CNMN > Projects > James Lyng High School: An Education Rooted in Popular Music

Nathan Gage

  • Voice
  • Acoustic instruments
  • Rock band instruments
  • Digital devices
  • 13 to 18 years of age

One year to multi-year

  • Education
  • Community associations
  • Health
  • Diversity
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Mental health

James Lyng High School: An Education Rooted in Popular Music


Nathan Gage and his stu­dents describe and reflect on their cre­ative work as musi­cians, bands and pro­duc­ers in their class­room record­ing spaces.

Here is a descrip­tion of a sec­ondary music pro­gram that draws upon pop­u­lar music in an effort to engage stu­dents with mean­ing­ful music mak­ing expe­ri­ences. The program’s empha­sis on musi­cal cre­ation cul­mi­nates in the annu­al release of an album-length “mix­tape” of orig­i­nal songs which the stu­dents have cre­at­ed. Cur­rent and pre­vi­ous mix­tapes can be found at

James Lyng music stu­dents choose between two “streams” to best match their musi­cal pref­er­ence and ambitions:

  • the “band” stream, with an empha­sis on instru­men­tal per­for­mance of rock and pop music, col­lec­tive song­writ­ing and recording
  • the “stu­dio” stream, in which stu­dents work alone or in small groups on song­writ­ing, record­ing or beat-mak­ing projects, usu­al­ly, but not exclu­sive­ly in the Hip Hop or R&B genres.

This is pre­sent­ed not nec­es­sar­i­ly as a mod­el to imi­tate but an illu­mi­na­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the many forms a stu­dent-cen­tred, com­mu­ni­ty based pro­gram can take in a cur­ric­u­lar context.


Hi, my name is Nathan Gage. I live and teach music in the south-west of Mon­tre­al, Que­bec. James Lyng is a pub­lic high school that caters to a small, diverse stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, most of whom face sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. Many of our stu­dents come from neigh­bour­hood fam­i­lies liv­ing at or below the pover­ty line. Our school also hosts pro­grams that give addi­tion­al sup­port to stu­dents with spe­cial needs and behav­iour­al chal­lenges. Approx­i­mate­ly 80% of our stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is cod­ed with some kind of behav­iour­al or aca­d­e­m­ic chal­lenge. Here is a research arti­cle about our pro­gram.

Here is an intro video about our music pro­gram: The High School With A Hip Hop Program.

When I first sought to cre­ate a music pro­gram cen­tred around pop­u­lar music, I came to the con­clu­sion that if I want­ed to hook my stu­dents, I need­ed to give them con­trol in deter­min­ing what sort of music-mak­ing activ­i­ties they were car­ry­ing out, as well as what gen­res of music they were engag­ing with.


The ini­tial infra­struc­ture for the pro­gram was finan­cial­ly sup­port­ed by a McGill Uni­ver­si­ty research project. A pro­fes­sion­al-qual­i­ty record­ing stu­dio was installed in the base­ment of our high school, and for the first three years of the pro­gram, the research project’s bud­get paid to hire pro­duc­ers / rap­pers with whom I col­lab­o­rat­ed in the edu­ca­tion of my music stu­dents. Since the com­ple­tion of McGill’s involve­ment four years ago, we’ve man­aged to keep the vision of the music pro­gram alive, through ever-chang­ing sources of fund­ing — var­i­ous grants avail­able to us because of our sta­tus as a “have-not” school, as well as pock­ets of fund­ing from with­in our school board.

What it sounds and looks like

  • James Lyng Stu­dio Creation

This video shows stu­dents at work in a typ­i­cal class of our “stu­dio” stream. Stu­dents work­ing on the stu­dio side work almost exclu­sive­ly on music cre­ation projects — either beat-mak­ing or writ­ing and record­ing orig­i­nal songs. They work indi­vid­u­al­ly or in small groups.

  • James Lyng Instru­men­tal Creation

This video shows a small por­tion of the cre­ative work that goes in our “band” stream. While much of our school year is devot­ed to learn­ing cov­ers of pop and rock songs, each of our band class­es will write and record a song annu­al­ly to be includ­ed on the mix­tape. Songs are writ­ten col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly by the whole group.

This video focus­es on two groups. The first is my grade 7 class. The class had already com­posed chords and a riff for two sec­tions of the song. One was a chord pro­gres­sion which we col­lec­tive­ly com­posed by ana­lyz­ing and rear­rang­ing the chords from Bill With­ers’ song “Just The Two Of Us”. The class sug­gest­ed and audi­tioned a num­ber of com­bi­na­tions of the chords before vot­ing on a final chord pro­gres­sion. A riff for the sec­ond sec­tion of the song was brought to the group by one of the class’s gui­tar play­ers. The class had also col­lec­tive­ly writ­ten four lines of lyrics based on their expe­ri­ences in quar­an­tine. To write these lyrics, they brain­stormed a num­ber of words and phras­es based on the theme and used them to cre­ate a series of rhyming couplets.

