It took 18 years and a move to New York for Max Alper to realize most kids his age weren't like him. A budding musician from a well-to-do Boston suburb, he entered the Music Composition undergrad program at Brooklyn College thinking "every young musician had access to Apple computers, MIDI controllers, and the like," he tells THUMP. "Only later on would I realize that all that was privilege, that I was a very lucky kid to have such emotional and financial support to study the music I liked and... pursue a college degree in the field."
After graduating in 2014, Alper, now a Brooklyn College grad student, promoter, and professional musician (both as a solo act and as part of experimental pop trio The Pluto Moons), has found a way to pay it forward. This year, he founded Sonic Arts For All! (SAFA!), a New York-based non-profit organization promoting hands-on musical creativity to K-12 students, underserved communities, and special needs kids, the latter whom Alper says don't often get the chance to express themselves creatively.
Through a series of workshops held across the city (including at Bushwick collaborative art space Powrplnt, the Atlas Foundation for Autism in Chelsea, and the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music in Flatbush), SAFA! teaches concepts such as music theory, arrangement, production, and ear training through the use of digital instruments such as iPads and laptops—essentially devices with which many students are already familiar. By the end, they'll have built a set of long-serving technical and creative skills, and they'll have a portfolio to show for it.
"When a young student realizes they can utilize what they normally used as a gaming device to create original music that's enjoyable to make and listen to, that's when the intimidation is replaced by curiosity to explore this new field of musical learning," says Alper. "The lightbulb goes off, and the student wants to dive deeper, and we're here to encourage them to experiment and learn through trial and error."
No music is off limits in these workshops, but Alper notes that much of what the kids create falls under the electronic music umbrella. The genre's increasing popularity among youth culture gives him a way to apply students' personal interests to the curriculum. By using Skrillex's high-octane tracks, for example, he can help kids analyze time signatures and key qualities, and bridge them to other artists and sounds they otherwise wouldn't know. "I can take a dubstep track, relate it to a Afrika Bambaataa track, relate that to a Kraftwerk album, and relate that to the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The technology unites it all under the same language."
Already, Alper can see the effects these workshops are having on students. "I've seen kids come out of their shell when they hear how talented they really are for the first time," he says, mentioning a special-needs child he saw blossom by becoming a talented drummer, songwriter, and leader to his group. Another former student of his is about to start his freshman year at Bard, where he's taking digital music classes.
"Kids like that are the reason I'm doing this," Alper says. "These are professional skills they're building here, and it can open a lot of doors for them in the future if they stick at it."
If you'd like to help SAFA! cover teacher, equipment, and transportation costs for these courses, donate at the official website.