Duluth classes plug girls into music production biz

The local Beats By Girlz chapter, taught by Shaunna Heckman, offers an empowering response to the question, “Who produced your album?”

Local musician Shaunna Heckman works with student Margot Finnigan on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Heckman is teaching Finnigan and others Beats By Girlz, a non-traditional music technology curriculum focusing on the production side of making music. (Steve Kuchera /
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Now trending among the head-phoned preteens plugged into Mac PowerBooks and the glowing neon keys of Ableton Push — a preset sound called Neptune that, true to its name, sounds sci-fi and spacy.

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

“You can make a clap sound futuristic,” the self-described music lover said during a recent session of Beats By Girlz .

Musician Shaunna Heckman started the local chapter of electronic music production classes, geared toward 8- to 13-year-old girls, in 2018 — partly because she wanted to improve her own production skills and partly because she wanted to give them an empowering answer to the question, “Who produced your album?”


Students Joslyn Morris (from left), Nora Finnigan and Margot Finnigan (partly hidden) watch as Shaunna Heckman demonstrates how to mix music created on the Push instrument in front of Morris on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

During weekly two-hour sessions that last eight weeks, young musicians learn how to build songs using Ableton technology — first in a tutorial while gathered around Heckman, then in practice, plugged into their own stations.

“If I’d had this,” Heckman said during a recent session, “my career would be very different.”

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

Heckman saw a friend leading the Minneapolis chapter and very quickly signed on to create one in Duluth. Her next sessions start in April.

* * *

Three girls gathered on a recent Thursday in borrowed space at 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 class, Heckman and the girls took turns building a beat — poking at the Ableton Push, which acts like a piano but looks a bit like the classic Hasbro game Simon, to add layers of instruments and percussion, then using the computer to insert texture and pauses into the arrangement. You don’t have to have a background in music to use this software, Heckman noted.


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

“These kids kind of blow my mind,” 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 is coming naturally to Nora, who said she listens to R&B and soulful music. But she hears the lessons of Beats By Girlz in all music.

“Every piece of music has manipulation,” she said. “You can’t get away from it.”

Nora likes to incorporate instruments, which she tacks in like 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, then adds a fruit that starts with the same letter. Her files included songs like “Orange Orange,” “Blue Banana,” “Purple Peach.” Her songs are cinematic and have graceful fades.


Maggie Cartier, 12, joined the class via FaceTime to talk about the way she takes 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 for making music at home, which made the transition to Ableton easy for her. She’s a fan of indie music, and when she makes her own, she favors the drum kit.

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

That’s definitely the case with “Vibezz,” which Morris played over external speakers while pulling out full-on DJ dance moves as it played.

And then the room dissolved into a dance party, while each of the girls took turns cueing up their tracks.

One of Shaunna Heckman’s students pushes 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 her career — helped along, in part, by connections made through Beats By Girlz. She enrolled at Berklee School of Music, and is studying Music Production and Music Business — a shift from singer-songwriter to producer.

Earlier this year, Heckman’s Beats By Girlz advanced class helped create music for the Berklee-based “Muses” project — which combines women from history with music by young women.

And in June, Heckman and Beats By Girlz are presenting at the “Celebrating Diversity in Popular Music Education” conference, 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 crazy vocals” as part of The Outlaw Ocean Music Project. The series features music by 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 that was more cinematic, in a way,” Heckman said. “I’m writing about feeling. I kept picturing moody skies, big waves … whatever happens so far out there that we don’t know about? Obviously, so much. It was really interesting and exciting to write that way.

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

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