Holly Tarnower (she/her) is a Teaching Artist with Urban Improv and Rehearsal for Life’s Resident Scholar. Her blog, Life Unscripted, offers audiences a deeper look into our organization’s work, shedding light on our processes, practices and experiences with students. According to Holly, staying connected to — and being able to look more closely at — a diversity of perspectives, including on youth experience and expression during these times, is vital for all of us.

“A Conversation on Music in the Urban Improv Classroom”

Urban Improv has always incorporated music into everything we do. We start each workshop with original songs that reinforce our curriculum and spark conversation. We also guide students through making their own music, either to underscore group scenes or to realize and produce their independent vision. Even while students trickle through the door upon entering and departing (be it the doors of the Hyde Square Task Force or the figurative portals  to Zoom classrooms), we always have music playing in the background, enveloping our learning space with comfort, joy and creativity. 

Music has long been a proven multifaceted learning tool. Studies over decades have shown that music can speed up learning, boost student engagement, improve students’ focus and help students to memorize and better retain difficult material. It also has been proven to be a great tool for students with impulse-control issues and those with language-based learning disabilities.(1, 2) 

In winter 2021, I “sat down” (virtually) with Urban Improv’s two resident musicians, Kevin Madison and Cooper Evello, to discuss the use of music as an educational tool, the work they do and the joy of music. The transcript of our conversation below has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Holly: As musicians, what drew you to Urban Improv? 

Kevin: The improvisational element. I was working with classical music for a while, but I love improvising. I thought it was really cool to get to play piano to underscore live scenes.

Cooper: I was initially drawn to it because I liked the idea of having a salaried position where I play and perform music everyday! Once I got into the role and learned more about it, I was really drawn to it because I loved the idea of writing music that could speak to the youth of Boston. I think a dream that I’ve always had is writing pop music that changes the world, rather than makes it worse. I think a lot of pop music has a lot of sexism and racism and homophobia and capitalist ideas in it. 

K: Mm-hmm. 

C: It’s so catchy, you just can’t resist listening to it, and then the ideas get stuck in your head — so I really like the idea of writing songs that have that same catchy, melodic, infectious characteristic[s], but instead, starts to spread ideas that help you decide, “Hey, I can be a different person,” or, “I don’t need this toxicity from that human being or concept,” or whatever — ideas that change the world for the better. Because when a song has a positive message, and you wanna keep listening to it and share it with your friends — there’s just so much power in that, because they’re gonna hear those words and feel those emotions and think about it even deeper.

H: What have you personally seen through working with the students at Urban Improv in terms of how music positively impacts them? 

K: For me, Youth Unscripted was where I saw it the most. It can be harder to gauge the reaction in the big workshops, but you get that moment of showing a young person that they can be an artist and that it’s really not this gatekept, impossible thing for them. You help draw it out of them, and then they have the tools to go back and do it themselves. 

C: With Youth Unscripted I remember creating a rap song with one of our students,, producing it, recording it and then sending it out. Four to six months later, he sent me an album that he had recorded and rapped on. That felt so cool. It’s exactly what you’re saying, Kevin, “You did it once with us, so I felt like I could do it and then I went off and did it like ten more times.” 

H: What do you think is the impact of starting our lessons with a song? 

C: When the kids are like, “Woah, this is actually good,” or, “This is tight!,” then they are more likely to buy in to the rest of the day. It piques their interest. 

K: When we show them a song that they actually like and relates to them in terms of what is musically appealing and impressive to them, it really builds a sense of trust in us as artists, and what we’re here to do with them. 

H: As musicians, along with your experience at Urban Improv, how do you think music can be used as a learning tool, specifically for Social Emotional Learning (SEL)? 

