XLR cables like the one looped around Marita Adams’ hand are the unsung heroes of concerts and conferences, carrying energy from microphones to sound boards to speakers.
So on a January evening, in a third-floor room in a former church in Carrick, Adams tried again to properly roll up one of the cables. “I know I did this last time,” she said.
“Yeah, but we’ve got to do it all the time,” said Marcus Jones, a student with Adams in this Audio Basics class. He then tutored her in the subtle twist necessary to wrap cables just right.
Properly wound, an XLR cable will not only last longer, but also unspool gracefully in mid-air as a crew member tosses one end across a stage to a colleague. “You should always be able to throw it out and it will come out perfect,” said Jordan Gilliam, director of education at 25 Carrick Ave.
That’s both the address of the former church and the name of a fledgling nonprofit dedicated to helping young people toward careers while seeding an industry in a changing neighborhood.
The program has the potential to “fill the hill with music,” said Sherry Miller Brown, vice president of the Carrick Community Council and a board member at 25 Carrick Ave. “Maybe eventually musicians will move up to Hilltop and we’ll get a revitalization of our citizenry.”
Carrick was once a millworker’s haven with around 16,000 residents as late as 1970. It bottomed out around the time of the Great Recession and endured a decade marked by property turnover and the opioid epidemic. Lately it has seen a surge in the diversity of its population, now around 10,000, as leaders like Brown seek to revive its Brownsville Road business district and establish an anchor industry.
Right now? “Carrick isn’t a destination for anything,” said Gilliam.
He intends to change that. But first the cables must be perfect.
“We pulled some cables out of there that looked crazy,” Gilliam told the class as he eyed a storage bin in the Audio Basics classroom. “Let’s do it again.”
Dave Bjornson’s workforce pipeline
Dave Bjornson went from rolling up XLR cables to plugging people into careers.
Bjornson spent decades in the live events industry before forming for-profit Hearcorp a decade ago. He built it into a live sound powerhouse that puts him at events like the NBA All-Star Game, where he did the sound mixing this month. Along the way, he found that he needed both a solid home base and a growing workforce.
In 2018, Bjornson bought the former Birmingham United Church of Christ in Carrick. A year later, he spurred the formation of 25 Carrick Ave (sometimes referred to as Tech 25) of which he is the president of the board.
The goal of 25 Carrick Ave is to prepare young people from a variety of backgrounds for careers that could start in humble Hilltop spaces and progress to international events.
“There is money to be made in this field,” said Bjornson. But event production is “historically as white and male as the police department.”
In hopes of changing that, and backed by foundations* and individual donors, the 25 Carrick Ave team makes presentations in elementary schools. They also take on Pittsburgh Carrick High School students as interns.
In the evenings, young adults trickle in for Audio Basics, Live Sound 1 and Live Sound 2 classes. Some are paid stipends to attend while others learn for free or make modest donations.
“After we complete all of the classes, we get $200,” said Jones, a Carrick High senior who interns at 25 Carrick Ave in the afternoons and attends classes into the evening. He’s adding that payment to his income from video game streaming and saving up for better home production equipment, using a budget spreadsheet he developed with help from the program’s instructors.
“They’ll help you work on your goals,” said Jones. “One of my goals is, I’ve definitely got to make some more music, make some more beats.”
Marcus Jones’ ‘Dark Alley’
Jones wakes up on the South Side Slopes and spends weekday mornings at Carrick High.
His love of livestreaming caught the attention of Kristi Pruszenski, the high school’s Start On Success instructor. “There’s just so many kids now that have an interest in that area,” she said, but Jones stood out. Her job includes assigning students to workplace experiences, and she’d placed a few at 25 Carrick. “I knew he would absolutely love it, and he’s learning skills that he can definitely take with him.”
So Jones leaves school shortly after noon with two other Start On Success students. They walk a half mile, pull open the heavy wooden church doors, and pass both a former worship hall converted into an event space, and a fully equipped recording studio. Up one flight of stairs is Hearcorp’s office, plus streaming equipment and a lighting board overlooking the event space.
At the top is the classroom, which shook with Jones’ beats one evening in late January.
