While many a student has drifted into slumber to the soundtrack of a teacher’s drone, I highly doubt any kids will be falling asleep in LaMar Queen’s class. As an educator in a South Central Los Angeles middle school, Queen was getting more attention for his Kayne West style than for the algebra equations he was trying to teach the students. His solution was to combine their interests and his by creating raps that integrated his math lessons, and soon Queen’s raps were the talk of the school.
Together with fellow educator Jimmy Pascascio, Queen founded Music Notes, a educational music company designed to engage students through high-quality music and videos. Their second album of algebra-inspired raps will be released next month, along with an album of geometry tracks by a second artist to join the Music Notes team. We’ll be bringing you an interview with him next week, but for now, check out LA Music Blog’s discussion with Queen and Pascascio below. You just may learn something.
How did Music Notes get its start?
LAMAR: My first year of teaching was in 2007, and I got to the profession just real confident that I was going to be able to teach everybody. I was just a young, energetic teacher, happy to be there, and the kids enjoyed me and my personality for about a month. Then I just became the most boring teacher in the world.
The students thought I looked like Kanye West so they started saying, “Mr. Queen, your class is boring, but you look like Kanye. Can you rap for us?” I told them “No” for about a week, and they were so persistent that I just eventually broke down and told them that I would rap for them. The first song I wrote was “Slope Intercept,” and once I went back to class and did it for them, they were just amazed that I was actually able to do it.
Little did they know I’ve been doing music almost my whole life. I wrote my first song in seventh grade. I just had to switch it over to the educational side, but they were really impressed and of course wanted more and more. Once my other classes found out about it, they wanted more. I did another song for the other classes and eventually the teachers started hearing about it so I performed it for the teachers.
JIMMY: It was kind of funny on my part because I remember hearing about this song. The kids were really excited about it, and some teachers heard about it, so they finally decided he was going to perform at this big holiday party that we were having for the whole school staff.
We had been social with each other up to this point, and I think we considered each other friends, but I was a little nervous for him because I really hadn’t heard the song. I really didn’t know what was going to happen, and I remember as he’s doing this song, I’m just thinking, “Wow, this is actually pretty good. This isn’t as corny as I thought it was going to be.”
At the time I was doing some work with students on basic video production, so when he finished the song, he came and sat down and I leaned into him and said, “Hey, why don’t we try making a music video for this?” We made the music video, and we ended up posting it online. Next thing you know, we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from it. So as LaMar starts cranking out more songs, we just keep making videos for them until we ended up with a whole album and a whole DVD.
LAMAR: Yes, and that’s pretty much how we got started. Once we finished with all those songs, we decided to take the next step and start the educational music company, with the goal in mind that we’re going to keep creating music for every grade level. We were starting off with math because that’s what I teach, but planned to eventually branch out to other subject areas, recruit talented teachers that may want to write songs or may want to make an album, but don’t know how to do it. We’d help them out and lead them in the right direction.
We also wanted to get kids writing songs, which is going to help them study and become masters of the subject area because it’s really a nontraditional form of studying when you’re writing a song. We want to get them on the video side, get ‘em behind cameras, creating music, things like that. It’s really a different form of teaching themselves.
How has it helped your students so far?
LAMAR: The first thing is motivation and engagement. That’s the biggest battle a lot of teachers have.
JIMMY: To give a little background, we teach in the south LA area, and there are all kinds of factors that lead into it, but a lot kids in the community have already checked out of the idea of school as a whole once they get to middle school. Getting them engaged and getting them excited about classes is the first battle that we have to win before we can even teach anything.
LAMAR: Exactly, and that’s what I realized the music is doing. It opened their minds, opened them up to me and whatever teacher is using it. I’ve gotten feedback from teachers saying, “The kids really enjoy it. They like it, and they want to hear it all the time.” Tt gives them the opportunity to actually, like Jimmy said, start teaching.
