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YA! Young Audiences Raps

By Spencer Flanagan on June 22, 2010

 

YA! Young Audiences Raps
When you think of your favorite school teacher, you may remember different learning activities they taught, such as counting goldfish crackers or creating volcano science fair projects. For the students of Michael Patrick Welch’s class in New Orleans, Louisiana, however, they’ll remember their English class through the many songs they’ve created, the music reviews they’ve written, and the CDs they've recorded.
Welch, more commonly known as Mr. Michael, is a journalist working in New Orleans who got involved with the Young Audiences afterschool arts-for-education program in 2006, but instead of teaching a regular English class, he decided to teach a “music writing” class that aims at helping students learn grammar and improve literacy through writing music reviews and creating their own songs.
Recently,  Mr. Michael selected his classes’ greatest songs and released it for the world to hearYA! Young Audiences Raps features 13 original songs written and recorded by Mr. Michael’s students over the past four years, and all of the proceeds made from the CD will benefit the Young Audiences' different programs in Louisiana. Mr. Michael took some time to talk to us about his unusual teaching methods, the release of YA! Young Audiences Raps and life in New Orleans.
To listen to the tracks and purchase the album, click HERE.
For more info, go here

 

 

What inspired you to begin teaching this music class and how did it come about? You were a journalist before, but did you have any teaching experience?
Michael Patrick Welch – I still am a journalist! My being a journalist is sort of what inspired the class. During my nine years in New Orleans I’ve consistently written for almost every local publication. Still that doesn’t pay all of the bills, so I started teaching English to high school kids – which was incredibly hard because of the obstacle called puberty, and because not enough value is placed on literacy and writing in New Orleans, so kids often just don’t respect it. Since, on the side, I was writing about music (and since our discussions about music seemed to be the only times these older kids would really talk to me) I decided to start bringing in CDs by local artists, for the kids to describe and criticize. This actually got them writing. Later when I shifted to teaching younger kids (older kids are a real challenge that you have to be properly trained for, especially in New Orleans) the magazines I worked for (Gambit, OffBeat and AntiGravity) published the students’ writing and even paid the kids. Still, the students would inevitably get fed up with even that writing, which is when I would bring in my drum machine, help them make beats and, more importantly, write original song lyrics. Between the album reviews and the lyrics, the kids end up writing a lot, mostly without seeming to realize it. Which is why I always describe my ‘Music Writing’ class as, “a writing class disguised as a music class.”
How did you get involved with the Young Audiences program?
A lot of the people involved in YA, from the other teachers to my bosses, are all deeply involved in the art and music scenes in New Orleans outside of their day jobs. So just from being in a band myself and going to art shows, I knew a lot of YA employees before I ever worked there. Which is good because it means I don’t have to hide my eccentricities the way I might at another job. They really understand and support me.
What is the overall goal of the class?
To get kids to practice writing, to improve their literacy. I just want New Orleans kids to get the writing practice they often don’t seem to be getting otherwise. Most everything else – the published reviews, the 10-cents-a-word, the finished CD of their original songs -- is all lagniappe. I also hope that the kids will walk away from writing record reviews with a more broad view of what they could possibly do for a living, and a feeling that work can be fun. Also I am proud that, in a city where jazz curriculum is jammed down kids’ throats like it’s vegetables, that I may be the only music teacher who takes the music they actually like seriously, and shows them how rap in particular is made in a studio.
It seems that your music class combines students from all grades.  Is it hard to teach a class with such a diverse age group?
The classes are broken up by grades. The older kids are more adept at it than the little ones, but I have taught my class to kindergarteners before.
How do you think this class has changed the lives of your students?
Well, I do know that a small portion of each class leaves thinking, very seriously, "I am a rapper," or even, "I am a writer of songs." But mostly it’s hard to tell because kids being kids, they often act entitled, not really appreciative or telling you how much you’ve meant to them or something. Mostly they’re just like, “Gimmee my CD,” and they don’t even thank you! But over the course of the few months in class I definitely see them get better and stronger with words and with rhythm, and more confident performing in front of people. And I can’t imagine that someday down the road they won’t realize how unique the experience they had truly was. I suspect that the kids all quickly lose their CDs once I give them to them, but if not, I also imagine that hearing that CD ten years from now will blow their minds and make them proud. Especially the kids who are on the recent “official” album.
What are some obstacles some of your students have to overcome?
New Orleans adults. The kids here for the most part are just innately amazing and bright; they live in a crazy place where they’ve seen and experienced so much – bad and good – that some people never do in their lifetimes. So they seem tougher, funnier, more wise somehow, and also vastly more musical. Other than challenges working with the youngest students who are still learning rhythm, the only problems most New Orleans kids have is the adults who don’t take good enough care of them or teach them enough.
What are some life experiences the kids learn while in the class? I read, for example, that the students sometimes work in groups to come up with their raps. Working with others is just one important lesson the class seems to teach.  What other things do they learn?
I am not sure about life lessons, but the students do learn a lot. Young Audiences bills itself as “arts for learning” so though my class might look like a goofy “rap class,” it’s actually an English class that fulfills a great many of Louisiana’s Grade Level Expectations (GLEs). Writing the rap songs for instance is akin to your basic English class journal writing lesson: the kids come up with topics together, brainstorm, make lists, essentially write poems (to a beat) about their topics, and then pen and perfect second and third drafts – and that’s just the beginning. Writing the album reviews they practice grammar, punctuation, capitalization, quotation, the difference between description and opinion, and loads of other important things.
What are some of the challenges that you face teaching this class?
Well, I went to college for art and English, not for teaching, and I am not certified as a “real” teacher, so often I have to figure out the child psychology parts on my own, sometimes with trial and error, which can be a pretty heavy challenge (though again, not as tough as it would be with older kids). Mostly I have been very lucky: everything has come about very organically, the idea has worked really well for six years and keeps getting better and smoother – it’s pretty much a dream job to teach English to kids via rap music.
