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Music + Math = Funky 'Musiplication'

Jul 31, 2009
by Brian Thompson, '95

Alumna’s funk- and soul-influenced album teaches kids math and gets wide airplay on Sirius XM Satellite Radio

Audio Slideshow: Making Math Fun

It began simply enough: a collection of songs about math meant to help school kids learn their multiplication tables. But 2000 alumna Kat Vellos never expected the funky little album — with its hip-hop beats put to math-infused tunes and her own soulful voice — would end up in regular rotation on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

Called “Musiplication,” the independent album released in 2008 weaves stories about canoeing pandas and superheroes with everyday multiplication.

And it has caught on. The music found a following of kids, parents and educators, and one of the songs — “5 on 5” — even topped Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live’s weekly countdown, sharing time with will.i.am’s track from the movie “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.”

“I just thought it was going to be a small thing and I could give it to the school where I was volunteering,” Vellos explained. “I had no idea that within three months of being released it would be on Sirius XM.”

How does a former graphic designer and spoken-word poet end up writing and recording a CD about, of all things, math?

It happened more by chance than anything — a result of trying to find a way to help kids better understand a subject Vellos herself has always struggled with. In 2005, she joined AmeriCorps, an organization that is part of the federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service, which encourages service and volunteering. She moved to Seattle to help tutor elementary students in reading and, to her dismay, math.

“When I was a kid, and all the way through college, I struggled with math. It wasn’t my favorite at all,” she said. “That was my anxiety area as a kid.

“They just put me where I was needed most. I ended up finding, actually, that I was great at teaching math … I’m not a typical math brain, so I could explain it to kids in a way that they could understand.”

Vellos found that typical memorization of multiplication tables didn’t work for a lot of kids.

“A couple girls had a particularly hard time with it,” she recalled. “Yet, they knew the words to every Beyoncé song on the radio. I was like, ‘You know, there ought to be some way for them to learn their times tables through music.’ ”

When she couldn’t find any material or music about math that kids could relate to, she decided to make her own.

“Kids learn through so many different ways. They learn through stories and they learn through songs. … If you make it interesting, if you put in stories, if you put in imagination, if you put in creativity and music, it’s going to stick.”

The songs that ended up on “Musiplication” began as experiments in those tutoring sessions. Vellos said it was a natural fit, blending the world of spoken-word poetry that she loved so much with music and times tables. So she hatched the idea of taking the songs and turning them into a CD.

That’s where Jacksonville DJ and music producer Britt Traynham, better known as Batsauce, came in. The close friends had always talked about recording her poetry to his music.

It took about a year from beginning to end, and while she was thrilled with how it turned out, she never expected such a reception – or that after mailing a copy of it to an on-air personality at Sirius XM’s kids station, it would end up in regular rotation.

“It was really cool and unexpected,” she said. “All I did was put it out there.”

Now Vellos hears from parents and teachers all over the world. Her songs have been played on the radio in London, teachers have begun using the CD in classes, and she gets e-mail from as far away as Israel.

Where do the themes for her songs come from?

“Really, my mind is filled with cartoons,” she said with a laugh. “I had a lot of fun researching numbers when I sat down to do it. … I knew I wanted each number song to have its own personality or its own little story.”

In her songs, Vellos looked for ways to incorporate little stories about food, superheroes and animals around numbers and multiplication tables.

“I love language,” she said. “I love words. To me it’s kind of magical to be able to string together the syllables of the English language to create an experience for the person who hears it or reads it. It invigorates you and makes your mind come alive.”

From there, Vellos worked with Traynham to infuse hip-hop beats and an old school flavor. They give the album a unique and catchy sound that comes across as anything but kids’ music.

She said hears from a lot of parents who tell her not only is it helping their kids with math, but that the CD is also something they enjoy.

While she doesn’t foresee any new recordings in the near future, Vellos is now working on a “Musiplication” curriculum that she envisions as a learning workbook to go along with the CD.

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