By Matt de Simone
As students return to schools across Botetourt County, aspiring musicians attending James River High School have a new place to jam.
John McLeese spent the last 30 years in the educational system. Three years ago, McLeese transitioned from English teacher to librarian. He brought a couple of guitars and a microphone into the empty office space, having no idea of what was to come.
The first acoustic guitar in the new studio was initially stationed in James River’s former Principal Jamie Talbott’s office. McLeese would borrow the Dean guitar for his English class and use it as a teaching tool. Talbott eventually gave it to McLeese to use in his classroom. The guitar now rests on one of the guitar racks mounted along the studio’s walls.
“Kids would come in the mornings and during lunch and play the guitar,” McLeese explained. “A lot of students’ hands have touched that guitar, which is pretty cool.”
The studio’s story began when a group of teachers from James River traveled to Northern Virginia and visited a school that had a recording studio. When they returned, they told McLeese that working inside of a recording studio was the job for him.
McLeese thought it was a great idea but didn’t know how it would come to fruition. He spent some of his own money on a microphone and some speakers for the office space and, at the point, had a makeshift room to write and record tracks.
Last May, James River graduate and Nashville recording artist Matt Ramsey and his foundation donated $50,000 to the high school arts program. In August, McLeese was informed by James River Principal Dr. Lisa Taylor that $19,000 of the $50,000 would go toward recording equipment for the high school’s new recording studio.
McLeese purchased a couple of guitars for the studio and donated a few from his collection. The walls are soundproofed and the studio also houses an electronic drum set.
Two weeks ago, Lee Hartman & Sons installed the equipment purchased from Matt Ramsey’s donation. The studio uses PreSonus Studio One—an all-in-one recording application that features a large monitor and a soundboard that will allow students (and McLeese) to record and mix tracks inside the library’s studio.
This technology was foreign to McLeese upon installation. Fortunately, a representative from PreSonus visited the studio to show McLeese how to operate the application.
“I tried to play with Studio One before I got my training,” McLeese added. “It was, I don’t know… You would press the wrong button, and other stuff wouldn’t work anymore, so I figured I would wait until I was shown how to use the equipment.”
Not only will the application be a learning experience for students, but McLeese also gets to experience understanding the new features of Studio One.
“It will be cool for the students to come in and record,” McLeese continued. “I’ve had a couple of students say they want to start a band. Everybody can just put their headphones on so they can hear each other, but it will remain quiet outside of the studio.”
Essentially, some James River students will use the library to study and read, while others will rock alongside McLeese.
For more information about The Ramsey Foundation’s contributions, visit theramseyfoundation.com.