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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Grace Weber’s Music Lab: Professional Development and Creative Networking for Area Youth 


A crowd of beaming teens, kids and adults are posing on Radio Milwaukee's stage after a Music Lab event.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

Imagine you’re a high school aged singer-songwriter, and you had the opportunity to perform your music on a stage that hosted some of your favorite rockstars, alongside a crew of likeminded young artists who are rooting for you, in front of a panel of music industry experts, ready to give you constructive, supportive feedback and advice. Oh, and there’s Ian's pizza. Like a monthly masterclass party for teens, since 2017, Grace Weber’s Music Lab has offered opportunities for Milwaukee-area teens to learn and get advice from music industry experts—from record label executives to symphony orchestra musicians—and connect with other young creatives, perform, and showcase their skills. It’s a chance for the young talent in and around Milwaukee to level up and gain professional insights in the most supportive of environments.  


Grace Weber’s Music Lab is free and is presented by HYFIN and hosted at Radio Milwaukee’s headquarters. It was co-founded by Grace Weber, an R&B singer-songwriter from Wauwatosa who grew up singing in the Central Youth Gospel Choir of Milwaukee. Weber became a breakout star nationally after appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show karaoke contest and went on to collaborate with Chance the Rapper on the song “All We Got,” which earned her a Grammy.  


The events are hosted by B-Free, a.k.a., Britney Freeman-Farr, a powerful, multitalented Milwaukee musician and singer-producer who has performed everywhere from Riverwest Femfest, to the Fiserv Forum during a Bucks game at halftime, to opening for Janelle Monáe at Summerfest. Freeman-Farr works as the coordinator of the event, acting as the emcee, interfacing with students, music industry representatives, and the crowd.


As the host, Freeman-Farr is an essential ingredient of the event’s successful recipe: a seasoned performer, she’s adept at rolling with the unexpected nature of live performances—hyping up the students with authenticity and light heartedness when there are cracks of insecurity, giving proverbial “flowers” to performers, and embedding her own music industry knowledge and wisdom into her stage banter.  


I spoke with Freeman-Farr to get her take on the series as she was gearing up for the final Music Lab event of the 2024 school year. The event on May 24 will feature a performance from Grace Weber herself, and special guests from the Orchard, a music distribution company. 


Britney Freeman-Farr (AKA B-Free) and Grace Weber hosting the music lab on the Radio Milwaukee stage.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

What is Grace Weber’s Music Lab, in your own words? 


Grace Weber's Music Lab is an amazing program that was rooted in teaching high school students about the music industry. In 2017, Milwaukee native Grace Weber, a Grammy Award-winning singer and artist came to Radio Milwaukee with the idea of creating this program that can expose the students to the things that she's been having exposure to coming up in her career, but also the people she's been meeting in the industry.  


Once a month throughout the school year, we've been bringing folks in who work in industry from different capacities, whether they're an artist, a rapper, musician, producer, engineer, music manager, the works. They get to talk about what they do, and they get to demonstrate what they do. And they answer questions that the kids have about how they've reached that path from their age and on. We also have a teen open mic component where students get a chance to perform and showcase their talents and gifts and get feedback from whoever our guests are from that month.  

 

I came on in 2019 and even before then, I knew it was something special, and I'm proud of what it's become and excited to see what it can continue to grow into. The vision that Grace had for the program has been staying strong. We've had an amazing array of kids throughout every single school year, and I think that this is a wonderful program that folks just need to know is out there. 


A black and white photo, a singer-songwriter and performer sings and plays on the stage.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

Who is the Music Lab for?  

  

The lab is for everybody. Even though music is a huge component, we do not restrict our attendance to just musicians. We've had a lot of people that are just curious, people who just wanna come hang out. We want to make it a free space for kids to come and be themselves and not have to have any guards up and just enjoy the environment. We have a teen social hour before every lab from 4-5 p.m. where they can hang out and eat pizza (shout out to Ian’s Pizza!). It's a good opportunity for them to meet other students too, because we don't restrict access to one specific area or zip code—it's open to all Milwaukee area teens. We want them to be able to be able to meet other folks from other areas they might not get to see on a regular basis in their school or neighborhood. 

  

So it's kind of like creative networking? 

  

It very much is creative networking! We built in the social hour to emphasize that we want them to feel welcome to network with each other. Even after the lab, once people kind of let their guard down and they see the cool stuff that's happened on stage or some of their other peers have been performing: it's the post lab conversations that are really cool because then they're feeling okay to go and talk to folks. We've had some amazing conversations and some linkups that have happened from that. And that's the stuff that we really want to emphasize about lab. It's really just for teens to come and be themselves, but also meet other like-minded individuals. 

 

Two teen boys are rapping on the stage.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

Beyond music, what kinds of skills do you see getting developed? 

