John Lennon bus makes pit stop at Duke

Nov. 01, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

Hans Tanner describes the mission of the big blue bus as teaching students how to paint with sound.

He and the two other producers aboard the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus made a pit stop at Duke University Thursday, where they parked outside the Duke Technology Center and set up drum sets and guitars along the road.

The bus, a nonprofit outreach program that began 16 years ago, shows students the power behind music, video and broadcast production. Artists ranging from Justin Timberlake to will.i.am have recorded in the high-tech studio on wheels.

Duke students, faculty and staff took tours of the audio and video recording studios on board. Tanner and his crew have lived on the bus for almost 10 months straight. They’ve traveled across the country, from California to Florida.

“Every recording studio has an isolation chamber,” Tanner said, motioning to the set of sleek bunk beds in the back lined with black curtains. The beds weren’t made and their laptops nestled in the comforters. “This is ours.”

He showed people the audio and video production room, as well as their pro-level recording and mixing equipment. One side of the bus was lined with a piano and an electronic drum set. Guitars hung from the walls.

Before Duke, the crew had stopped at Living Arts College in Raleigh. Their next journey will take them to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He showed visiting students past projects that were made with the Lennon Bus’s equipment. Twelve-year-olds from a Houston middle school recorded an original song, “This is How We Roll,” and paired it with a professional music video. Fourth graders created a story video, called “Once Upon a ‘Stache,” where drawn mustaches battled each other.

Tanner then slid some controls up and down, tweaking recorded rap lyrics to give them a well-rounded sound.  

“All rappers want to sound like God,” Tanner said. Layer some tracks, add a slight echo, and boom. The bass and the vocals become more powerful.

“(It’s) almost as if you’re painting,” he added. “It’s using the whole canvas at this point.”

They also have green screen capability on the bus, to use in their videos. Tanner asked a tour group where they’d like to visit, if they could travel to anywhere in the world.

Brazil, a student said. Underwater, or Carnegie Hall, said others.

“I like music,” said Duke biomedical engineering senior Victoria Li, who was touring the bus on Thursday. “I haven’t been on a tour bus before.”

She said she was taking a break from charting growth curves of bacteria in one of Duke’s labs.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said Duke musicology Ph.D. student Megan McCarty. “I think the mission is really interesting, to get kids playing music.”

McCarty said she plays cello.

Tanner, now 26, said he started touring with the Lennon Bus three years ago, after he graduated from Ex’pression College in California, where he studied sound arts. His specialties are piano, guitar and vocals.

He said the constant traveling is helping him learn to be a better teacher, as they visit elementary schools to colleges, spending eight hours in one day helping students turn an idea into a full-fledged production and professional video.

He said Lennon’s influence, his vision for artistic freedom, has “a weight and ability to get things done and make things happen.”

“This is a classroom, a space where we can capture their imaginations,” he said. It has helped children achieve college and receive scholarships.

He said living on the Lennon Bus gets cramped at times, and they like to explore the cities they visit and blow off some steam. They’ll visit places like Owensboro, Ky., and the town treats the arrival of the tour bus like the circus.

But the most rewarding part, he said, is laying down a perfect track with students who may have never before toyed with music creation.

“When it happens, it’s like euphoria.”