This article first appeared in Kidsburgh.org, a media partner of NEXTpittsburgh that focuses on making Pittsburgh a better place to raise kids.
As an executive producer for WYEP’s Reimagination project, a music education program for Pittsburgh teens, Greg Joseph sees firsthand the power of mentorship.
“All music is local music, whether you’re The Beatles or Dave Matthews or The Grateful Dead. Everybody started somewhere,” says Joseph, bass player for The Clarks. “Back in our early days, there was very limited advice about the music industry. Having the opportunity that these kids have puts them on a completely different level. They are way ahead of the game.”
Now in its eighth year, Reimagination pairs high school solo artists and bands with producers, musicians and recording studios to nurture their creativity and help them channel it into success.
This year’s group is made up of five ninth-graders, a sophomore, five juniors and three seniors from across the Pittsburgh region. Each applied by sending an original song to the station last fall.
When 15-year-old Sulwe Okoko saw an ad for Reimagination 8, she thought it would be the perfect launchpad for a music career.
“I had the content, I just needed the audience,” she says. “I figured that this project would not only give me the opportunity to share my music with more people, but it would also give me the experience to work in a professional environment.”
The Winchester Thurston student, who sings and plays piano and ukulele, spent a day in the studio perfecting the song “Note to Self,” an ode to self-care and having a positive mindset, while also learning about radio promotion, social media, songwriting and digital distribution.
“The process was inspiring and comfortable,” Sulwe says. “I constantly felt supported and listened to when I shared my ideas for the song. When I walked out of the studio, I thought to myself: This is exactly what I want to continue doing.”
Betsy Schmeler, who recently graduated from Oakland Catholic High School, took part in Reimagination 7 with her former band Wild Blue Yonder. Her stint in the Reimagination 8 program as a solo artist was a completely different experience.
“Although it seemed somewhat scary when going into it, I was really excited to make one of my songs that was written with just an acoustic guitar into a fully produced, full-band track,” she says.
Through hands-on work at The Church Recording Studio in Carrick and phone calls with producers, the 18-year-old was able to fine-tune “Realistic Romance,” a song about being trapped in your own imagination, or your own unreal reality.
Betsy and her Reimagination 8 cohorts performed small sets at Schenley Plaza and had their songs played on WYEP (listeners can check out all Reimagination playlists on the station’s website). She’s also been jamming with a full band at various South Oakland house shows.
As she prepares to attend the University of Southern California this fall, Betsy is excited for what the future holds.
“I feel like the Reimagination Project definitely showed me more possibilities in music than I knew before,” she says. “I’m now super interested in public radio and broadcast, and I hope that in college I can join the student radio and get involved with the scene!”
The more than 220 Reimagination alumni include Grammy Award-winning artist Daya, Emmy Award-winning artist Jessica Bitsura, American Idol contestant Sloane Simon and blues phenom Pierce Dipner.
Current high school kids who are interested in upping their music industry prowess can apply online for Reimagination 9.
“To see a 10th-grader performing at the Three Rivers Arts Festival is pretty impressive,” Joseph says.”My feeling is that the closer to graduation the student is the more this can launch them into something more. It can slingshot them to another level.”
The class of Reimagine 8
Listen to their songs here.
Adam Smith, “What’s On My Mind”
Aidan Gittings, “Breakup”
Andrew Bilinsky, “Can’t be Sure”
Betsy Schmeler, “Realistic Romance”
Cameron Suzensky, “Lost”
Isabella DiPietrantonio, “Forgiveness in the Form of Yellow”
Jonah Official, “Wonderland”
Lindsay Liebro, “Boardwalk”
Logan Kellerman, “Lost in Time”
Maddie Hess, “Bildungsroman”
Professa T, “Progression”
Quinn Volpe, “Insomnia”
Sulwe Okoko,”Note to Self”