  

I think they're honing their general communication skills for sure, with the way that they interact with each other, but also public speaking, and tapping into their creativity—how they're able to express themselves, whether or not they're musicians. The stuff that is taught and that's said out loud by experts  is for everybody. We've had some amazing guests give feedback about building confidence or just how to be yourself and exude that in all of your walks of life. The fact that we also livestream the events, too, anybody who just happens to come across a music lab stream can hear a tidbit can probably take that away as well. Overall, we are emphasizing life skills that can be taken to implement everywhere in life. 

  

What does it mean to you as a Milwaukee singer songwriter and performer to hold space in this dynamic way for these up-and-coming musicians? 

  

It is super important for me as an artist and a musician here in the city to be able to create this space and also have a huge hand in facilitating it. I had the honor and privilege of going to Milwaukee High School of the Arts, but I didn't have a space like this. I like the fact that we're able to help kids discover at an early age what it is that they're passionate about and figure out routes on how to continue building on that. Being able to open these spaces and this creativity and knowledge, and giving students the freedom to just explore is super, super important. 


A shot of the Music Lab crowd, with Britney commenting on a mic, blurred in the foreground.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

The city is chock full of amazing talent from all ages, but being able to see what these kids are already capable of —they're like light years ahead of where I was at 14. It's a privilege to be able to show people not just in our city, but hopefully throughout the country and the world that Milwaukee definitely has a special presence and it begins with our youth.  

  

A young woman plays a violin, and another young woman plays the cello.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

What's a piece of wisdom shared that has reverberated with you? 

  

We’ve had so many amazing people and there are always great tidbits. One of the things that sticks out to me was last season's finale: we had Milwaukee native Frank Gatson, Jr. come with a presentation. Even though we were talking about his career and working with Beyoncé, he had so much profound knowledge and encouraged these kids to follow their dreams. He spoke a lot about how he was doing these things from their age, and how it led him to where he got to now. The way that these people speak life into our audience is just invigorating. And there's always a takeaway from every single lab like that.  

  

That speaks to the importance of networking in building one's musical career. How is the Music Lab preparing people for being participants in the overall music industry, but also Milwaukee's musical community? 

  

I think Milwaukee's musical community is built on the strength of collaboration, but also feeding off the underestimation that others have of us. We often don't really know the full potential of what we have until it gets tapped into. I think that showing the kids that they can do that early on, encouraging them to look into themselves and also to look outward within their fellow community members is super great

A young artist leaps as he performs with mic in hand.
Photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

preparation for what they're going to do, especially if they're staying here. We emphasize the fact that they can stay here. We don't want them to feel as though they're stuck because they're in a city that’s not getting the same attention as L.A. or New York. We want to show them how amazing this community is, how amazing this scene is, and the fact that they're already a part of it. We are giving them tools to know how to keep that going once they get past high school and beyond. 

 

Who are some notable alumni of the program? 


Every single student that comes through Music Lab is a star and I remind them as such at the beginning of every open mic, but it's so very true! One of our hugest points of pride is the collaborations that come from the Music Lab. Right before the pandemic we had a really great season and a couple of students, Trinity Grace and Demaryl Howard, Jr., A.K.A. SPHINXDAGOD. They linked and met at Music Lab and then throughout the pandemic stayed in touch and they were able to create an EP together which he produced and she wrote for and sang on, which was awesome.  

 

This past season we had an amazing student named Jackson Knox who came in the beginning of the lab and just told everybody he was a producer and a rapper and he was there specifically to showcase his work. He kept coming to every open mic and more and more students kept gravitating to him. And he ended up linking up with several other people, and they created a collective called SWAMPVILLA.  

We also have an opportunity to collaborate with our partners and sponsors for different events. American Family Insurance gives us an opportunity to do a Summerfest showcase every year, and we've had some great performers come through. One of them is a student named Mia Hartounian, who was a graduate of '22, and she actually just got done competing on the most recent season of American Idol. She made it all the way to Hollywood! She's extremely gifted in singing and playing piano and has generously credited her involvement and performance experience in the Music Lab with allowing her the confidence to put herself out there and re-audition for Idol in the first place. Those are the stories that we take pride in building. We want all our students to feel prepared to take on any of their creative aspirations.

 

How can people get involved and support Grace Weber’s Music Lab? 

  

Everybody can get involved by visiting our website, gwmusiclab.com, or following @GWMusicLab on Instagram, but also come through! We are getting ready to have our final session of the year on May 24th at 5:00 PM at Radio Milwaukee. The event will feature Grace Weber herself who will be performing, and special guests Tevaar Smith and Mitch Dudley from the Orchard, a music distribution company that empowers creators to grow and adapt in the dynamic, global industry. This is our open house finale, which means everybody can come and see what the lab is about, bring a student, bring a friend, and come and chill. It's free and open to the public. 


Video of the April Music Lab event by Gabbi Cisneros, courtesy of Radio Milwaukee.

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