It’s incredible that these young kids can come up with these lyrics and songs. Do most of them come with little or no musical background?
Well, I do guide them a little musically, teach them about bars and measures, verses and choruses, and guide them away from rapping about money and rims. But otherwise, though it may sound like idealization, New Orleans itself is a musical background, really. Music accompanies everything here – mostly rap too, more so than jazz – and every New Orleans family has musicians in it. Also, as far as I can tell (and my view may be skewed since I don’t really work for the schools themselves) but most schools here, for whatever else they lack, mostly have band programs they are very proud of. I would guess that a New Orleans public school would probably choose to cut the football team before its marching band. Maybe the whole English department as well…
What is the greatest joy that you get out of teaching music to these kids?
Again, just knowing they’ll be a little better at writing. With the music part, I feel like all I am giving them is the keys to a drum machine and ProTools, and the talent they already had. I love music, but they don’t need more music, they need to be able to write better. So what I feel I am really giving them will hopefully show up, in the future, in other more important places than the recording studio.
Earlier this summer, you helped release YA! Young Audiences Raps a 13-song, 35-minute disc of the students' greatest hits. How has the response been thus far?
Everyone loves the album, people of all ages. I had 65 songs to choose from, so this is really the cream of the crop. However, we released the album at the beginning of this summer, and  New Orleans kind of goes into hibernation during the oppressively hot months, so we really haven’t gotten the word out yet. The excellent New Orleans record label Park the Van will release the digital version when the summer’s over and that’s when the record will set the world on fire. I use that cliche without the slightest exaggeration; it’s a great album, and the first of its kind. No offense to other teachers, but this is something far more amazing than little kids singing Radiohead covers.
All of the proceeds from the YA! Young Audiences Raps CD will benefit arts in education programs in Louisiana. What are some of those programs the money will be used toward?
Well my class for one thing! The kids break one of my drum machines and three of my microphones every two years; someone’s gotta pay for that! But seriously, Young Audiences hires dozens of artists like me of all disciplines, from storytellers to African drummers and dancers to a robotics person to puppeteers. So I guess the money will go to pay those people to teach, plus buy more books, African drums, puppets and robot parts. Honestly, I just teach so I don’t know exactly how the money will be spent; I only know that YA has been an important and successful arts and learning program in Louisiana and nationwide since the 1960s, and they deserve all the support they get, and more. I have taught in dozens of LA schools and almost none of them have art classes during the school day. YA is one of the only ways America’s public school children will get the art education that my generation got.
How do you think having this class, getting students’ reviews published and now putting out this CD has helped the community where these kids come from? Have you noticed a difference?
I know that the schools where I teach the class (which, I usually teach at two or three different places per school year) are always thrilled and surprised when their kids are published in a magazine. But usually I teach far from where I live in the 9th Ward, so I don’t really get to see the results outside of the school. Young Audiences itself though has deep roots in New Orleans – parents who’ve taught with YA for 25 years are now getting their kids jobs there, not to mention all the other funky New Orleans artists YA employs – so from my point of view YA helps the community as much as it is the community.
Where do you get the different samples that are used in many of the tracks on the album?
There are no samples on the album. All the music is 100 percent original. The kids and I make the beats in class, write and record the vocals, then I take the track home and add a little bit of guitar and keyboards and bass -- for flavor and to blow the kids’ minds, though I always make sure not to change their tunes too much, or make the recordings mine. If these songs were just awesome collages of kids’ voices put together by an adult, they wouldn’t be worth nearly as much. The students practice and practice until they can perform the songs live from start to finish. If we’re recording a song and everything is perfect but then the very last rapper messes up, then we start back at the beginning. Though frustrating at times, live recording teaches them a lot of teamwork and patience, and about all the work that goes into being a real musician.
Is there a particular genre of music that you tend to gravitate toward with the project? For example, is bounce the dominant genre that your students produce? Or does it depend on the students?
Bounce is party music, and so not often a very lyrical form of rap. And though many bounce performers are totally electric, the music also derives a lot of its awesomeness from its computerized choppiness, and I try not to chop the kids’ songs up. The kids’ and I love bounce music, but in our class I sort of gear the style toward hip-hop’s golden era, the Yo! MTV Raps days, when each artist was trying to sound different from the next, and even if you just wrote party rhymes they were clever and made you think the author was a smart cat. It was a much more smart and lyrical time. All that being said, the kids decide what genre to attack. They have written blues songs, a rock song, even (because of Lady Gaga) a techno-pop song. Mostly they choose rap because rap is the most popular music in the world. But also, even if you’re tone deaf you can still be a great rapper, so it’s easy to just jump in and go.
Once the songs were recorded, how did you go about mastering them and getting them ready for the album?
 
Just the traditional way, nothing fancy: we took it to House of 1000hz recording studio in New Orleans and had them adjust the main tracks’ volume and brightness. No real trickery. Again, other than some little decorative bells and whistles that I added, what you hear is what the kids made. There were days when the kids were really well behaved and remained silent while their peers recorded verses, but then there are recordings where you can hear kids pushing and shoving to get at the mic, and giggling in the background. The kids and I do try to make it all as professional as we can, hashing it out in the classroom, but in the end it is definitely kids’ art and we didn’t master the eccentricities out of the tunes. It’s interesting to note also, that these rap songs, made in a classroom almost solely by elementary school kids, are easily as smart and fun and bangin’ as whatever ClearChannel’s polluting the airwaves with these days…F

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