Monday, 17 May 2010

Songwriting with young children - part one

A project is nearing completion and that ending is being marked by an outdoor performance by the whole school next week. A play of epic proportions has been written, the content based on ideas extracted from the children, and it features no less than eight songs. The children wrote the songs too. That is to say, they wrote the words with the music being supplied by yours truly.

Two weeks ago we were learning which children preferred to be actors, which stage hands and which musicians. The main parts were assigned according to talent, the level of which was determined in brief, group auditions, but anyone who wants to be an actor will act. Similarly, anyone who wants to be a musician will be a musician. (If only life were like that: I've always had a yen to be an astronaut...)

The mainstay of the band will be the Year 6 kids who will accompany six of the songs. Prior to taking ten of them off to a mobile to play music I had spent a total of thirty minutes with each of the two classes. I didn't get much of an impression of their ability in that time. Games to develop a sense of pulse, such as passing a sound around, weren't very successful owing to the wide range of ability. The real indicator was the state of the music cupboard when I first arrived at the school. An archaeology degree comes in handy now and then and to my trained eye the various strata of dust, PE kit, books and an enormous TV on a trolley that I found in the music cupboard presented a story that didn't include much music-making.

My work is more process-orientated than goal-driven. I have nothing against running, for instance, but most people find it easier once they have learned to walk. Ideally I would have liked to spend some time of rhythm and pulse with these kids before getting them playing sequences of notes on tuned percussion. I would also have liked time to explain why there is a long D bar and a short D bar on a xylophone and what flats and sharps are.

We took off the bars we didn't need in any particular song which made playing them much easier. The children liked to arrange the bars in the order in which they were to be played, rather than the more conventional system of low notes to the left, higher notes to the right. Replacing the bars was more problematic and I hope I will find a solution before Friday's dress rehearsal. The alternative would have been to play every piece in the same key but I rejected this idea as both dull and a singer's nightmare.

The first song I set to music was to be sung by the character Anansi, the spider man of West African folklore. Below is a demo version I made to play to the children. It was the first one I did and I was quite proud of getting all the words in, one way or another. The chord sequence is derivative but suits it well. But when it came to rehearse it we all ended up playing the root of each chord and the drummers beat out the melody rather than providing a structure.

In part two I'll show how I trimmed my sails in order to create music that can be both easily sung and easily played.

&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_4">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">href</span>=""><span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_6">Anansi</span> Likes A Challenge by The Miracle Men&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_7">lt</span>;/a>

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