Greensboro native David Willis, professionally known as music producer Ski Beatz, or Ski, used to tap out rhythms with a pencil against his desk or wooden spoon against a table top. Anything to get the rhythm out of his head, in to the real world.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Willis was touched when he recently received a video from Caswell County School Secondary Curriculum & CTE Director Emily Buchanan, showing a N.L. Dillard Middle School student pounding out a beat using nothing but a pencil and desk.
“When [Emily] sent me that video and he was sitting there, making a beat on his desk with his pencil, it reminded me of myself, because I was just like him,” Willis said. “Beating pencils on a desk. Whatever it took to get the beat out of my head.”
The student Willis saw in the video was a student at N.L. Dillard Middle School and of the school’s music production program — a recently implemented curriculum at N.L. Dillard and Bartlett Yancey. Designed to give students insight and hands-on experience to the world of music production.
According to Buchanan, there are currently 55 students enrolled in the program at BY, with more on a waiting list, while 40 students are participating in the program at N.L. Dillard. Solid numbers considering the program was only implemented in August.
In order to complete the program, students take three courses where they’re not only taught music production, but the business structure of the industry and professionalism.
Students start the program with the basics, learning how to make beats on a studio program known as Playground Studios, which allows the students to compose, record, edit and save their own beats.
Sounds range from the modern sounds of today’s hip-hop to jazz to funk to video-game theme songs and even the old children’s rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The next phase of the program involves teaching students how to layer and mix their music. A skill often overlooked in the making of an album.
Finally, students are taught how to network and the correct ways to send correspondence to record labels or performers.
The idea for the program was born this year when Wills met Caswell County Schools Accountability Director Medina Jones.
“I ended up doing this class in Raleigh and I sat down with [Medina] and I told her I had somebody who was going to help me with a curriculum for the classes I was doing and she said, ‘Hey, that’s what we do,’” Willis said, laughing.
“Then she connected me with [Emily] and we started talking about it.”
The two went above talking though as Buchanan got the process rolling from the school administration’s office while Willis started working on a series of instructional videos. Soon, the program was formed.
Ninety-five have enrolled in the program since its inception at the beginning of the 2019 school year.
For N.L. Dillard student Jamyan Lipscomb, the program has not only helped him get out his ideas, but provided him with some insight about himself and provided him a few new buddies as well.
“For one, I’ve made friends, then two, I didn’t really have an idea that I was good at making beats,” Lipscomb said. “Me and my friends would pencil tap on tables or with our knuckles and I ended up being pretty good at it.”
N.L. Dillard sixth-grader Deacon Perkins, made a name for himself last year. He decided to enroll in the program because of that reputation.
“Well, if you know me from fifth grade, I was always making beats with my mouth,” Perkins said. “I’ve always made weird beats with my mouth so when I heard about the program, I had to sign up.”
Since being discovered by infamous producer DJ Clark Kent in the late 1980s, Willis has worked on classic albums such as Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt,” Camp Lo’s “Uptown Saturday Night” and has worked with Gwen Stefani as well.
Given his knowledge and proximity to the area, it was a no-brainer for Willis to start the program.
“If you’ve been there and done it, the students tend to respect it,” Willis said. “If they’re getting info directly from the horse’s mouth, they love it. I’m more than welcoming in sharing my knowledge and experiences with kids who want to learn.”
“It’s a big factor, being in the music industry and being able to have knowledge to bring to the man is definitely a big factor and the students gravitate towards that.”
For Perkins, the hands on-experienced he’s gained so far, has been more than valuable.
“Playing on Playground, learning what the pros do,” replied Perkins, after being asked the program’s biggest benefit.
Lipscomb has enjoyed learning from others.
“Being able to hear other people’s beats and I’m not going to say copy them, but learn from them and try to get some inspiration,” said Lipscomb. “It’s fun to listen to other people’s beats and get inspired by them.”