The video starts with some of the stu­dents “MIDI-record­ing” melodies over a “mock up” record­ing of the two sec­tions that I pre­pared. The key­board has been recal­i­brat­ed so that stu­dents can focus on the white keys to cre­ate their melodies. This is some­thing I do with my youngest stu­dents so that their cre­ativ­i­ty isn’t sti­fled by tech­ni­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Once all will­ing stu­dents have record­ed, we lis­ten back to the record­ings and try to iden­ti­fy the best moments so that we can try set­ting our lyrics to the stu­dents’ melodies.

This video shows an inter­est­ing moment when one of my stu­dents latch­es onto a com­bi­na­tion of lyrics (“I didn’t even know”) and melody and express­es that he thinks the lyrics should be repeat­ed. Some of the oth­er stu­dents object, as the rep­e­ti­tion wouldn’t work with the lyrics that the class had already cre­at­ed. The stu­dents then have to find a res­o­lu­tion (col­lec­tive song-writ­ing at its best!).

The sec­ond group fea­tured in the video is my Grade 9 class. Unlike the Grade 7 class, these stu­dents opt­ed not to write lyrics until after they’d cre­at­ed some melodies. My Grade 9 stu­dents are more expe­ri­enced and com­fort­able on their instru­ments. The chord pro­gres­sion was writ­ten by one.

  • What does suc­cess­ful music edu­ca­tion mean at James Lyng?

This is a video of myself and two of my stu­dents reflect­ing on what makes a suc­cess­ful music edu­ca­tion in the con­text of a pro­gram focused on pop­u­lar music and on stu­dent choice (Tran­scrip­tion June 27, 2022):

Nathan Gage: “As a music teacher, one thing that we often think about in the music edu­ca­tion world, or as teach­ers in gen­er­al, we think about what makes a good edu­ca­tion. Then you start think­ing about a per­son who’s well edu­cat­ed, what qual­i­ties or what have they learned, what makes them well edu­cat­ed, right? So then, as a music teacher, you start to think, what makes a per­son well musi­cal­ly edu­cat­ed, what kinds of things do they have to know? And I think tra­di­tion­al­ly, even some peo­ple still believe this, but there’s a kind of a set of rules set out by a bunch of like old white guys basi­cal­ly, say­ing, okay, you have to be able to read music, read tra­di­tion­al nota­tion, you have to be able to play a musi­cal instru­ment real­ly pro­fi­cient­ly, you have to know a bunch of Ital­ian phras­es, that kind of thing.

So then, for us, we do a pop­u­lar music pro­gram and the whole point of the pop­u­lar music pro­gram is that we take the cues of the stu­dents as to what they want to do musi­cal­ly. The idea is then, for me, when I think about what makes some­one well edu­cat­ed musi­cal­ly, maybe there are some things that are maybe absolute, but a lot of it comes from what does the stu­dent want to do? Where do they want music to kind of fit in their life after high school?

So, my first ques­tion for you guys is what do you guys think makes a per­son well edu­cat­ed musi­cal­ly? What kinds of things do you think could be there? And then my sec­ond part of the ques­tion is, where do you see music fit­ting into your life after high school? And as a school of Music, are we doing our part to get­ting you where you want to be? Like, musi­cal­ly, for after high school? You see what I’m say­ing? So what do you think the first part is?”

Stu­dent #1: “For the first part, I think being able to play with oth­ers or learn­ing how to play with oth­ers is a very impor­tant skill. But I def­i­nite­ly agree with what you’re say­ing in that you don’t need to know how to read music in order to be like pro­fi­cient in what you’re doing. But I do think that when we get more advanced, I think it def­i­nite­ly helps at least to know how to do some of these things. Maybe not read music, but like scales, or what­ev­er, I think that’s impor­tant in what you learn how to do.

Nathan Gage: “And so you’ve been read­ing tab. You read tab, and I think you learned to do that here. Right? And so do you think that’s impor­tant? When we say read­ing music, it includes that, so say, do you think in the future you want to go on the inter­net and find a song and learn to play it?”

“I think all those things are def­i­nite­ly a help, but you nev­er real­ly need to do those things if you don’t want to, because I think, real­ly, what music should be about is just being fun for you. I think imme­di­ate­ly once you have some­thing that you need to do, it’s more of a chore and not some­thing that’s fun. And that’s why if you’re not hav­ing fun doing music, you’re not real­ly doing any­thing. It touch­es on what I was say­ing before. When you start to get more advanced, you think you start to know what you’re doing, then yeah, those things will def­i­nite­ly help but I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­i­ly required if you just want to have fun play­ing music.”

Stu­dent #2: “He basi­cal­ly just said every­thing. Every­thing that went through my mind, just came out of his mouth.” (laughs).

  • On Musi­cal Cre­ation at James Lyng

In this video, our stu­dio ani­ma­tor, Jason New­comen and I dis­cuss why song-writ­ing and music cre­ation are so impor­tant to James Lyng’s music pro­gram, as well as our hopes for music edu­ca­tion in the broad­er sense.

