Dynamo Studios says getting Les Paul Foundation grant will help buy equipment for student program

Since 2015, local teacher/musician/producer Kessler Cuffman has found ways to bring his Dynamo Studios program to middle and high school students in Hamilton County. Now, with financial assistance from the Les Paul Foundation, that task should be a little easier. Or at least better funded.

“We carry everything in Pelican cases,” he said in a phone interview, referring to the hard-shell waterproof cases used to carry equipment. “It will help us get the equipment we need and go a long way to improving the program.”

When Cuffman, who is now executive director, started the program, he was a history professor at the Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts and he created Dynamo to teach students how to produce and design music. Later, he helped design and implement The Studio at the Chattanooga Public Library. This is a professional-grade space available to county residents with a library card interested in recording a song or podcast or learning how a studio works.

Elizabeth Orr is a Dynamo program veteran who started learning how to set up microphones, use the software, mix a live recording and manage people at the age of 12. Now 17, she has just released her first record, “Seven Sisters”, a collection of 10 songs she wrote, produced, engineered, sang and performed.

“My experience with Dynamo Studios has been life changing,” she said via text message, “not just as a musician and producer, but as a human being. The organization is driven by compassion and focuses on the needs of the community, in which I am incredibly grateful for the generosity they have shown me. Without them, I would not have found my passion for music.”

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Dynamo Studios gets grant to help buy equipment for student program

For part of the pandemic, Dynamo operated out of the Tivoli Center space, but now has a studio in the Department of Community Development’s teen programming space on Watkins Street. The studio allows the program to operate year-round by hosting camps and after-school programs, and is where students can work with industry professionals while making a recording.

Cuffman is joined by full-time employees Dominique Whitaker and Anthony Wiley and a team of volunteers who teach photography, videography and music production to students. The program has added music journalism and is set to publish a digital edition of a music magazine.

Graphic designer Tessa Voccola of the RVRB agency in Chattanooga is working with the students on the project, Cuffman said.

Cuffman said he’s developed his program over the years, and the key is that he tries to find ways to get students to interact in a real-world way with industry professionals on real-life projects like a recording session or an advertising or marketing campaign.

“Practice is the secret sauce,” he said. “It’s what we do that’s different. That’s what excites everyone.”

In addition to learning the difference between a dynamic microphone and a cardioid microphone, and which is better for vocals and which is better for recording drums, they learn how to work with all types of people in creative situations and sometimes stressful.

Cuffman said issues such as mental health were brought into the program.

Much of the actual instruction is provided at several schools in the county system, including Howard School, Howard Connect Academy, Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts, Chattanooga Prep, and Brainerd High School. In total, Cuffman said the program will reach about 700 students this year and could reach more if it had the resources.

“It’s pushing like crazy,” he said, “which is a good thing.”

Most of the teaching is done on computers, microphones, headphones and other equipment that are carried to different locations for each class.

“We’re going to see the students,” Kessler said.

“And the Les Paul Foundation grant will help with that,” Cuffman said.

The foundation, which has awarded more than $4 million to nonprofits to date, forbids him from disclosing the amount, but Cuffman said he hopes the relationship continues after this year.

He pointed out that Paul himself was an inventor interested in finding new ways to create music, and that fits with Dynamo’s mission. Paul is perhaps best known for the guitars that bear his name, but he was also a prolific inventor who pioneered the solid-body guitar, multitrack tape recorder, recording, sound-on-sound, and other studio techniques that are commonplace today.

“They were interested in the creative part of what we do,” Cuffman said.

And, Cuffman said, he’s not lacking in creativity when it comes to young students.

“We have crazy talented kids,” he said.

Contact Barry Courter at [email protected] or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.

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