Dark Horse

Student Success // June 29, 2017

“Is this for real? Having our own songs recorded in a professional studio?” These questions were asked by December 2016 graduate Aaron Washington, when he discovered he would be one of nine students to take an incredible musical journey.

Thanks to Freed-Hardeman’s Enhanced Learning Initiative (ELI), these students had a chance to travel to a renowned professional recording studio in Franklin, Tennessee, to record their originally written and composed songs.

Students arrived at Dark Horse Studios, where many famous artists have recorded, with their lyrics and musical compositions clutched in hand. There they saw their music come to life with the help of recording technicians, instrumentalists and their faculty from FHU, Dr. Margaret Payne, associate professor of English, and Dr. Alan Kinningham, assistant professor of music. 

“Dr. Kinningham and I had offices by each other, and I could always hear the interesting things he was doing over there with his students as they were learning to write music,” Payne said, reflecting on how the Dark Horse Studio idea began. The two professors began musing about a collaborative project. It occurred to them that Payne’s creative writing class and Kinningham’s songwriting class might work well together.

During the 2016 fall semester, Kinningham and Payne presented the idea to their students.

The students were ecstatic when they found out they would be recording at a professional recording studio. “Rarely does someone in their early 20s get such an opportunity. Some people work their entire lives to do something like this,” Austin England, one of Kinningham’s students, said. Lyricists and composers were paired, and they immediately began what would be a year-long journey.

Lyricists were Amanda Menter,  Branson, Missouri; Megan Breece, Lyles, Tennessee; Madison Darby,  Selmer, Tennessee; Nic Moon, Huntsville, Alabama; and Karly Cross, Grove City, Ohio. Composers were Washington, Charlotte, North Carolina; England, Gallatin, Tennessee; Adam Roberts, Warrior, Alabama; and Cherie Black, Tiplersville, Mississippi.

During the fall, Payne’s students tested their hand at songwriting by selecting an idea and expressing it through poetry. After the lyrics were polished and the pairs joined, Kinningham’s students began to put the lyrics to music. Payne and Kinningham advised the students every step of the way. Megan Breece said, “Both of them have helped tremendously.

Dr. Payne helped me with the creative process, and Dr. Kinningham showed us how to structure a song and work with the music.” Many of the students had never attempted writing a song before, so the guidance was invaluable.

“Of course, Dark Horse was, by far, the best part. This studio was another level. It was amazing,” Roberts said. Students took turns working with the studio’s recording technicians, who catered to them as if they were special guests. Washington said, “Just being in the studio . . . it was so cool! I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to set foot in one again, let alone record my own music in one again.” The students learned from the technicians as they worked to create the perfect sound.

In reflecting on the project, Kinningham said, “One of the things I’m proudest of is that we had five totally different songs. It was not a cookie-cutter process, and the songs don’t sound the same at all. It was the experience of a lifetime for them.”

Looking back on the experience, England added, “When we were at Dark Horse Studios, I realized the awesomeness of this opportunity. Here was a bunch of college kids with no professional music experience, recording in the studio used by Taylor Swift and Neil Diamond. What an incredible opportunity!”