Saving The Music with Technology: The VH1 Save the Music Foundation

By James Frankel


            Since the VH1 Save the Music Foundation began in 1997, they have donated nearly $30 million worth of musical instruments to 1,200 public schools in 80 cities, improving the lives of more than 500,000 children.  Many think that the Save The Music Foundation only donates instruments to schools in need, but the program is much broader than that.  Since 1997, VH1 Save The Music has also donated 281 keyboard labs and 45 guitar labs.  These networked labs are changing the way teachers teach music in their classrooms.  SoundTree, a TI:ME corporate member, has partnered with VH1 to create affordable keyboard and guitar labs for the Save The Music Foundation.  In addition to the equipment provided, I was commissioned by SoundTree to write a comprehensive curriculum for their keyboard labs that is gifted to the lab recipients.  

            A VH1 Save The Music Keyboard lab consists of 16 Casio CTK-900 student keyboards, a GEC3 lab controller with student headphones and interfaces, 1 teacher Casio CTK-900 keyboard, speakers, and all of the necessary furniture.  The Guitar Lab is very similar, replacing the keyboards with guitars. These labs can serve up to 32 students per class.  In addition to the equipment, teachers receive comprehensive training and curricular materials to help facilitate classroom instruction.  There is also a website for the lab recipients where there are more resources, including articles and lesson plans written specifically for the lab setup.

            Recently I took time to sit down with one of the keyboard lab recipients, Ms. Amy Vanderwall, a TI:ME member, who teaches at MS 334 in New York City. I asked her about the process for applying to receive a keyboard lab, what it is like teaching in a VH1 Save The Music keyboard lab, and how it has changed the way she teaches music. 


Q:  How did you get your lab?  What was the process of applying like?


A: The MS334 lab was received via a VH1 Save the Music grant.  The VH1 Save the

Music grant application process was straightforward once I had developed a clear vision for the schoolıs music technology around the VH1 Keyboard Lab.  I wrote the grant and the required principal letter, then had it reviewed by my PTA grant committee to ensure the wording was consistent with other school grants and the information was up-to-date.  I presented the grant package to my principal for final review/sign-off and then sent it on to VH1.  VH1 was very timely in communicating our successful grant application and a few months later, the keyboard lab was here!


Q: How did you hear about the VH1 Keyboard Labs?


A: My school is a K-8 school and the K-5 program had received a VH1 grant in 1991 for Orff instruments.  With the addition of the 6-8 Middle School, I saw an opportunity to write a grant for a keyboard lab.  The application was on-line. Thankfully, there was also a parent at my school who works for VH1 – he ensured the VH1 Save The Music program knew our application was in the works.


Q: Has teaching in a VH1 Lab changed the way you teach music?  How?

A: The keyboard lab has transformed my teaching!  I plan through the lens of the keyboard lab – knowing that I have better class management tools, the ability to shift from lecture to practice mode, and the ability to maximize class time by minimizing distractions, increasing student hands-on time and engaging students from the moment they walk in the classroom.  In addition, the students LOVE the lab and canıt WAIT to get to work!


Q: What kind of training did you receive?


A: Before my lab arrived, VH1 offered preliminary training to all schools that received a keyboard in NYC – led by Dr. Lee Whitmore of SoundTree.  This training was a great introduction to the lab and helped me understand what to expect and plan for. The lab arrived with a ³how to² book and a free SoundTree lesson plan book by Dr. James Frankel – both of which were essential to get started on my own.  Once my lab was up and running for a few months, I hosted another VH1 training session in my school lab – led by Dr. Frankel of SoundTree - which was an opportunity to share lesson ideas and learn new/creative ways to use the lab.  Ongoing resources include the SoundTree website which offers free lesson plans, and I am taking music technology classes at Teachers College, Columbia University with Dr. Frankel to learn new ways to incorporate music technology into my classroom.


Q: What is the best part of teaching in a VH1 Lab?




Q: What are some of the challenges that you have had?


A: Keeping up with the time and money it takes to manage broken equipment!  Things break – especially when you have 25 classes per week in the lab.  Thankfully, my

PTA has set up a music budget that covers repair cost.  However, my time in trouble-shooting, packing, unpacking, ordering, shipping, etc. is more than I had anticipated.


Q: What kinds of things do you do with your students?


A: I integrate technology into all of my middle school and elementary school projects and work through the lens of the NYC Blue Print for the Arts and the NYS/MENC Music Standards.  Student projects include:  composing, arranging, notating, improvising, performing on the keyboard (with integration of other instruments, dance, storytelling and other Art forms), listening, analyzing and connecting music to history, culture, other Art forms and LIFE!


Q: What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to get a lab like yours?


A: Do your research:  talk to others who have a lab, visit a lab, plan for time and money needs, ensure that you have the energy to be a self-starter, technology trouble-shooter and to manage the day-to-day aspects of the lab.  Go for it!

            Kirsten Brooks is the program manager for the VH1 Save The Music Foundation.  I spoke with her about the specific requirements for receiving a keyboard or guitar lab. 

The requirements are as follows:


·       The school is a public elementary or middle school.

·       The school will provide for at least one instrumental music teacher's salary in its budget for a new program, based on the receipt of instruments from VH1 Save The Music.

·       The school is prepared to implement an instrumental music instruction curriculum and provide a qualified instructor to implement it.

·       The school does not currently have instrumental music and will add instrumental music to the regular school curriculum, offering no less than weekly in-school music classes. (General music and recorder can be currently available at the school).

·       The school has adequate, secure storage space for instruments and equipment.

·       The school will respond to any surveys of students' progress requested by the VH1 Save The Music Foundation and will allow representatives from the VH1 Save The Music Foundation to visit once a year.

·       The school will accept full responsibility for the normal maintenance of the donated instruments, with the exception of that which is covered through manufacturers warrantees. This includes providing the necessary supplies for the instruments to function, such as, strings and reeds.


            As far as resources and support for teachers is concerned, SoundTree provides set-up and training classes for the VH1 Save The Music keyboard and guitar grant recipient schools throughout the country.  The teachers are provided with a comprehensive training session with a SoundTree representative allowing the teacher to fully understand the equipment before teaching the class.  SoundTree also provides the teachers with an opportunity to log on to a special SoundTree website made specifically for VH1 Save The Music keyboard and guitar grant recipient schools.   In the near future, VH1 Save The Music will have a similar site available for ALL VH1 Save The Music grant recipients - the launch date has yet to be determined, but it should be before the end of the school year.

            I have had the opportunity over the past three years to meet with and train some of the teachers who have received keyboard labs from VH1 Save The Music.  In every instance, the teachers are thrilled with the equipment and training, and tell of how this new tool has completely revitalized their teaching, and their music programs.  The students who use the lab are extremely excited about the equipment and have a renewed interest in music making.  Many of these keyboard and guitar labs are in schools that are traditionally underserved.  Many are in inner city neighborhoods where access to this type of technology is rare.  Labs are often locked behind doors with extra security measures.  I visited one lab in Baltimore, MD where the keyboard lab was housed in a windowless room with bars and locks over the entrance.  What strikes me every time I visit a lab like this is that the VH1 Save The Music Foundation is doing extremely important work with children who need special opportunities like this. 

            Teachers like Amy Vanderwall are the type of everyday heroes that we need in our nations schools, and when a teacher like Amy is given the tools necessary to make music come alive in her classroom.  For more information about the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, visit: