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Wednesday, December 18,2013

They write the songs

MSU prof helps students find their inner songsmiths

by Jordan Bradley

The song featured above is "Across the Ocean" by Haley Schmidt.

The usual thinking behind signing up for a university humanities class is “enrichment,” not “career establishment.” But after MSU music education Professor John Kratus’ first course in songwriting in 2000, two of his 18 students dropped out of school shortly afterward … to pursue careers in music.

“I had either created a great weeder class or I had found something important,” Kratus said. “And it snowballed from there.”

Kratus has been playing guitar, performing and writing music since he was 13. When he became a faculty member at MSU in his mid-20s, songwriting was put aside, he said, for research into children’s creativity

and teaching. Then, in his late 30s, he returned to composing, writing six hours of music in two months and realized the vitality of music in life.

“Songs are pretty important things,” he said. “They’re a way for people to share themselves.”

In 2000, he launched the class that would become Creative Process, which was specifically created to reach out to non-music major students (the only musical requirement is that students have basic piano or guitar skills). The class offers a space for music majors and non-music majors alike to grow in their songwriting, learn techniques and receive feedback from their peers.

“I’d never written a song before this class,” said Christie Fowler, who completed the course this semester. “It’s been a trip.” Fowler, 21, a fourth year music education major, said she chose the class because it sounded interesting and fit into her schedule. But she said the class pushed her “out of the box.” Matt Eble, 19, a mechanical engineering sophomore, said he fell into the class through a scheduling mix-up. Despite his non-music major, Eble has been playing guitar for seven years. He looked at the class as a way to “try something different” with his musical style.

Kratus said the class consists of 20 students from different backgrounds, ranging from freshmen to seniors, with interests including Brazilian music, rap and heavy metal. Lessons include “songs that tell a story,” “songs that describe a feeling” and “developing a personal style.”

“One of the things I found was that even though they were from very different backgrounds, (the students) came to know each other so well through their songs,” Kratus said. “They almost feel like a family.”

On the first day, all the students are required to sing in front of the class, either a song they’ve written or a cover. Then, each week, students must perform a partially completed song, a completed song or a revised song; they are graded on the best six completed or revised songs of the semester. Additionally, all students are required to perform in public twice during the semester, whether it’s in a dorm lounge or at an open mic night.

Kratus said that most students brought something to the class to share that even their friends didn’t know about them. That kind of environment opens up possibilities for risks, which can lead to better work.

“It was nice to have a group of people critique you in a positive way,” Eble said. “Whenever I (brought) a song in, I just (wanted) them to tear it up and tell me how to improve.”

Earlier this month, the class showcased its best work in a concert in Studio 60 of the MSU Auditorium. A few of the performances were collaborations between students within the class. Evan Mikalonis, 22, a College of the Arts and Humanities senior, played an original song with Eble. Though they didn’t know each other before the class, the two are thinking of creating a fulllength album together.

The songs performed throughout the evening included themes of joy, disappointment, friendship and love. Kratus said he was proud of his students’ hard work throughout the semester. For many of them, this was their first time on a stage.

“This is the star moment,” he said. A number of the students planned to continue to pursue songwriting. Jordyn Davis, 18, an environmental engineering freshman, planned to put out a single to “see how the world responds to it.” She was grateful for the class, saying that it forced her to stop overthinking and just write.

Fowler thought of incorporating elements of the class in her own future classroom with her music students.

Malik Clifton, 18, a criminal justice freshman, recommended the course to anyone who could get in.

“Dr. Kratus was an awesome teacher,” he said. “You even discover things about yourself that you might not have ever known.”

No word yet how many majors were switched for next semester.

Go to lansingcitypulse.com to hear some of the songs completed in the Creative Process class.

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