Nathan Gage: “I’m here with Jason New­comen, who is our stu­dio ani­ma­tor. He works on the stu­dio side with our stu­dents who want to focus on hip hop and R&B music. I thought it’d be good to have him in on this con­ver­sa­tion: what drew you towards cre­ative music mak­ing in your own teach­ing prac­tice? Maybe I’ll start.

For me, I would say that it goes hand in hand with this idea of the pop­u­lar music edu­ca­tion pro­gram, it goes hand in hand with a pro­gram that’s try­ing to ele­vate stu­dent voice. Part of the pop­u­lar music rev­o­lu­tion was that the per­former could be the song­writer, the per­former could be the com­pos­er. It sets itself apart from clas­si­cal music where you have the com­pos­er and you have a con­duc­tor and below them were the per­form­ers. It just flipped around, espe­cial­ly with punk rock music in the 70s, you know, the idea that you did­n’t even have to play a gui­tar that well, you could just bring out a gui­tar and if the song had enough pas­sion and the right hook or what­ev­er, this is could still be a song that was still lis­tened to 40 or 50 years later.

In my back­ground as a musi­cian, as a per­former, song­writ­ing and express­ing myself through music has been so impor­tant to my own musi­cal prac­tice. I want­ed to pass that on to my students.

On the instru­men­tal side, on the band side, we also do a lot of learn­ing to play our instru­ments through learn­ing cov­ers of rock and pop songs. On the stu­dio side, almost all of what you do is cre­ation. That’s all you do: song­writ­ing, beat mak­ing, all that cre­ation stuff.”

Jason New­comen: “In the last ten years, record­ing equip­ment and record­ing soft­ware has been so acces­si­ble to every­body on the Hip Hop side to the point where the biggest Hip Hop artists in the world are mak­ing songs in their base­ment with the same equip­ment that we’re using. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the kids on my side to learn a skill that they can con­tin­ue on their own time, and be pas­sion­ate about on their own time as well. I come from an era where we had to save up to get stu­dio time, you had to pay some­body who prob­a­bly would make some­thing dif­fer­ent with our music. Just to empow­er the kids by telling them that this is some­thing that they’re able to do on their own with very sim­ple tools, and use it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to exer­cise their free­dom in cre­ation and their free­dom to express themselves.

Nathan Gage: “For me, I would say that’s very impor­tant. If we go back to the clas­si­cal par­a­digm with the com­pos­er, the con­duc­tor, the per­form­ers, and how that is entrenched so much in tra­di­tion­al music edu­ca­tion, think what that does to stu­dents. When we focus so much on music of the dom­i­nant cul­ture, we’re real­ly rein­forc­ing that cul­ture. You have to think for my stu­dents, for a stu­dent body that is very diverse, what that would do to them. It’s basi­cal­ly putting on a pedestal one cul­ture and not their own, and how they would feel about that over time. That’s why I think it’s so impor­tant. I hope what we do and I think what we try to do at all times is to flip that par­a­digm so that it cen­ters the stu­dents at the top of the par­a­digm, where the stu­dents’ voice and the stu­dents’ musi­cal pref­er­ences are what is ground­ing all of their music education.

I do know that music edu­ca­tion has done a lot of work in gen­er­al and a lot of teach­ers are work­ing hard to incor­po­rate music from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, but I still think that the struc­ture inher­ent in that clas­si­cal music par­a­digm is still very, very active in music edu­ca­tion and it’s very dif­fi­cult to get away from that.

For me, that’s why it’s real­ly, real­ly impor­tant to do these cre­ation projects because just nat­u­ral­ly when the stu­dent is doing the cre­ation and maybe work­ing through their own expe­ri­ences or try­ing to express their own expe­ri­ences through song, it nat­u­ral­ly cen­ters them so that their own expe­ri­ences are what are validated.”


Nathan Gage (he/him) is a music edu­ca­tor liv­ing and work­ing in Mon­tre­al, Que­bec. Hav­ing come to the pro­fes­sion lat­er in life, he has a wealth of expe­ri­ence in the music indus­try, as a per­former and as a com­pos­er from which he can draw. He holds a bach­e­lor’s degree in music com­po­si­tion and has many years of expe­ri­ence as a pro­fes­sion­al jazz per­former, play­ing upright and elec­tric bass. He has toured exten­sive­ly through­out North Amer­i­ca and Europe with indie rock bands Shapes & Sizes (Asth­mat­ic Kit­ty Records) and Elfin Sad­dle (Con­stel­la­tion Records). He found­ed, man­aged and owned Pho­nop­o­lis, an inde­pen­dent record store, which the Mon­tre­al Gazette referred to as “an insti­tu­tion in the Mon­tre­al music scene.” He sold the store at the start of his teach­ing career. Nathan is pas­sion­ate about pop­u­lar music edu­ca­tion and stu­dent-cen­tered music edu­ca­tion and he strives to con­tin­ue his own edu­ca­tion as a music teacher.

For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact Nathan at ngage(at)

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