Eden Troderman knew where she wanted to spend her first afternoon as a student attending the Berklee College of Music: at BTC Records, the music production space at the Brookline Teen Center that she knew well.
“I got into Berklee because of this place,” they said, sitting at an equipment-covered desk in the center's control room. Another teen sat on a couch behind them, and two others played guitar in the studio on the other side of the glass.
The Brookline High School graduate, who releases songs under the name Aruna, has been playing music her whole life — which included writing some “really cringey songs in sixth grade,” she said. But they didn't start releasing music until receiving some help from BTC Records.
Founded in 2013, the Brookline Teen Center offers a community hub for teenagers who live or go to school in Brookline. It's one of more than 800 active youth development nonprofits in Massachusetts, according to ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer.
On that cold and icy afternoon in January, the center was active with teens playing basketball in the gym and huddling around small tables with snacks after school. Others were working on music in the BTC Records studio space.
A handful of these organizations offer equipment and guidance in music production. Program leaders say they're providing space for teens to express themselves and learn a new skill. The teens who participate seem to agree.
Defining a space outside of home and school
Bri Skywall, teen technology coordinator at the Boston Public Library, said the library's Teen Central aims to “provide what we call the 'third space': a space that isn’t their home and isn’t school or work, that they can come and just be themselves." A space where teens “don’t have to pay to exist," she said.
Third spaces, which broadly include include free and publicly available spaces, social services organizations and low-cost commercial establishments, are known to strengthen communities. But research shows third spaces are declining, and disparities are more present along income, race and geographic lines.
Connections in these spaces are informal, but the plans to expand them are in writing. Strengthening the BPL’s role as a third space is listed in the city’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan. And Boston’s Third Spaces Lab, in collaboration with New Urban Mechanics, aims to “make it easier for grassroots organizations and individuals to grow and nurture community-based third spaces from the bottom up," according to the program's website.
BTC Music Coordinator Pablo Muñoz said the center’s goal has always been to develop a space where teens can make music, whether they have big dreams in mind or are looking to express themselves day-to-day.
“They find that a lot here, whenever they’re having maybe not the best week, they’ll come in here and they’ll be like, ‘I want to do a song. I want to talk about this.’ Or, ‘I wrote a song about this,’ and they’ll get it out, and then they feel better, and they'll work on their craft,” Muñoz said.
In the control room, Troderman picked up a guitar and played the beginning of a song they wrote just a couple days earlier.
“I haven’t slept in a week / My body’s turning on me, to please you / And I’m feeling too sick to eat / I think you’re gonna kill me / It’s cool …” she sang.
The song seemed to reflect Troderman’s routine since graduating from high school, which they said involves writing songs throughout the night and working with Muñoz at the studio in the afternoons.
“I want people to feel my pain through my music. Because I think that if people can relate to the music that they’re listening to, if they themselves don’t have an outlet, listening to it is like the equivalent of that,” she said.
With 60-70 hours of work, Troderman writing and Muñoz producing, she released her first song, “Crave” last May, which recently surpassed 1,000 streams.
“It’s a small milestone, but it means a lot to me. If people are even listening to my music, that’s crazy,” Troderman said.
Tom Goldberg, a junior at Brookline High School, started taking a music production class with Muñoz in early November. He’s still learning the basics, he said, but Muñoz has already helped him create a vocal-less track, teaching him how to establish a beat.
“I think I’m more confident in myself,” Goldberg said. “I’m still not great, but the more consistent, like, Pablo reinforcing my ideas, it just made me more confident in what I’m making.”
Goldberg said if he were to show people at school the music he likes, there would be a different reaction than at BTC Records.
“Here, [it's] way more welcoming,” he said. “Like the sense of community is way bigger here.”
“I’ve been able to see a lot of these teens go from not being able to stand in front of a group and just say hi to actually performing songs, like, really confidently,” Muñoz said. “It’s just consistency and the will to continue improving and keep going at it, even if you at first don’t feel super confident.”
An afternoon spent in a 'third space'
Teens at the center that day milled in and out of the control room, pushing open the heavy, soundproof door in search of Muñoz, their admired teacher and collaborator. Muñoz himself started at BTC in 2022, about a year after he graduated from Berklee.
“Pablo, he will listen to the same one-second clip of a snare drum for like 30 minutes on loop,” Troderman said. “It’s just insane how much patience you have to have to make music that’s good. … I’m trying to kind of carry that with me.”
The next day, on a colder and icier afternoon in Back Bay, four teens huddled around computers and small keyboards. They were there for Music Production with Hamstank, a weekly digital music creation session at the Boston Public Library. Somerville-based record producer Tony “Hamstank” Hamoui has led the program for the last seven years.
According to Skywall, Teen Central sees about 100 visitors on the average weekday during the school year. For music production sessions, the number hovers around 12 participants weekly.
Hamstank’s routine during the hourlong sessions differs from week to week. Sometimes he’s helping teens get started — like a participant that day who opened the music software for the first time and was already making a song — but he also supports kids with more advanced music skills.
Hamstank glanced over to another teen, calling him a “master-level composer and vocalist.” The student was working on a song he started the week prior, this time re-recording vocals in the space’s audio booth.
“So with him it’s like, OK, here’s some shortcuts that will make your life so much easier in this program, in this software,” Hamstank said.
Hamstank said some kids come to the session with their headphones on, wanting to work solely on their own projects.
“And that’s fine, but you always find them slowly taking the headphones off and listening and asking questions and talking to other teens,” he said. “I’m hoping they’re finding an outlet, a release to have their voices heard and to express themselves.”
Back in Brookline, Troderman said she’s hoping to get more comfortable performing and maybe even drop an album this year. If her younger self knew she’d be enrolled at Berklee and writing music in a professional studio?
“I think sixth grade me probably would have fainted or cried or something," they said.