On Park Ave. and 102nd St. in Harlem, there’s an unmarked storefront obscured by rusty steel shutters. From the outside, it looks like just another casualty of rising rent.
But inside, it’s a place where young kids from Harlem and the Bronx develop the chops, and the DIY ethics, to start their own bands. The space is home to Band Seed, a nonprofit launched in 2014 that teaches kids collaboration and confidence, garage-band style.
“This is the closest thing you’re gonna get to a garage in New York City,” 27-year-old Band Seed founder Andrew Ockenden says, gesturing around the room. Along with his close college friend, Mike Monteiro, Ockenden started Band Seed a year and a half ago as a way to give kids in his adopted community the same opportunities he had growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia — practicing in a garage for hours on end, handing out CDs to friends, running his band like it was a job.
“I want everyone to experience that, but the fact of the matter is it’s not possible,” he said. “You live in New York City, you live in an underserved community. There’s no garage for you to have a garage band in.”
Since its inception, Band Seed has clung fiercely to a DIY ethic. Students come to Ockenden not because some authority figure made them, but because they want to be in a band. Offering free facilities and instruction, it champions a rigorous, feel-focused style of teaching and instills a militant self-starter mentality in students. Ockenden teaches students basic chord structures and rhythm, and then they figure out for themselves what sounds good. “We’re not teaching them how to read music, we’re not teaching kids theory,” he said. “It’s not numbers and dots.”
Ockenden says his non-technical style of teaching appeals to young kids tired of being taught in a dry and academic way. “For my entire life I loved music,” he said. “And yet I didn’t enjoy a lot of music classes in school.” Instead of Bach and Beethoven, Band Seed students learn to play songs by artists they’re actually interested in: Taylor Swift, ASAP Ferg, Meek Mill. They also write their own music.
On a windy spring day, three middle schoolers from Harlem and the Bronx — Branden, Javel and Jameek — stood inside the Band Seed space talking about a song they had just written. It was a bass-heavy funk instrumental, and Branden was worried some of the measures didn’t sound right together. Ockenden assured them if they played on time, the song would work. Javel clicked his drumsticks together and they began again. Ockenden paced around the room, tapping the drum kit, nodding his head, pumping the air in time to the music.
After practice, Branden, Javel, and Jameek brag about being the only band in their entire school. “I’m not gonna lie, it helps with the ladies,” Branden, who recently got a new girlfriend, said. They make plans for next week’s session — write some new beats, work out the kinks in today’s song — and promise to practice more when they get home.
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