George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Virtual Music Production Is a Reality: Making Music Helps Kids Make the Grade

A conversation with the Harmony Frequency Institute’s Jonathan Kalafer.

February 2, 2007

Jonathan Kalafer has a secret -- one he's more than eager to divulge to any educator who will listen. This energetic and enthusiastic high school teacher in Jersey City, New Jersey, has discovered a way to make music education available to every high school student in America. His method is easy and inexpensive, and students are crazy about it.

The catch? There isn't any, insists Kalafer, who has fallen in love with virtual studio software -- FL Studio, in particular -- that enables students to create their own professional-sounding digital recordings. As a challenge to the paucity of arts funding in schools, Kalafer has created around this high-tech, low-cost tool a music program dubbed the Harmonic Frequency Institute, which he says can be easily launched at other schools. The software gets students so excited, Kalafer claims, that, in addition to music and technology, they learn about everything from history to vocabulary to physics.

And yet Kalafer is stumped about why more teachers and schools aren't following suit to open musical doors that would otherwise be inaccessible to most students. "This experience has been so amazing, empowering students to create their own original music," says Kalafer. "I hope this inspires other teachers to do the same."

What started you on your mission to use computers to teach music?

When I was working on my master's degree in education at New York University, I was placed at a school in the Bronx and looking for ways to engage the students. I had my laptop with me, which already had some music-production software I had loaded myself -- early versions of FL Studio, Acid, and Sound Porch. When I let the students use it, they took to it immediately, like a magnet to iron.

I've found that the kids, who are real digital natives, pick it up quickly -- especially because the software's so intuitive. That first time using it, I realized the software had a place in schools and was an excellent way to teach music and technology.

Was it difficult convincing the administration to let you teach music using only a computer?

It can be hard for people to get their heads around how a student can create a song on a computer. The way I got the administration on board was to ask the principal to come into the classroom and so I could show her what my students were doing. That's when she understood.

So, how does the software work?

The user doesn't need specific training in an instrument, or any understanding of standard notation or music theory. Basically, the software serves as a virtual orchestra so students have at their disposal a whole array of sounds to work with, translating music into a visual language and creating a grid pattern that allows them to see the music and get rhythms and melodies going. In no time, they'll be making sounds. Whether or not it's always music, I guess, is open to interpretation.

Couldn't it be argued that composing music on a computer -- without ever learning to read music or play a real instrument -- doesn't really teach about how to be a musician?

I've met with some resistance from classically trained musicians. I understand where this is coming from. There's incredible value from the kinesthetic aspect of playing an instrument. I'm a musician myself, and this is a radically different way to make music.

But if every note and beat is created by students and put on a CD -- whether they do it mechanically with a flute or draw it in with a mouse -- they're still creating their own original music. As opposed to some music software that's simply mixing some people's prerecorded music, this allows students to create it all themselves. And the software facilitates making music kids like, be it rap, pop, hip-hop.

Also, the software is changing the way music is created. There's always a place for one musician and his guitar or a traditional rock band with two guitars, a bass player, and a drummer. At the same time, popular music is not created that way as much anymore. More and more, music is studio produced.

Now that you've been successful at your school, have you seen like-minded programs popping up at other schools?

It's a little frustrating. Here, I've had this wonderful experience, and I keep expecting to hear about other teachers doing it. But I don't see that happening. The way music technology is usually brought into schools is that music teachers design their dream studios and get the school to put it in their classroom with expensive drum machines, digital recorders, digital keyboard synthesizers, and mixing boards.

Ultimately, this approach usually creates only one studio in each school, and it tends to be more teacher driven, because they're the only ones who know how to work the equipment. But by using this kind of virtual studio technology, for less than the price of that one studio, all the students can be working on their own music.

So, spread the word. How can other teachers replicate what you've done?

Assuming they already have computers in the schools, it's incredibly easy and cost effective. The only hardware you need is a regular PC computer and headphones. The education license for the software is $75 per computer ($100-$150 retail). A teacher can then visit the FL Studio Web site and download a demo of the software. It's an easy, straightforward installation. And the site has Flash and video tutorials on how to use the software. A teacher who has very little experience with computers and music can easily help his or her students get started with the online tutorial.

Can you elaborate on how you use the software as a cross-curricular tool to teach English or other subjects?

I was an English teacher, originally, doing this as an after-school program. It was so successful that I wanted to teach it as an elective class. The administration asked whether there was any way to integrate this into my English curriculum, so I developed a class called Language, Music, and Culture, looking at lyrics as literary texts -- around Thanksgiving, for example, we were listening to Alice's Restaurant.

It was a basic music-appreciation course, but I used the digital-music-production portion as a carrot. We've been able to use music as a window to study subjects across the curriculum. For example, for physics, we study the science of sound and how it happens as a physical phenomenon.

Beyond academics, what have you seen this do for your students?

It's giving them an opportunity to express themselves creatively. This is tied in with the self-esteem they gain, which is the most fun part as an educator. It's one thing to be in the school band and be in a performance, but with this program, the students can create a CD or an MP3 they can play for their friends and family.

Do you have any individual success stories you're especially proud of?

I have one student right now who is around seventeen and is a gang member in the Bloods. He was very interested in music but didn't have access to it in school before. He started spending more and more time in my classroom working on his music -- writing lyrics and composing his own rhythms. He's in there now during lunchtime and after school.

All these times he's in my classroom, he's not on the street getting sucked into whatever kids get into. And it's a way for me to reach him. I've been having conversations with him -- he's talking about moving past the gang thing. That's the type of thing that makes me happy as a teacher.

Leslie Crawford is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She wrote "Rock and Roll into Town: Students Make Tracks in a Recording Studio on Wheels" for (Additional reporting by Ronen Kauffman.)
Published: 1/30/2007

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