Inspired Together: How My Students and I Built a Record Label to Showcase Their Work

Dan Black • March 2021Modern Band • March 6, 2021

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“Are we going to do a concert?!”

Music teachers everywhere have been asked this question at some point this school year, and for each of them, it’s been a complicated one to answer. At the same time, the rightful attention to issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and access in arts education classrooms challenges us to consider how we’re enabling all students to grow into their own unique voices. As teachers, it’s incumbent upon us to honor this unprecedented moment in education as an opportunity to discover new approaches to reaching students and enabling them to thrive as artists.

In my classroom, we attempted to meet this moment by embarking on a project to transform our orchestra program into Lynx Orchestra Studios, our own newly-created record label, which in the end released ten albums of student-created music and website content. Through the generous support of the Council Bluffs Schools Foundation, we used Soundtrap, an online digital audio workstation (DAW), to create and record new music. Regardless of each student’s setting—in-person, hybrid, or learning remotely—this unit provided a way for them to engage in the artistic processes of making music and do so in meaningful and authentic ways appropriate for their learning situation.

The unit began with a project called Who Are You Today? Serving as an introduction to creating music for Lynx Orchestra Studios, this project gave students a way to explore their identities as composers. Tasked with creating a short composition that communicated who they are in any given moment, students explored how their music can give voice to their own perspectives and stories rather than simply composing something the teacher would like to hear.1 From there, the Inspired Together project took students deeper into their personal artistic inspiration and gave them their first opportunities for creative collaboration. As collaborative partners, students chose a personal photo they took to serve as inspiration for creating a new piece of music. By design, the work in this project was inspired by their real-life experiences and connections, an element I felt was critical to engaging them and caring for their mental health during a difficult year.

Building technique with technology allows students to express themselves with this tech just as they do with their voices or instruments. By affording them sufficient opportunities to learn the software and understand its creative potential, we set a foundation for success in subsequent creations. By the end of these two projects, students acquired and applied advanced skills with technology, such as automating volume or using effects, and applied new knowledge to their craft as creators with concepts like form or harmonic structure. In our large ensemble rehearsals, this work shifted student focus from simply prepping for the next concert to the techniques and strategies needed to express themselves through their own voices. Mastering the fundamentals of playing technique then became more than earning a score on the next playing assessment or a rating at a contest—it became a path to individual artistry and deeper engagement.

Finally, students were challenged with one final project – The Band Broke Up (Kind Of), an assignment inspired by a lesson template in Soundtrap’s educational resources.2 In our version of this project, students collaborated in groups of six to offer peer feedback, refine past work, create new work, and “perform” the work in a manner authentic to the medium. The scenario: having just finished a tour as a band, their record label needed them to create and produce a new album for a December release, just in time for the holidays. Students assumed roles within their new bands as audio engineer, marketing specialist, web designer, and studio musicians. The audio engineer’s job was to refine and mix every track group’s members created in the first two projects. The marketing specialist gathered the inspiration and photos for the music played “on tour” from past projects. With that collected content, the web designer worked to present the album on our newly created record label website via Google Sites. Students grew into each role by using instructional resources I created, such as videos of me modeling the process of mixing a track or adding and editing elements in Google Sites. Finally, the three remaining student collaborators served as studio musicians, creating a brand new track so the album wasn’t just a re-release of prior material.

The record label website provided an authentic way for students to present their work. As we all know, performing music for a playing assessment is very different from engaging an audience. Similarly, simply turning in a composition assignment is very different from making conscious choices about how to present for an intended effect or taking into account how an audience might interact with their work in unexpected ways. To promote these experiences for students, visitors to our site had two ways of interacting with the content, both driven through simple Google Forms: First, fans could nominate songs for an eventual top-ten list posted on the front page. Second, to offer their perspective on the music, listeners and fellow artists could comment on music through the Compliment Exchange. I simply processed the form data into the top-ten list and filtered compliments to the artists after a given time period.

Not only did the students rise to the occasion to release their music to our community through Lynx Orchestra Studios, but they came away from the unit empowered as artists. Polling my students in their final submission, the vast majority made clear that creating new music should happen often in our class, and even more supported trying new, innovative approaches to performing music going forward. The previous status quo will be a strong force as life returns to what we thought of as normal after the pandemic, but I know that in my own little corner of the world, we’ll carry these experiences forward with enthusiasm and pride.

See the website and check out the teaching resources online –


Dan Black teaches music in the Council Bluffs Community School District and serves to support arts education in the state of Iowa as a member of the Iowa Department of Education Fine Arts Leadership Team, board member of the Iowa Music Educators Association, and executive board member of the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education.

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