Friday, December 7, 2012

Lyricist Week at Opera for All

Alyssa Sorresso, COT Teaching Artist and Lyricist

What a whirl-a-wind of a week! As the special guest lyricist, I visited almost all our program sites, working with 14 different classes on their songwriting skills. It was a TON of fun to see where all my fellow teaching artists are facilitating as well as meet all their fantastically talented students!

So, let's talk about method. My background in lyric writing stems from creating songs that originate from narrative writing and scriptwriting: to put in it simpler terms, I normally write the story and/or script first, and allow that material to inspire my songs. In the case of Opera for All, we are primarily working with outlines and budding ideas of story lines which poses a different challenge: write a song and form the majority of the script around it. 

My partner teaching artists were all very helpful in getting as much material prepared for my workshop as possible.  My goal was to address each class with a personalized songwriting workshop, generating a song that would fit in with the main idea of their opera.  Additionally, since many of the workshops were in the beginning stages of developing story lines, I wanted to help flush out the plot and characters.  This way, the resulting song would either introduce the main conflict, help it move forward or resolve it. Having a structured and specific approach to songwriting is the key to a more fun and effective workshop for the students!

The first site I visited was the St. Vincent de Paul Center (SVDP) with teaching artists Justin and Bryna. Their two classes were focused on creating a song about Makin' Magic Happen. Since their students were a variety of ages, I decided playing an active game called Magician would help get them thinking about Magic on the same level. After the game, we split into small groups and wrote verses responding to questions about Magic and how the characters in their opera might feel about Magic. The workshop at SVDP was the most challenging in that we didn't necessarily have a story line to work with, but through working on the song, the students started to brainstorm ideas they wanted to have in their performance. 

Next up was Marillac, another after-school program with TA's Lisa and Justin.  Lisa and Justin face a similar situation as SVDP in that their group had the seed of an idea for their opera; their classes were inspired by a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They invented a situation about a girl who travels through a black hole to get away from her parents.  I decided to modify my workshop plan as I had heard Marillac's students loved playing an improvisational song game, and were quite good at coming up with lyrics on the spot. We used this game as a starting point for singing about/discussing the opera's plot, as well as having the students freestyle about traveling through a black hole from the viewpoint of the girl. 

Our first class did a super job at this game- they were so good and so focused that we played throughout the entire class time. The second group was a bit more to handle, so I switched it up by breaking them up into 3 small groups.  We assigned each group a part of the song to focus on and for which to write at least 2 verses. I had three girls who were not only best friends, but amazing lyricists! We tackled the beginning of the song, before the girl goes into the black hole, and the reasons why she ran away from her parents.  Then all the groups shared with each other in the end, even adding on blocking for their song! They were really engaged in the process. 

My final classes of the week was at Hampton with Lisa and Richard.  These classes had done a lot of brainstorming already on the plot and characters.  Beforehand, Lisa and I came up with what song we wanted each class to write.  Since these students are in-school, we were able to do a little more in terms of teaching the actual structure of a song and defining lyric-writing concepts such as how verses support the chorus, what it means to scan you rhythm and how to choose a rhyme scheme. 

Following a general overview of songwriting, we then mapped out our song from beginning to end. The students decided on what important details to include in order to help the audience understand the story. For example, Ms. Ochoa's class wrote a song about the Sacred Garden on the Planet Zyrdek, sung by the Beardnuggets, Space Doggies and the Gardeners, all governed by Princess Roseberry. We decided what would be in the garden, how the characters felt about their garden, why it was important to them and who they were tending it for.  Small groups each took parts of the song to write a 4 line, rhyming verse containing the information.  I loved how creative they were with the different species of plant that were in the garden- particularly having a Golden Flower that was in the center of the garden, and therefore the most important plant.

To the 6th graders in Mr. McFarland's class I put the biggest challenge. Their song introduced the characters in Hampton's opera about the Sun going Supernova, and Earth choosing 8 specialists for a mission to the Planet Zrydek. Instead of just 4-line verses, I tasked the students with writing 2, 4-line rhyming verses (8 lines in all) that introduced each specialist, included information about what they did for a living, how they felt about the mission and what they hoped to accomplish.  I have to say, I was really impressed with the quality of their work! 8 lines is a lot to write in 25 minutes, but the students put their heads and talents together to write some very clever lyrics:

I still have Clinton to visit as well as leading my own workshops at Chase and Reilly in a songwriting adventure.  I'm excited to keep experimenting with the songwriting process to get the best results for every site-- I know the students will continue to be a huge source of inspiration!

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