Birmingham-based composer, producer and recording studio and label owner Henry Panion has won two Grammy Awards, conducted orchestras around the world and produced music for his old friend Stevie Wonder, among many others.
But it’s in Birmingham, specifically in Woodlawn, where he regularly focuses a large part of his talent on providing music education for local kids through a program established by the Birmingham City Schools.
The epicenter is his home studio, Audiostate 55, located on 55th Place close to Woodlawn High School. “We have over 350 kids every week, during the week,” Panion said. “They are able to come over during the week, during school hours. …We literally have buses that will go over even to the high school and bring the students over to our labs from Woodlawn, Hayes, Oliver, all those schools. Every day.”
No stranger to education, Panion directs the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Music’s director of music technology as well as teaching multimedia production, orchestration and arranging.
He teaches and oversees a summer program called Music Tech Academy in Woodlawn, drawing students from all over the U.S. with the backing of both UAB and Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. Berklee’s City Music Network and PULSE (Pre-University Learning System Experience) program provide a foundation for Panion’s program and other community-based music education initiatives around the country.
But throughout the year, Panion’s educational efforts offer real-world musical enrichment on several levels to students through community group youth programs, home-schooling curricula and most of all, from Woodlawn High and its feeder schools.
“We do one program where they satisfy their high school fine arts requirement,” Panion said. “Another group is going through a full four-year curriculum and they will get pre-college credit by going through four years here with us. And then we have another group that is middle school and elementary school… But on top of that we have had a myriad of students from the area: Alabama School of Fine Arts, Hoover, Vestavia, from other Birmingham Schools, to come and be in our programs.”
Panion’s programs focus on performing, engineering and business.
“When you look at the industry you do have those three primary areas,” Panion said. “You have the performing area — and that’s the artistic. You have the engineering side, and that is everything from electrical engineering that’s involved in recording studios, [and] it also includes the computer engineering side of things which is heavily a part of what we do today. But the last part of that is the business side of things and that has to do with recording labels.”
Audiostate 55 Entertainment, Panion’s label, is distributed worldwide by Warner Brothers, and Panion’s deep industry connections give the students who come to his classes and workshops access they are unlikely to have otherwise.
“We’ve talked about giving these kids real-world experiences because at some point you can overwhelm them with technology and gadgetry, but it doesn’t become real until they can sometime press the flesh or talk with someone they feel has been there or done that, you know?” he said.
Besides the engineers and other staff at Audiostate, who frequently volunteer their time to work with the kids, Panion finds ways to connect his students with musicians, producers, arrangers and other industry pros who come to Birmingham by bringing them to his studio and the teaching lab. When he’s rehearsing for a conducting gig elsewhere, Panion gives his students access to his work through Skype. His students have connected with Stevie Wonder through their long-standing collaboration and with musicians whose records have been produced at Audiostate including American Idol winner and Birmingham native Ruben Studdard.
They’ve also had behind the scenes access to the music business in unexpected ways.
“I’ll never forget when my buddies on the Tonight Show [with Jay Leno] — I just basically was able to have them set up Skype right in the rehearsal room of the Tonight Show,” Panion said. The band members let the kids watch them in rehearsal and ask questions. “We were able to just basically chime directly in and talk to those guys and walk around the room and they’re there,” Panion said. “So, when they got home that night they were thinking about the show because they had been there, virtually.”
On another occasion students had a close encounter that connected what they were learning to the movie business, and one of the highest grossing films of all time, Marvel’s The Avengers.
Panion and company took the kids to see the movie. “But the very next day in our lab we were able to virtually bring in the producers, the sound engineers, the audio designers — sound effects, and they could sit there, and not only did they just see the movie they now could talk about the movie to the people who did it,” Panion said.
The Avengers connection was through Avid, the software company that makes industry standard recording and editing equipment. “The very same technology that was used to record, to make the movie, video-wise, to engineer the audio, to do all of that, is done with the very software that we’re teaching,” Panion said.
Avid is a longtime supporter of Panion’s educational work. “A lot of the software we have is more expensive than the actual hardware. And to be able to keep that updated we were able to get a large, continuous support from Avid,” he said. Panion’s music education is supported by a number of national companies, including Apple, and Coca-Cola. “One year we got our entire courtyard where we feed those kids three meals a day in the summer time… that courtyard was established from direct support from Coca-Cola,” Panion said. “It’s been a wonderful addition to our lab space.”
But there have been major local donors as well, like Alabama Power, which equipped the teaching lab with state-of-the art computers, Royal Cup, and the Woodlawn Foundation, the primary backers of the outreach to the Woodlawn schools.
The companies support his educational work see the connection between arts education and stronger, more viable communities, Panion said.
“A lot of these entities recognize that if we’re going to make a difference in the community… we can’t just go in there and go with medical issues and child abuse or drug addiction or other things,” he said. “We have to really take a holistic approach to addressing every aspect of their living and their society, ways in which you can build people up and make them feel good about themselves …
“You can preach science. You can preach being able to speak well. You can preach critical thinking… You can preach all these things and teach them, but unless they are relevant to other aspects of young people’s lives, and sometimes to adults as well, they really don’t sink in. And that is the beauty of the arts, what we’re trying to do. They get all of that — they get science, technology, engineering, math, critical thinking, public speaking — all of that with every aspect of what we’re doing with these programs.”
Young aspiring music professionals who live in Alabama need programs like his, said Panion, because they lack access that their peers might have in cities like Nashville, New York or Los Angeles.
“If you are waiting tables in Nashville or in New York or in L.A. you may say, ‘Okay, I’ll wait tables till I get my break. I’ll go on and audition for an acting part’ or ‘I’ll go on an audition for a musical part, play in band or for a show until I get my break,’” Panion said. “Well, if you’re in Alabama, the first step is what? Going to New York or L.A. or having the nerve to do that. And what we have discovered is that so many kids will play it safe and not really follow their dreams. First of all, that [big city] might as well be on Mars. It could be a thousand miles away.”
Giving aspiring local kids access to local musicians and music makers, makes something possible which is critical for them to achieve their goals: discovery. And he believes there is a prodigious amount of young talent to be found in Birmingham. As an example Panion cited the fact that Audiostate recorded the first record of Birmingham-native singer Denita Gibbs, whose first single debuted in 2013 at number 14 on the Billboard gospel album charts.
“Discovery is very, very important,” he said, noting how Stevie Wonder tells the story of how his journey to superstardom was started when he was discovered by Motown Founder Berry Gordy. “He talks about if it wasn’t for Berry discovering him, he wouldn’t be who he is,” Panion said. The next superstar could be right here, but “unless they have those opportunities, they won’t become Stevie Wonder or anybody else,” he said.
Doing his part in cultivating and exposing local talent, Panion has plans to expand his Audiostate properties to include “a facility that will allow us to have an opportunity for showcases, a place where more expanded music teaching can go on, a place for us to have our own little sound stage for shooting videos and other types of video productions and in that facility there will also be a little recital hall and a place where bands can come and rehearse,” he said. “We’re excited about that. We’re hoping to open it up this year as well.”
Recently appointed to the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Panion is committed to making the importance of music and arts education evident in both the urban and rural communities across the state.
“It’s easy to think about medicine, especially in the community we live in,” he said. “It’s easy to think about that and the sciences, but I always think about the arts as essential. They’re not just a luxury. They really are essential.”