A Reflection on the “Play” Jam Session and Documentary

by Nia Blankson

Two Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to an event that I could only dream about prior to participating in Sound Thinking NYC. Whilst in the middle of my vacation, an email appeared in my inbox stating I, along with 6 other members of the cohort were selected to preview an unreleased documentary by Dave Grohl, as well as perform in an in-studio jam session, all in Downtown Music Publishing Studios. My immediate reaction, of course, was to re-read the email a few more times to make sure I read correctly, but I instantly started panicking, as I realized I’d never actually played piano with other people before. The extent of my playing up to that point was playing extremely rehearsed classical pieces alone on a stage in front of an audience in a performance hall. Regardless of how daunting that seems, I was feeling more overwhelmed by the fact that I would have to play unrehearsed, among other people, and having to add onto what they were doing on the spot.

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Finally, the day arrived, and unaware of what really to expect, I headed down to CAT, then to Downtown Music Publishing Studios to meet the other 6 chosen. When we arrived, we met Max, who was going to be the bassist of the group, and we found out that he was seventeen, plays other instruments as well as the bass, and has had quite a bit of experience working in studios. After our friendly introductions, we were seated in studio to preview Dave Grohl’s short documentary, “Play.” The first part of the documentary featured Grohl talking about music, and interviewing kids who are a part of a music program where they learn how to play instruments in private lessons, as well as come together in a band to play through the same program. This was quite interesting to see, as the music schools I have attended, as well as most others I’ve heard about, have all been centered around teaching children how to be solo musicians, unless you’re playing in an orchestra, or an occasional duet with your teacher. It was quite inspiring to watch the kids working things out by themselves (of course under the tutelage of their instructor,) and get a glimpse into their lives in music, plus being able to relate to them in several ways as well.

The second part of the documentary included the 23 minute instrumental completely composed and played by Dave Grohl himself, in which he plays multiple instruments edited together to create a lengthy masterpiece. We all listened and watched in awe as Grohl’s instrumental took many twists and turns, almost experimenting in various genres, showcasing his multifaceted skill-set and expertise of every instrument. When the documentary and the giant, high quality speakers in the studio went quiet, everyone in the room followed suit, and you could almost hear a pin drop. It remained completely silent for a few seconds, everyone exchanging glances, before we all burst into applause.

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If I’m being completely honest, strangely enough, my favorite part of the documentary was just before it showed the final cut of the instrumental piece, and there were scenes of Dave Grohl making mistakes, doing parts of his instrumental over and over again until he got it perfect. He would either mess up a part, or simply want to give it another go as he knew for a fact he could perform much better than what he just played. These scenes highlighted my personal favorite section that stood out as it showed me that no one is perfect, and a huge part of music is trial and error. Even a professional like Dave Grohl needed multiple takes in order to get his piece to a standard that was acceptable for him.

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After the documentary ended, we ate lunch, and got ready to play in the recording studio. I personally have never been in a setting like this, and I hadn’t a clue as to how things would work. For the most part, I played the piano, occasionally switching between the synthesizer and the keyboard, but I wasn’t as comfortable with them. However, as we came up with our first melody, and began to add on to each other, although I was extremely nervous, I was becoming more comfortable with playing, and was able to figure out what to play, and how to fit in what I was playing into what everyone else was doing. The whole experience was extremely fun, and it challenged me to think quickly and collaborate with others live, but I also found it extremely helpful when Keith Johnston (CAT Program Director) was giving us some advice as we were playing that enabled us to try new things and think outside of the box.

The fact that the guest bassist, Max, that was playing with us was a male was of no real importance to me. In fact, I was quite excited that we were going to be working with someone who was already experienced working in music studios, and we all got along with him from the start. Everyone had the same goal, as at the end of the day, were just 7 musicians working together creating songs from scratch.

From watching Dave Grohl’s documentary to actually playing in the recording studio, I feel there needs to be more of an emphasis on music education. This experience had a positive impact on me, and I feel that more people could easily benefit from music education as a part of the core curriculum. Not only did both the documentary and the experience itself give me a deeper understanding into the music world, but they both highlighted the importance of collaboration, trial and error, and trying new things. Having to work with others to spontaneously produce a song, making mistakes, and attempting new things were all very prevalent in our jam session, and these are attributes that should be given more attention when it comes to music education.

