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New York City
October 2002

Education Update Sponsors the John Lennon ‘Million Dollar Bus’
by Marie Holmes

Holland, an 8th grade student at the Professional Performing Arts School, announces that she has been working on a song. Without so much as a blush, she belts out the chorus, hitting every note. The five other students applaud. Yes, this is going to be their song. Within ten minutes, they’ve composed the lyrics for the first verse.

“Now we need a bridge,” announces Holland. That accomplished, someone suggests a second verse, and perhaps a “tag” at the end.

“They know what they’re doing,” laughs Herminio Quiroz, a sound technician on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. These students do have an edge in the music world. At the Professional Performing Arts School in midtown, the day is divided between academic and performance courses. Some of their peers work on Broadway and in film and television, and the kids frequently talk about and sing the hit song written by Alicia Keys, one of the school’s best known graduates.

The bus has hosted students from kindergarten through high school, aspiring musicians and those who had never played an instrument, touring the country for ten months out of the year. Described as a “non-profit recording studio,” the bus project is an offshoot of the annual John Lennon Songwriting Contest.

Eight years ago, in a meeting with Yoko Ono, Brian Rothschild of Das Ventures mentioned the idea of holding a songwriting contest. Ono was interested in developing the project, and with her help, the first contest was launched in 1997.

“I had the thought to take a bus and outfit it with recording capabilities,” says Rothschild, “and right away I was sending it to schools.” Maxell, Yamaha, Guitar Center and other companies donated sound engineering equipment and instruments, and by 2000 the bus had become its own non-profit organization. The front section houses top of the line electronic equipment, allowing students to mix beats and sounds, while the back half, behind the tiny bunks carved out for the traveling sound engineers, holds guitars, bass and keyboard and equipment for students to record their own songs.

“The bus alone is worth $400,000,” says Jeff Sobel, another sound engineer, who adds that they sometimes call it the ‘million dollar bus’, though the total value of the donated equipment could easily exceed that.

Groups of young people, like the students at Professional Performing Arts, are invited to spend a number of hours on the bus, during which they write, record and even produce videos of their original songs. When following concert tours, such as WARPED and Sprite Liquid Mix, the students from Boys and Girls Clubs and other groups spend the day on board to record a song and perhaps meet some of the touring musicians, who often stop by, occasionally taping their own work.

The students at Professional Performing Arts that evening only had four hours in which to record their song. Within an hour they had finished the lyrics and were singing along as Quiroz, on the keyboard, and Sobel, on guitar, composed the accompaniment. The four girls took on the first verse, embellishing the lyrics with riffs. It took a bit longer to arrange the second verse, complicated by the pre and post-pubescent vocal ranges of the boys. When harmony and melody finally meshed, the girls offered praise and encouragement: “That sounds so nice!”

They decide to expand the bridge so that each student will sing his or her own line, then practice the whole thing as Quiroz and Sobel record the instrumentals. When the last notes of their first run-through die off, Holland exclaims breathily, “That gave me chills that was so good!”

“I can’t believe we wrote a song!” says Danielle, wondering if they can earn extra credit at school.

After sitting and singing for three hours, they’re finally having trouble sitting still. “This is tiring,” admits Holland

But when Quiroz and Sobel hand out headphones, they get serious again. Disappointed with the first take, they’re ready to stay all night in order to get it right, but parents are already waiting and calling cell phones. On the third take, nobody misses a cue. A few of the girls tape extra riffs to add onto the last chorus, and within half an hour the recording is mixed, burned onto CDs and handed out to the young songwriters.

“I’m gonna go home and play it over and over again,” says one.#

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Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
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