Music production

Duluth classes connect girls to music production business – Duluth News Tribune

Now trending among headphone-tweaked tweens plugged into Mac PowerBooks and Ableton Push’s neon-lit keys – a preset sound called Neptune that, true to its name, sounds sci-fi and spacy.

But, honestly, 12-year-old Nora Finnigan is learning that you can do all kinds of things with this keyboard-sized rectangle of nobs and flashing lights.

“You can make a clapperboard sound futuristic,” the self-proclaimed music lover said during a recent session of

Beats by Girlz


Musician Shaunna Heckman started the local chapter of Electronic Music Production Classes, aimed at girls aged 8 to 13, in 2018 – partly because she wanted to improve her own production skills and partly because she wanted give them a thought-provoking answer to the question, “Who produced your album?”

Students Joslyn Morris (left to right), Nora Finnigan and Margot Finnigan (partially masked) watch Shaunna Heckman demonstrate how to mix music created on the Push instrument in front of Morris on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera/skuchera@

In weekly two-hour sessions that last eight weeks, young musicians learn how to create songs using Ableton technology – first in a tutorial gathered around Heckman, then in practice, plugged into their own resorts.

“If I had that,” Heckman said during a recent session, “my career would have been very different.”

Beats by Girlz

is a program developed by Berklee College of Music associate professor Erin Barra-Jean, who started the program in 2011 at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City. There are now more than a dozen groups in Fort Collins, Colorado; Denmark; Los Angeles; Berlin and more.

Heckman saw a friend lead the Minneapolis chapter and very quickly signed on to start one in Duluth. His next sessions begin in April.

Three girls got together on a recent Thursday in a space borrowed from the It Takes a Village yoga studio in downtown Duluth — where Heckman has music-making stations set up at intervals along two portable folding tables.

During the first part of the class, Heckman and the girls took turns creating a beat – pushing on the Ableton Push, which acts like a piano but somewhat resembles the classic Hasbro Simon game, to add layers of instruments and percussion, then using the computer to insert texture and breaks into the arrangement. You don’t need to have a background in music to use this software, Heckman noted.

Then the band dispersed to create their own arrangements, which included volume changes, delay, and reverb.

“These kids take my breath away,” Heckman said.


Beats By Girlz student Nora Finnigan uses a computer to produce the music she created on a Push instrument on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

This process comes naturally to Nora, who says she listens to R&B and soul music. But she hears the lessons of Beats By Girlz in all the music.

“Every piece of music is manipulated,” she said. “You can’t live without it.”

Nora likes to incorporate instruments, which she adds as a welcome surprise, the sound of a saxophone filling the room.

Her sister Margot Finnegan, 10, uses a naming convention for her songs that takes a common color and then adds a fruit that starts with the same letter. His files included songs like “Orange Orange”, “Blue Banana”, “Purple Peach”. His songs are cinematic and have graceful fades.

Maggie Cartier, 12, joined the class via FaceTime to talk about how she uses her classic rock influences to make music. She once brought a guitar to class and recorded herself playing.

Joslyn Morris, 12, had used another program to make music at home, which made the transition to Ableton easier for her. She is a fan of indie music, and when she makes her own, she favors the drums.

“I need to be able to dance to it,” she said.

That’s certainly the case with “Vibezz,” which Morris played over external speakers while firing off full DJ dance moves as he performed.

And then the room dissolved into a dance party, while each of the girls took turns recording their songs.


One of Shaunna Heckman’s students presses a button on an Ableton Push to create music on March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

It’s been about a year since Heckman, whose own music has dreamy synth sounds, decided to make music his career – helped, in part, by the connections made through Beats By Girlz. She enrolled in the Berklee School of Music and is studying music production and music business – a journey from singer-songwriter to producer.

Earlier this year, Heckman’s advanced class Beats By Girlz helped create music for the Berklee-based band


project — which combines women in history with the music of young women.

And in June, Heckman and Beats By Girlz will present at the “Celebrating Diversity in Popular Music Education” conference, organized by the Association for Popular Music Education, in Chicago.

In mid-February, she released the song “Sirens Below”, which she describes as having “big viking-sounding drums and a crazy voice” as part of The Outlaw Ocean Music Project. The series features the music of hundreds of electronic, EDM and ambient musicians from around the world who were asked to create something based on visuals and sounds collected during the five years journalist Ian Urbina was at sea for his book ” The Outlaw Ocean”.

“It was an opportunity to make music more cinematic, in a way,” Heckman said. “I write about feeling. I kept imagining gloomy skies, big waves… what’s going on so far out there that we don’t know about? Of course, so much. It was really interesting and exciting to write that way.

“I didn’t have to think about the lyrics, and it wasn’t personal.”

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