Story by Anitra Budd
When Jack Kolb-Williams heard the nonprofit he directs had received an Arts Learning grant from MRAC, it was music to his ears. Kolb-Williams is executive director of Twin Cities Catalyst Music (TCCM), and the grant was in support of a youth-centered music education program called Burnsville Made Music, or BMM.
TCCM was founded in 2015 for the purpose of operating the Garage, an all-ages music venue and recording space in Burnsville, Minnesota. “Since 1999, the city of Burnsville had run the Garage,” explains Kolb-Williams. “But when it was no longer sustainable for the city, we founded TCCM to re-open the Garage as an independent, nonprofit-run facility.”
While the Garage didn’t originally host educational programming, Kolb-Williams—who went to school to be a band teacher before moving into the music industry—saw the space’s potential. BMM was soon formed as a collaboration between the City of Burnsville, ISD 191 (the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district), the Minnesota Valley YMCA, and TCCM.
“The idea of using the facility for educational opportunities centered around music production—songwriting, performance opportunities, and multimedia project-based work—was part of our greater vision for the collaboration from the start,” he says. “We have concerts on nights and weekends, and our recording studio space is used for commercial work. But in the hours after school, it used to be kind of dormant. With my background in music education, I always had this dream of being able to utilize the Garage as an educational facility, in turn supporting the other programming that was already happening in the space.”
In the BMM program, students learn a variety of audio and video production techniques, as well as information on musical artistry. They offer two courses. One, focused on lyric writing elements—bar structure, song structure, flow, harmony, melody, timing and rhythm in general—is taught by Chadwick “Niles” Phillips. “A lot of students have innate skills in these areas,” says Kolb-Williams, “but Niles gets them thinking about those concepts critically. We also do a lot of open group work where students talk about their songs and play them for each other. That then morphs into the second course, where we bring in our studio manager Rob Frost to teach them the technology by getting them in the sound booth and recording studio to learn the other side of the process.
The program’s work is as much about educating the community as it is about educating students. “We allow them to express their feelings about situations they encounter every day. Burnsville has its own issues, which young people are witnessing and encountering on a daily basis. Those life experiences have become the cornerstone and driving force behind a lot of the songs the students are doing. Being able to share their feelings and art on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud legitimizes their perspectives and gets them out there for folks in the community to take in and see and really listen to.”
Last year, BMM saw 150 students enrolled across the entire program from three middle school sites in Burnsville, an average of about 10 to 18 students a day, four days a week. The program has been operating for long enough now that Kolb-Williams has known some students for a significant portion of their lives. “It’s incredible,” he says. “We started seeing the first batch as incoming sixth graders. Now that they’re in high school, they come back to mentor students who are currently in the program.”
The previous students’ creative output also serves to guide and inspire new enrollees. “There’s now a back catalog of live performances we’ve recorded on video, studio recordings of songs, and more that incoming students can see and absorb, to see what’s possible.”
BMM’s goals for the future include serving high school students. As Kolb-Williams explains, “We’ve got students who are progressing through this middle school program and leaning on afterschool services like snacks and transportation. That has all the stakeholders looking for ways we can stay involved with these students and continue to build with them through high school.”
One way TCCM is testing the waters is through the development of credit-bearing courses. “We worked with the school district to rewrite Niles’s course to fit Minnesota educational standards,” says Kolb-Williams. “We’re hoping this will be a stepping-stone to actually offering courses for high school credit out of our space.”
Kolb-Williams sees MRAC as fundamental to TCCM’s success. “They’ve been a massive resource for us. I can’t express how thankful we are and how lucky we all are to have them as asset for this community. We’ve been able to utilize MRAC in different capacities over the years as we’ve expanded not only this program but the other programs we offer out of the space. In terms of grants, MRAC was literally the place where we learned how to do . . . well, everything!”
And clearly, they’re fast learners: TCCM just received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, their first ever, which will help guarantee that even more Burnsville students have the means to make powerful, exciting music of their own.
Anitra Budd is a freelance copywriter and editor for a variety of clients, including independent authors, the Loft Literary Center, FedEx, Thrivent Financial, Wise Ink, Red Line Editorial, and 3M. In her past job as editor at Coffee House Press she worked with a number of authors, including Kirsten Kaschock, T. Geronimo Johnson, Kate Bernheimer, Ron Padgett, Lincoln Michel, Christopher Merkner, and many others. In addition to her writing and editorial work, she’s an editor mentor in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College (Incline Village, Nevada) and has taught courses at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College.