I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of this experience first-hand, and my wish is that more students who are passionate about music have the opportunity to go through something even similar to this. Through watching the documentary, and being able to participate in a jam session in a recording studio, I was able to understand how important it is to sometimes just set everything aside, focus, and simply play.

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A Day at ‘Play’

by Annalise Jaffe

A few weeks ago, me and five other Sound Thinkers had the opportunity to go to Downtown Music Publishing, a legendary studio in Soho. Filled to the brim with equipment used to make groundbreaking records, we were asked to spend a few hours in this incredible setting to experiment with collaboration and improvisation.

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How did we end up here? Dave Grohl, the highly talented musician and the lead in the Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, made a documentary about the process of learning to play an instruments as a young person. He wanted young musicians around the country to watch the documentary and then, inspired by the film, collaborate in making music.

As a singer songwriter, I often write songs alone in my room and rarely have a space where I am composing music with others. Jamming was difficult. I had to be attentive to other musicians, aware not to take up too much space. Everyone has their own genre that they play.  Collaborating with no set genre in mind let me practice a whole new style of singing. Through this experience I found new appreciation of getting out my comfort zone, abandoning my fear of making mistakes, and recognizing you kind of need to mess up, to find your sound.

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Sound Music Reviews

Hi, Clara and Jasmin here! We are two students from the inaugural cohort of Sound Thinking NYC! We decided to come together to create this column to share some of our favorite pieces of music to all of our readers in hopes of expanding your palate. With our reviews of production, sound and background information, we hope to help you discover new music and artists that you normally wouldn’t listen to. Music is a very large area of opportunities and we hope through this monthly column, we could make it a little easier to get to know some great artists to watch out for! Thank you for reading!  – J & C.

Review By: Jasmin Bota

Sweetener, the fourth studio album by American pop singer Ariana Grande, is an album full of symbolism. When this album was in the works, Ariana Grande had found herself feeling “upside down” due to her rough circumstances as a result of the Manchester terrorist attacks that took place during her world tour in 2017. This event seemed to put Grande into a spiral of dangerous situations regarding mental health and a need for eliminating the toxicity within her life.

Through this album, Ariana Grande speaks on mental health, abusive relationships, important friendships, her new fiancé and her road to recovery. Songs like “Get Well Soon” carry out the symbolic theme through its length of time. At the end of this song, Grande decided to add 40 seconds of silence to match the date of these attacks. Grande uses lots of harmonies and whispery singing to give the feeling of self-discovery and healing. So many harmonies were added to the point where Grande has admitted to maxing out ProTools various times! Produced by Pharrell, this album is an album of truth and promise.

Rating: 4/5
Song: Get Well Soon
Artist: Ariana Grande


Review By: Clara O’Connell

Underworld, the fourth studio album by Australian rock band Tonight Alive, is a journey through the process of healing, both physically and spiritually. When the band went to Thailand to record, singer Jenna McDougall was suffering with chronic eczema, severe allergic reactions to food, and chronic fatigue and irritability. But she believed that these symptoms were physical manifestations of the emotional scars inside. The album addresses finding who you are, becoming that person, and loving that person.

In “Disappear,” featuring Lynn Gunn from PVRIS, McDougall sings of both being invisible and wanting to be invisible, a reflection of how the music industry treats women. “My Underworld,” a song with an amazing guest appearance from Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, is about coming to terms with your dark side; conversely “Looking for Heaven” is about finding a heaven within yourself. But each song on the record offers its own powerful message, whether it be about love of someone else or self-love, accepting your differences or being unapologetically you. Sonically, the album is a mixture between their earlier work and their 2016 release, Limitless. At the time of its creation, Limitless was the album that their previous label, Sony Music Australia, was wanting from them. It was a departure from the pop punk sound that Tonight Alive was known for; instead, it offered a more polished, poppier sound. Switching to Hopeless Records, the band had more control in the process, which allowed them to combine and change their sounds in a more comfortable way.

Underworld offers both the head-banging, yelling moments of their first two records, and the danceability of Limitless.

Rating: 4.5/5
Album: Underworld, Hopeless Records
Artist: Tonight Alive