by Karen Tracy
Recording your own original song in a professional recording studio isn’t an opportunity most high school students have. But, after Grammy Award-winning songwriter Dennis Matkosky visited Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) last year and taught a master class for aspiring songwriters, it became clear that there were a number of SCH students who had the talent and passion to take to a professional recording studio.
Using dollars generated through the generous contributions of the friends and family of CHA alumnus Jamie Bell ‘78, a recording project in his name was established. Through the Jamie Bell ’78 Fund, four SCH students over the course of this school year will have the chance to record their original work at Miner Street Recording Studio. This iconic studio, located in Fishtown before Fishtown was even a Philly hotspot, is run by recording legend, producer and UArts professor Brian McTear.
After completing an intensive application process, senior Amber Stallworth, 18, was the first to earn a day in the studio. She was chosen based on a rubric that graded her piece on form, melody, chord progression, originality and performance readiness. To prepare her composition, she met with SCH’s Dr. Ellen Fishman, director of Arts and New Media, and Dr. Megan Monaghan on the vocals. Fellow music faculty Matt Brandt assembled and rehearsed the band that would accompany Amber, including other SCH musicians past and present — Cameron Rogers ’16, a professional drummer, Dan Zahal ’21 on bass, and Brandt on keyboards.
With two weeks of rehearsals under their belt, the group was ready to hit the studio. When they arrived, McTear explained his role as the producer and introduced Amber to the recording engineer. Over the course of the next eight hours, the team dug into making magic happen, recording her song track by track. At the end of the night, there was a professionally mastered mix of “Decline,” ready to be uploaded and shared with the world!
While Amber was in front of the mic, another SCH student, sophomore Victor Kasian, had a chance to go behind the scenes and shadow the recording engineer. Over the next several hours, Victor learned how to set up the microphones and listen for sound quality, then watched how the engineer shaped the mix all the way to the final master.
Megan Monaghan, reflecting on the day’s experience, said, “It was pure magic. Amber came alive in this space, and everything she’s been working towards just blossomed. Vocally she found a perfect place in her voice and a confidence with it.” Fishman echoed this comment about the team effort, saying, “it’s essential for students to realize that they can’t do this work exclusively on the computer.”
A seasoned composer who is at home in the recording studio herself, Fishman elaborated, “When Brian and I began talking about how to create an experience for our students, we discussed the importance of working with musicians, collaborating with a producer, and learning to listen critically. With the resources at SCH and Miner Street Studios, we could hit on all of these things.”
For Amber, who has said that “music is what I was born to do,” the experience in the recording studio was transformative. When interviewed after the session, she was still a bit speechless, stunned at the difference between her computer-based mix and the final mix in the studio. Smiling ear to ear, she said, “It sounds so much better … so advanced … I just love it!“
A resident of Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia, Amber told us, “I’m not sure yet where I’m going to college, but I have applied for music production or music business. I started vocal lessons at the beginning of September. All in all, I want to be a producer/singer/songwriter and to own my own arts and entertainment company. Also, to be an author. I look up to Rihanna, Michael Jackson, TLC, Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin.”
SCH also featured Amber on their social media campaign recently which highlights a student who has a specific “happy place” on campus. Her “#HomeSweetSCH choice” is the school’s recording studio. “Whether I am in the studio by myself or with a few friends, the creative atmosphere is so welcoming.”
You can hear Amber’s song, “Decline,” at https://jamiebellrecordingproject.bandcamp.com/releases