Monday, January 30, 2012

Songwriting Superstars!

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

This week was a very exciting one at both Clinton and Hampton schools!

The kids had their first taste of performance just before break, when we presented a “winter preview” at both schools. Because many of our students do not have music class, much less any previous experience presenting a fully staged and costumed performance, we have found it very helpful to give them a “dress rehearsal” w/audience at the end of their first semester. In the preview, which is for an audience of their parents, other opera students, and sometimes, other students from the school, they recite, with limited choreography and staging, the lyrics they have written thus far for their songs, all of which will eventually make up the opera.

This past week was our second week back, and with the memory of that preview experience fresh in their minds, the kids were focused and ready to work with Adam Busch, who helps the children to set their original lyrics to music (and who also assisted them in the lyric writing process, this year). We had several “a-ha!” moments throughout the day, both with students and with teachers.

At Hampton, one child in Mrs. Ochoa’s class remarked that what we were writing was “like opera.” Mrs. Ochoa pointed out that, a couple weeks before, the kids had enjoyed a concert and weeklong residency presented by Classical Kids that focused on the life of Mozart, particularly his childhood precocity. She thought that her student was comparing their composing process to the young Mozart’s!

Next, Mrs. Ochoa got out a silly poetry book that she been using with her students as part of their poetry week. She asked Adam and I to play and sing a silly song (her book provided hilarious new lyrics set to familiar tunes). She felt that the kids would make the connection between song lyrics and poetry, and how we were writing a song, especially since they had been working on it in class. They were fascinated and requested an encore, but unfortunately, we had to go to the next class! We love it when teachers use our curriculum to complement ours in that way, and vice versa.

Mr. McFarland’s class, who had Opera for All last year, had their lyrics set to music in no time, in part because a talented young student raised his hand and asked if he could sing the melody he had already composed for the verse portion of the song! Wow! The other students were so excited and impressed by his creativity, boldness, and lovely singing voice, and soon they too were raising their hands to offer suggestions for the doo-wop style song we came up with together for their “planet discovery” song.

It is so rewarding when students who have had our program before begin to express their gifts, both because they have a context for their talents, and also because they understand how to use them in application to the task at hand—composing! Where and when else would that student have the opportunity to discover and utilize those abilities, especially as a sixth grader!

At Clinton, the students were similarly engaged by the process, quickly learning and singing the songs they created with enthusiasm. Mrs. Lee’s class participated in the program last year, and I am enjoying asking them more challenging questions about the nature of music, composing, acting, etc. this year in my quest to give them a deeper understanding of the process.

We discussed the fact that, rather than just choosing random pitches for their songs, they needed to chose notes with intent as to the character they wished their song (Alone on a Submarine Floating Out to Sea) to have given the text. Many of them said they wanted the song to sound “like a rap”. We discussed what made rap sound like rap; limited pitch range, speech-like rhythms, medium tempo. Adam gave them some pianistic examples to choose from, and they chose a blues-influenced, slightly jazzy tonal palette given the fact that their song was humorous, and, while not happy, not really sad, either. Then the process took off.

I asked; what can we do to suggest the shark in the song? Both the kids and Adam came up with the JAWS motif at the same time, but Adam modified it with repetition and modulation. I asked—why does that sound scary and exciting? The kids were able to articulate that this rising half step pattern, magnified by modulation, emulated a circling shark and fright! Adam came up with some frenetic music for the “tossing and turning” hysterical lyrics in the song. I asked—why is this appropriate, if at all, to this portion of the song? “because everyone is going crazy right now” was the general student consensus. Then, a student asked if Adam could play a sustained note for the moment when the mother wakes the child up from their nightmare. They GET IT!!!!!

At this point, I was overwhelmed with more suggestions than we could handle, the kids completely immersed in the process, and then was asked by a kid if she could get “eaten” by the “shark”, which is about ten kids pantomiming jaws, fins, and a tail. We worked that out by having her step into the biting “jaws” created by two students, and having the body of the shark jump up and down to “digest” her after she was “swallowed”. It was hilarious! Several of my usually shy girls asked if they could audition to be the hapless heroine.

It was a fantastic day!

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