C: I think with music and SEL, music can bring up an emotion really easily and uniquely, and that’s powerful. If kids are having trouble finding words to express what they’re feeling or what they want to create, especially on Zoom ,I’ll have them go on YouTube and pull up a beat, which tells me right away that they want this kind of song or vibe, and they’re feeling this kind of emotion. It’s also another creative outlet at their disposal, so, if you’re feeling a certain way, then you can write a song about it or put the energy from that feeling into playing your guitar or practicing piano. Music can be an outlet for people when they have feelings that are existential, or even just stress, or, like, the logistics of the day, or whatever.

K: Music allows you to access more vulnerable places more easily. Instead of having to draw it out like pulling teeth, it’s so much easier to get to the heart of the thing through a song, as opposed to feeling awkward just talking about something. 

C: You practice being vulnerable with song. It’s an easier place. For some reason culturally, you can more easily express yourself emotionally, particularly with more difficult emotions, if you’re singing it, and it’s harder to say when you’re just in a conversation with friends. 

That’s the beauty of the arts in general and exposing kids to them: there’s this alternate way to access and process emotions that you might not process as readily otherwise, or are too afraid to talk about with other people. And then, with art, you not only have an emotional outlet, but you’re also getting to turn things that are really difficult, or which you might even be ashamed of, into something beautiful.

What has the process for creating music for Urban Improv been like for you this year?


K: Well, for me it’s been an interesting journey because I started out very much on the classical side of things, not knowing very much about production and not fully understanding how to write a song that would achieve a specific goal. A lot of what I was doing was very abstract, and no one could really say for sure what any one song was about. So, it’s been an amazing way to kind of narrow down how I communicate with people; I feel like I’m still learning that.

On top of that, I’ve had so many moments of just joy. Even songs that have been challenging, or that I have to keep changing — I was just listening back to one of those, and I was just so happy with it and how it turned out — even though it was a difficult process getting there. 

C: Yeah, like the “Fly” song Kevin wrote for our elementary-grade gender identity unit) — the kids loved it. As a musician you’re always like, “Okay, I don’t know why people are responding to this one, this is weird,” and then it picks up momentum and kids are listening to it over and over.And “Fly” has a great message to it! So, through your superpower of music, you created something that has a really positive message to it, and the kids are listening to it and watching it again and again.

I really like what’s happening this year. Normally, we are performing live, and we have mixed skill levels of vocals, no microphones and just one keyboard, so it’s really fun for me to have a creative outlet and process for creating music, where we can really tweak it until it shines.That’s really fun for me in producing music this year. It’s also really fun to be able to do it with a collaborator like Kevin.

H:  Give me a few sentences on how you take just a concept or theme and turn it into a song for our students. 

K: Normally I start with a drum beat or groove, because that glues everything together. IThen I start to put lyrics over it; most of the time, my lyrics are improvisatory. I’ll do it one piece at a time, and then it all just kind of comes together, and then I’ll look at it and go back and change it how I want, or perfect it. 

C: I talk to people about the concept of the song — especially at Urban Improv where I’m working with awesome artists, and I’m writing songs about social justice, injustices and specific ways of life or experiences that I have not necessarily ever led or experienced. I try to get one main idea, figure out what the vibe is gonna be, then go and write the chords, (your main musical part of it). Then  I make a musical version of that idea through the chords and the musical vibe. Then I arrange it, add a beat to that, I add other instruments I hear in my head, then will write the lyrics. The melody usually comes from that. After all of these different pieces come together, I have a fully actualized song. 

H: Any last thing you’re dying to tell the readers?

C: The snare drum should be louder than the kick.

And there we have it.

Sending Love, Creativity and Hope,
-Holly Tarnower (Teaching Artist, Resident Scholar)

Check out Urban Improv’s latest musical creations on our SoundCloud!

1 Ringgenberg, Shelly. “Music as a Teaching Tool: Creating Story Songs.” YC Young Children, vol. 58, no. 5, 2003, pp. 76–79. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42728992. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021. 

2 Schmidt, Lloyd. “Music as a Learning Mode.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 63, no. 1, 1976, pp. 94–97. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3395082. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.