So that’s the first impact it has. Then I’ve had parents, teachers, students come up to me and tell me how it’s helped them. After taking standardized tests my own students will come back to me and tell me how they’re singing the songs during the test and it helped them out. Kids that were getting Fs and Ds are raising their grades up to Cs and Bs, even some As, so it has a really, really good impact.
How has the school system that you work in received this? How have they worked with you?
LAMAR: Our school supports us 100 percent. They let us do what we’re doing in our classroom. We haven’t had any push against what we’re doing. The district is aware of what we’re doing, and they are happy with what we’re doing in the classroom. It’s been received well amongst our school and our peers in the LA area.
As you said, you plan on eventually breaking out of the subject of math. Has anybody come forward in any of the other departments to start working with you, or have you approached anybody that seems like they’re interested?
JIMMY: You know, it’s funny. LaMar did the first album, and we released it in December. The original plan as far as a business model was to have LaMar release a second album in September, and then after that we would work on trying to find other artists. Then we almost just kind of happened upon David. We didn’t have plans to have a second artist yet, so things have ended up moving a little bit faster than we anticipated.
The original plan was to be able to say, “Okay, this is what we’ve done with LaMar. He has two going on three albums,” and then we’d start recruiting people. Getting David so early on was kind of a mixed blessing because obviously it’s great to have another artist, but then at the same time, we weren’t quite at that point to being prepared yet.
We hadn’t really started recruiting other people in other subject areas yet, but we figure it will probably end up being something similar. As people find out about what we’re doing, they’ll take an interest. We have a lot of teachers that, whether it’s through emails, through the website, through YouTube, they’ll make comments about making songs on their own. Eventually we’ll come across someone that is able to do what LaMar is doing and what David is doing, but in another subject area.
Can you tell us a little about your plans for the CD profits?
LAMAR: We’re putting 10 percent of proceeds towards arts and education in many different forms. We have plans to send kids to schools of the fine arts, give them scholarship money to help pay to attend a high school that might be outside of their area or one that they might not have an opportunity to go to. We’re going try to put money back into schools for music departments, which are usually the first to get cut at schools, and a lot of schools don’t have instruments even when they do have a department.
JIMMY: That’s one of the things that we definitely want to do sometime in the near future. A big part of what we’ve done over the past six or eight months since we’ve been selling CDs is just covering the cost of what it took to get this first project out. I’m sure artists experience this too, but we’re at the point where it’s a lot of our own investment in it. Once we do get to the point where we could say we’ve made any kind of profit, we want to make sure that we use whatever money comes our way to help out the community, especially in areas of need like music education.
How can people that are outside the school system get involved with Music Notes?
JIMMY: There are many different ways; it just depends on what someone would be willing to offer. As the first project has gained more attention, a few people have reached out saying that they do music, and they’d like to help out with some of the production on the songs, things like that.
Sometimes people may be interested in donating money towards a cause, and maybe they don’t want an album themselves, but they just want to do something to show support. We’d like to become a little vessel for them to be able to help out the schools. We do go to schools and do shows, and some schools are just at a point where their budget does not allow for a show.
We would love to find donors that would be able to donate directly to schools. We’re well-connected with a lot of the schools in the area, so we can connect them with the schools, and they can make a donation that would cover a couple of the artists coming out and doing a show there, or they can purchase CDs or DVDs to give directly to the kids.
What can we expect from Music Notes in the near future?
LAMAR: In September we’re going to have two albums coming out, my Pre-algebra album, which is going to cover a variety of concepts that the kids need to have mastered before they enter an algebra classroom, and we also have a geometry album coming out that David is working on. They’re both going to be released in September, and once we get all those done, we’re going to have a big event. We’re going to invite all the parents, teachers and students that have been involved to come out and celebrate our success.
The kids helped us out a lot in these videos. They take their personal time to come and help us with the videos. They can be doing a million other things on an afternoon, after school, or a Saturday morning, but they decided to come out and help us, so we’re going to be having that event sometime in September to just kind of celebrate everything we’ve done.
JIMMY: Then we’ll be right back to the studio to work on some more albums.
LAMAR: [LAUGHS] Exactly.
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