straits now, they’ll need support from the community to stay afloat for next year. That’s why Hodges and promotion maestro Juliett Rowe have thrown together a star-studded benefit gig tonight at Smith’s Olde Bar, with recent commercial star Alex Guthrie as the headliner. They both expect a huge turnout, and every dollar they raise will go back to the Notes for Notes studio, and the 300 youths currently enrolled in the program.
“It’s a place where everyone can get together,” says Hodges. “There’s no judgment, no barriers. There’s no ‘I don’t want to work with this person because X, Y, and Z.’ Everyone wants to collaborate.”
Learning to learn
Hodges can certainly attest to the benefits of playing music at a young age. Now 32, the multi-talented musician had already picked up piano, bass, guitar, and drums before she even hit her teen years. For her, the process of mastering an instrument taught her how to grasp any intellectual challenge. “I had terrible grades, for a long time,” Hodges recalls. “And then I started learning music, and realized that I can learn, and how to learn. If I could learn music, I could learn how to build a porch. The world is a little less scary.”
With her early tutelage and thorough background — at 23 she was gigging in bands, recording music, attending classes at Berkeley, and sniffing out talent for a Nashville nightclub — Hodges gravitated readily to the N4N program. She’d found the youth coach opening one morning five years ago, on Craigslist of all places, as her current employers were shifting from a record label into a stock broker. “I went in, just to see what it was all about,” says Hodges, “and I jammed with the kids, and I was like, ‘Wow! This is awesome! I love this!’ And lucky for me, I got the job.” Hodges had no prior experience teaching or working with children prior to N4N, but with her clear expertise and devotion to music, she was a natural fit.
At the studio, I watch Hodges teach one of her students, Jayden, how to play most of a bossa nova beat in under 15 minutes. (Earlier, while he was jamming with Emmanuel, I asked the 9-year-old what instruments he could play. He replied “everything.” He’s only been in the program four weeks.) After jotting down the pattern on paper, she briefs Jayden on the rhythm, and then coaches him as he chews through each part. Gears are clearly churning in his head as he starts, slips on a certain rhythm, and stops to listen to Hodges’ advice; after every error, he jumps back in with the same determined zeal. I’m reminded of the similar experiences I’ve had in my teens on the clarinet, and the physical and mental wrestling required to master the trickiest measures.
Before they began, however, Hodges asked Jayden if he’d been “using his imagination” at home. Every tutor that instructs a skill struggles from time to time with students that don’t practice outside the lesson; many of Hodges’ students, however, don’t own any of the gear available in the studio — especially not full drum kits. So she encourages kids to simply pretend they’re on the throne at home, and air drum with pencils or pens. “I tell them, if they imagine doing that for two minutes a day, you’ll remember the beat next week,” Hodges says. “And it’s been working. Better than nothing.”
Bridging a beckoning gap
Of course, access to high-quality equipment that most kids can’t afford is the main draw of N4N. Since its inception, Atlanta’s branch has maintained its full stable of options through a generous grant from the Country Music Association Foundation, along with individual donations from brands like Casio, Gibson, and Sony. But when the studio reached its second anniversary back in July, CMA began to scale back funding, on the premise that N4N could sustain itself with support from the community.
Hence, with tonight’s gig at Smith’s, Hodges and Rowe aim to bridge that beckoning gap with local star power. Rowe secured all the artists on the bill, including Guthrie, whom both planners hope will draw in crowds after his recent spot with Jennifer Hudson on an American Family Insurance commercial. She’s also enlisted D’Angelo Miles, an exceedingly confident rapper who honed his chops in the N4N program. (“My first impression [of N4N] was, ‘Wow, home! Somewhere I can create beautiful music anytime I want,” he tells me over email.) Pulsing pop purveyor Chelsea Shag and R&B artist Baby Rose round up the soul-infused evening.
As for the late October date, both Hodges and Rowe had their fingers crossed. As all Atlanta gig-goers know, this month has been packed to the brim with ginormous festivals, and the planners worried that their artists (especially Guthrie) would be bound by some prior commitment. Fortunately, everyone was game; Guthrie even had time to visit the studio in late September. “We sang some Bill Withers together,” Hodges recalls. “Well, they sang. I didn’t sing, I can’t sing very well.”
The upper hand
Regardless of her vocal prowess, Hodges can certainly sing about the great boon that N4N can bring to local youth. “[Learning music] teaches you how to work with others,” she says. “It gives you confidence, it teaches you a work ethic, gives you something to work for.”
While the lifelong musician could easily vouch for those claims with her own experience, research currently underway at N4N could prove her claims. Last summer, Hodges hired a PhD candidate from Georgia Tech, who designed custom machine learning tools to measure the emotional intelligence of students at various stages in the N4N program. “Emotional intelligence,” in this study, consisted of four main traits — confidence, creativity, respect, and a service mindset. So far, the results sound impressive. “I took a youth who had been there about a year, took lyrics from his first song, and compared that with lyrics from his last song,” Hodges explains. “And we found that, within the span of a year, youth will grow an average of 5% in these categories. And then we took a youth who had been in the program five years, and we found he had grown 20% in each of those categories.”
During my visit to the studio, I also witness another advantage that young artists gain over their older counterparts: early industry savvy. On one of the computers in the back, 15-year-old Corey, aka Lilfacetime, was scanning YouTube for the next beat that really “thumped” with him. “But it has to say ‘free,’ or else someone could sue you,” he warns me, as he flips through samples from the likes of Playboi Carti, Ugly God, and Tash. Thanks to the StudioOne software at N4N, Corey and his crew have dropped a steady stream of tracks over the past six months, with some raking in over 1,000 plays on SoundCloud. His biggest hit so far is his ode to the grind, “Moneybag,” with over 5,000 spins in three months. But his ultimate goal, Corey tells me, is to start a record label, so that he can keep earning those bags long after he retires from making music. “You gotta spend money to make money,” he says, as Hodges nods in the corner.
Corey and his other mates at N4N could have the upper hand on musicians nearly twice his age, including those at the benefit. While D’Angelo dropped his first four mixtapes through Notes for Notes, he’d never picked up music in his younger years. But Chelsea Shag, the musical moniker of singer-songwriter Chelsea Szegidewicz, can at least vouch for the confidence she’s earned from practicing drums and guitar before her teen years. “Music allowed me to express myself and continues to today,” she tells me over email. “It made me happy and it allowed me to release things that I didn’t quite understand at that age.”
Big crowds, good vibes
Hodges aims to raise $10,000 this year to bridge the fiscal gap left behind by CMA’s scaled-back funding. Not all of that will stem from the upcoming benefit — she and Rowe plan to throw a holiday shindig later this winter, like last year’s gig at 529 that collected donations in both cash and discarded instruments. And the day that I interviewed her, Hodges planned to visit the Center for Civic Innovation to apply for a fellowship that would help fund more research.
Nevertheless, she and Rowe expect to pull in a generous chunk of that goal from this benefit — especially at Smith’s, one of Atlanta’s most venerated bar venues. “I hope we pack it out, I hope people enjoy themselves,” says Hodges. “I hope we raise a little money so we can continue to teach. And just good vibes.”
The Notes for Notes benefit show goes down tonight at Smith’s Olde Bar. The lineup features Alex Guthrie, Chelsea Shag, D’Angelo Miles, and Baby Rose. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $10-50. 21+ to enter.