“By the way, this is a beat that Marcus, my man Marcus, made,” 25 Carrick educator Stephen Shriane told the attendees at Audio Basics as he prepared to teach them how to mix pre-recorded music with live vocals using the Ableton music production software. “It’s called ‘Dark Alley.’ He was feeling dark that day.”
Jones later described the beat as “aggressive,” conjuring images of someone “standing in the rain, upset,” and constructed as an exercise in getting problems off his chest.
As “Dark Alley” played, Shriane handed the mic to Audio Basics student Eric Hood and asked him for some impromptu vocals.
Hood warmed up for a few seconds, then started to rap.
“Yeah. Chillin’ out. My name is Eric.
“Chillin’ with the homies at 25 Carrick.
“If your cables are a mess, you’ll leave embarrassed.
“Yeah. From the north to the south, we’re rockin’ it.”
Laughter momentarily drowned out “Dark Alley.”
That hands-on mixing session was part of a curriculum that started with the basics of pitch, amplitude and gain. It covered types of mics, production software and sound boards, plus detailed instruction on adjusting reverb, delay, sound compression and equalization. Every class included set-up and takedown of a system of mics, boards and speakers.
“I would feel confident sending pretty much all of you guys to a really basic sound gig of setting up a PA system, running cables,” said Shriane at the end of a February Audio Basics class.
Sherry Miller Brown’s changing neighborhood
The Audio Basics class attracted a group that crossed rivers and ethnic lines in a way not often seen in Pittsburgh.
Jones is Black and has lived most of his life in the Hilltop. Hood is white, a Lancaster native living in McCandless. Adams was born in China and lives in Brookline. Bikash Darjee is Nepali, living in Whitehall. Elise Silvestri is white, from Highland Park.
To Jones, that “melting pot” atmosphere is one of the appeals of 25 Carrick. “I like to see other races,” he said. “They also educate me on some things I didn’t know about.”
The neighborhood in which they gathered used to be pretty homogenous — 86% white at the time of the 2010 Census. The 2020 Census, though, showed that Carrick grew in population by nearly 200, with Black, Asian and Hispanic numbers all rising. It’s now 31% non-white.
“We have a great deal of cultural diversity in Carrick,” said Brown of the community council. The cultures, though, haven’t interwoven. “A lot of our groups don’t get together. They do things on their own.”
She thinks that connecting cultures is key to Carrick’s future. “Our business district has really declined, but the only way we’re probably ever going to get that back is if all of the groups are working together.”
Last year, in hopes of creating a neighborhood rallying point, 25 Carrick Ave bought the Carrick Community Pavilion from an economic development agency. The young people in the training programs now maintain the gathering place and handle the technology for events held there.
“We’re going to see a lot more community-based bookings,” predicted Gilliam. Plans include establishing a community garden on the site, running a sustainability summer camp for elementary-school kids and maybe even creating a “visual and sound immersion” component that will let visitors experience an ever-shifting set of images and sounds.
If that’s successful, Carrick would be a destination.
Elise Silvestri’s emerging reality
At Audio Basics class in early February, Silvestri removed a tangle of XLR cables from a bin. “I didn’t think this would be the reality of the profession,” she quipped.
“It totally is,” said Shriane.
She sighed. “I submit to my reality.”
In a way, she’s taking charge of it. A senior at Obama Academy 6-12, she’s always found music to be “something I could go to, to cope with any emotions or just to have fun.” In the fall, she’s heading for New York University to study music technology. “What else would I do in life, for a career, if not this?”
Eventually she untangled enough XLR cords to connect four mics, a sound board and four speakers for a practice sound check. Each student took turns running the sound board, while the others sang lead or background vocals, played guitar or shook maracas in tentative versions of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
Each has a flight plan.
Darjee is first honing his skills at his church while holding down a job at Amazon. “I’d love to get totally into so I can understand it and use it as my second source of income.”
Adams, a recent college graduate, is looking for ways to combine her degrees in web design and business with her growing audio chops.
Hood just got back from working on sound at the Love Burn event in Miami and is hoping to parlay new connections into a career of summers in the north and winters in the south.
Jones needs to get through his senior year, but he’s looking ahead, perhaps to applying with Hearcorp.
“I really hope I can be able to stay with them after I graduate,” he said. “The energy they give off is all positivity.”
*PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, which is one of the Hillman Family Foundations. These foundations have also provided funding to 25 Carrick Ave.
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