Hey, You’re Cool! Building Beats
Teaching not only music, but also confidence and collaboration
After years of DJing around New York and collaborating with many of the city’s electronic music producers, Phi Pham, who went by the name Phi Unit, decided he wanted to use those skills for good. He’d been working at a couple non-profits already and now looked to music as a form of community building. Enter Building Beats, a local non-profit he founded in 2013 providing free digital music education for the city’s youth. They reach about 300 kids per week at 35 sites around the city, ranging from 2nd graders to high schoolers, mainly through afterschool programs, but also in a couple homeless programs and at a detention center in The Bronx. They teach with cloud software so that kids can continue working on their projects wherever they can find internet access. We caught up with Phi to find out more because that’s pretty damn cool in our book:
How long have you been doing this?
It started as an idea in 2009 but became official in 2013. I started it by myself as a side project in school. Originally it was meant to open studios around the world for youth to connect in some way. We helped build a DJ school in Brazil. It’s called Spin Rocinha, in the favelas outside Rio. We’re not active with it anymore, but we hear they’re still running classes six days a week mainly teaching DJing and turntablism. My job was fundraising and getting equipment from DJ friends and the music community in New York?
What inspired you to start this project?
I realized that I learned so much about leadership and life and entrepreneurial skills through my DJ career. So I wanted to start classes that were creative but also teach skills help in other parts of their lives?
What was it specifically about kids that you wanted to work with them?
In high school and college you really grow that passion for music, so I knew it was a good hook. The younger generation is surrounded by technology, so I thought it would be a good way to get them to be creative rather than just consumers.
Were you thinking of non-profit work before deciding music was a tool to engage them?
DJing and music was something I was passionate about, but building community impact was my long term aspiration. This ties those together. I had worked for a start up that did international development and public health work at Columbia University, where I learned my chops. I also worked at a foundation where I learned fund-raising and what it’s like to run a non-profit.
What’s the challenge in New York with music education?
What we’re learning is that a lot of schools are cutting out arts programming, a lot of kids have no music classes at all.
Do you have regular workshops?
They’re mainly programs in after school settings. We also work with three homeless youth programs and at a detention center in The Bronx. We’re currently working with about 35 different sites. We built the program to be very cloud software based so that as long as the program has a computer lab or laptops, we’re able to teach the kids digital music making. We’re on track to do 1,400 workshops throughout NYC, we have on average seven to nine every day. We’re continuing to grow and work with more schools.
What type of return attendance do you have with these students?
The majority are recurring workshops at specific schools and community centers. We’re working with about 300 kids every week across all our sites. We do have some kids coming in for one-offs, but our main aspect is working with them on a regular basis. Each site varies in terms of length, but the programs range from 8 weeks up to 12 weeks. Teaching the fundamentals of music making, from drum programming to synthesizer song arrangement, sampling, remixing, and sound engineering. We work with as young as 2nd and 3rd grade up to high school age and sometimes older. The majority is after school or extracurricular programming.
Do you partner with other music education programs or tech non-profits?
We partner with Carnegie Hall at their location, and their experience and guidance helps our work. We’ve worked with Scratch Academy in the past to provide DJ workshops for our kids. We do partnerships with Serato. And Ableton has donated Push controllers.
Do these kids get software to take home and work on?
Our core curriculum uses cloud software products, one called AudioTool.com and another called Soundtrap.com. Both are completely free. We do that mainly knowing that they might not have access outside of our classroom, so they can save their projects in the cloud and keep working on them.
So you teach a process that allows them to pick up other software?
Our curriculum is software agnostic so the concepts they learn can be converted over to something like Logic or Ableton or FL Studio. We learn more on composition and music theory to make sure whatever program they use, they have the creativity skills to make what they want. We mainly use drum machines and controller but there are some classes where we teach kids to sample with a mic. We also teach the whole engineering aspect, the whole science behind the sound. Also specific effects like delay and reverb. In some of the advanced programs, kids are learning to write raps over the beats.
What are the kids most interested in?
Really, they enjoy remixing. Taking a popular track like Fetty Wap or Rihanna and making their own version. We’ve had kids who made 8-bit versions of “Hotline Bling.”
Do you also teach them about Web presence?
Yeah, in our advanced classes we’re teaching kids the hustle side, whether it’s building a digital portfolio on Soundcloud or somewhere else, it’s how to market themselves.
What happens when they leave your program?
We send them to our partners at the Carnegie Hall Weill Music Center for now. We have plans in the future to build out to be more in touch with kids who want to continue their education.
Do you invite guest teachers?
We’ve had over 60 guest volunteers teach classes, so kids can get the perspective of a working industry professional. We’ve had Dave Nada, DJ Jubilee, DJ Wonder, DJ Soul, Brenmar.
What benefits are there beyond music?
When their creative confidence increases, we see new confidence in every aspect of their life. Some of our teachers have said that kids who were not doing well but once they joined Building Beats, they started attending again so they could be a part of the after school program. Also, a lot of our kids are learning to work with others better and collaborate more. Whether it’s mixing each other’s track or collaborating.
Any individual success stories?
One of our students who’s been with us since he was a 7th grader is now a Freshman and his production skills are off the charts. He jus DJed at the Brooklyn Public Library for an event there under his name Synchro.
Why is technology important?
We wanted to change the perception of students, they don’t need to buy expensive hardware or rent out a studio. They can just create immediately. Off their phones, if they want. Or computers at school. They can use the technology around them. A lot of music education is still very instrument-based, and the logistics of getting an instrument can be harder. But getting a Chromebook or an iPad tablet helps inspire them to make music on the go.
Tell me a little about your music background?
DJing and producing is something I grew up doing, it was a hobby that took me around the world. I learned so many different skills and made so many friends. These days I’ve slowed down to focus on Building Beats but am looking forward to collaborating with some of our students.