Dr. Elliot Gann — better known in the DJing and beat making world as Phillipdrummond — brings a unique skill set to the world of education and instrumental production. Wearing multiple hats as a producer and psychotherapist, Gann first joined the Bay Area-based organization Today’s Future Sound (TFS) to further bolster their efforts to empower young people through instrumental production.
Though their impact is vast, TFS’s main goal is rather simple: provide a wide range of elementary, middle, and high schools with the tools to run quality in-school and after-school programs that teach the nuts and bolts of electronic and sample-based music production. Known as “FutureBeats”, TFS’s workshops tend to run from 45 minutes to two hours per session, with a focus on teaching essential beat making skills like chopping samples, adding effects to compositions, incorporating live instruments into beats, and performing live beat sets.
Since signing on as TFS’s executive director, Gann has brought his innovative teachings on instrumental production to over 50,000 students around the world, connecting him with students from North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
“The younger you start kids, the more access they’re going to have to it, the more they’re going to develop — the more advanced their understanding.”
TFS wastes no time making an impact on kid’s lives — they’ve taken their curriculum all the way to early elementary school students. For older producers, the ideas of a first grader chopping up samples or filtering basslines might seem unbelievable. But according to Gann — who clarifies that the organization typically starts working with third, fourth, and fifth grade students — TFS’s recent efforts with younger elementary school students have been surprisingly positive. “We have students as young as first and second grade that we’re teaching at one of our school sites,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy. We’ve taught as young as kindergarten and are actively teaching first, second, third, and up right now.”
For Gann, finding a positive and healthy way to connect with young people through technology is an imperative to helping them find success inside and outside of the classroom. “I think it’s important nowadays because kids interface with technology a lot,” he says. “And, I think it’s important to start them young. The younger you start kids, the more access they’re going to have to it, the more they’re going to develop — the more advanced their understanding.”
Beyond teaching students a valuable life skill that could turn into a fulfilling lifelong hobby, a way to make some additional income on the side, or even a full-time job in music production, Gann also sees the role of music production as having far broader applications. “As a psychologist, and someone who really thinks about addressing trauma, anxiety, depression, and mental health issues, we’re thinking very deliberately about helping kids find a positive creative outlet instead of other acting out behaviors,” he says.
“It’s kind of crazy. We’ve taught as young as kindergarten and are actively teaching first, second, third, and up right now.”
Gann has taken this idea to the next level by fleshing out a Therapeutic Beat Making (TBM) model, which has since become one of TFS’s central tenants. “The Therapeutic Beat Making model is thinking about the different ways that we can use hip-hop and specifically beat making as a therapeutic intervention,” he says.
According to Gann, there are three main dimensions to the model, with relationships serving as the most essential. “It’s all about the relationships and engagement,” he says. “If you can engage students who are disengaged, whose needs aren’t being met, who are having trouble focusing in school for whatever reason, then that’s the first step. We know the number one predictor of the best therapeutic outcomes across therapeutic orientations and modality is relationships. We also know that’s true for education as well.”
TBM’s second tenant — “Regulating Through Rhythm” — examines how the predictability of repetitive rhythms can act as a grounding force for people struggling with trauma and mental illness while helping them stay centered and in the moment. Finally, “Fostering Self-Esteem” acknowledges how beat making can help adolescents improve their self image, feel a sense of accomplishment, and begin to view themselves as a part of bigger community outside of their individual lives.
“Even when we talk to the kids, we talk about copyright and thinking about, ‘How do you monetize?’”
Though Gann firmly believes in the therapeutic benefits of this program, he is quick to point out that TBM should not be viewed as a therapy replacement. “It is not to be confounded with or confused with therapy,” he says. “Therapy has to be conducted by a licensed professional.”
As interest in TBM continues to expand outside the doors of Today’s Future Sound workshops, Gann is currently working on a journal article with Dr. Raphael Travis of Texas State, the author of The Healing Power of Hip Hop (Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture).
The social and emotional components of TFS’s work highlighted in TBM continues to reside at the forefront of their mission, but Gann is also well aware that part of student education has to touch on the business aspects of music production. “We don’t specialize in it per se, but I try to help out producers, beat makers, and artists where I can,” he says. “And even when we talk to the kids, we talk about copyright and thinking about, ‘How do you monetize?’”
“There’s this fantasy that you can magically go out and people are going to listen to your beats. And it doesn’t just happen magically.”
In their discussions, teacher’s inform students about the steps needed to get people to actually listen to your music. “There’s this fantasy that you can magically go out and people are going to listen to your beats,” he says. “And it doesn’t just happen magically, you have to be deliberate and produce something that can go viral. There’s usually planning and intent behind that.” To help students wrap their heads around this, instructors talk to them about using social media with purpose and different entrepreneurial skills that can help their music find an audience.
Effectively combining academics and hip-hop culture is a feat not easily achieved. It takes thoughtful planning to make academically valuable curriculum that doesn’t suck the creative joy out of the music. TFS seems to be navigating this difficult balance with ease — 75% of the respondents from a recent student survey said, “working with Today’s Future Sound has, in addition to teaching new skills, significantly improved learning in school and overall quality of live.”
Since developing and implementing TBM, Dr. Gann and the rest of the dedicated staff at TFS have plenty of impressive feats to hang their hat on — but they show no signs of dwelling on past success. Their education programs continue to expand around the world as they develop their own clothing line, release their own instrumental compilations, and host their own beat battles. Hopefully the important work of Today’s Future Sound and the Therapeutic Beat Making model will continue to open people’s eyes to the value of teaching young students instrumental production as a coping technique and and important life skill.
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