Natural Rockstars

Natural Rockstars

Our final workshops have been the most energetic and exciting, as our students are completing their songs and getting into performance mode. There are 4 bands, and a total of 5 original songs among them! The three of us are playing and singing in the bands, filling in back-up vocals, harmonies, and instrumental accompaniment. But the girls have proven to be total independent rock-stars these past couple of weeks, gaining confidence in what they’ve written.

The most amazing thing to watch, however, is how supportive everyone is of each other. We’ve had a couple of tough moments throughout the semester, with personal and musical frustrations, or even just feeling shy or embarrassed about messing up in a song. But every time, the other girls are there, expressing their support in words, in cheering, and with arms wrapped around one another.

The songs will be showcased next week in 3 performances; one will take place in class, in front of the guitar-ensemble that meets next door to us; one will take place at the Art Center South Florida; one at the New World Center.  The music ranges from indie-folk style to all out pop, and each of the lead vocalists has a distinct and beautiful timbre.  Instrumentally, the students have shown us that they learn quickly and have flexibility. Liana, our class multi-instrumentalist, has covered drums, guitar, and keyboard over the span of one class. Elizabeth, our bass-player, learned an entire new song on the spot yesterday.

It’s hard to even remember back to the beginning of this songwriting journey, to the time when all we had was one lyric, or one melodic line. Yesterday, watching the girls do their first full run-through of their songs, with so much natural stage presence, we felt all of the aspects of the workshops coming together in a tangible way. Most of all, we got to see and hear the full creations and expressions of a group of passionate girls, who we are so lucky to have gotten to mentor these past months. 

About that Bass...

About that Bass...

In this week’s workshop, we focused on writing bass lines, something that our class has been asking about a lot. Bass lines don’t always get the kind of attention as a catchy melody does, but once our students started writing their songs they realized that they needed some bass to anchor the groove and harmony and in one student’s words, “add depth” to their songs.

During the first half of the class ,we listened to a playlist of songs that Dave created to illustrate a few important points. All of the songs featured a descending stepwise bass line. We listened chronologically, starting with Monteverdi’s 1638 madrigal “Lamento Della Ninfa,”  and ending with Adele’s 2011 hit, “Rolling in the Deep,” and discovered that, while all of these songs share a similar bass line, they differ in just about every other way. Instruments in hand, Nathaniel and Hannah helped Dave to demonstrate the concepts of contrary and parallel motion, suspension, and chord progressions as they came up along the way.

One of the best moments was when the class started to notice things that were happening in the music before we even had the opportunity to point them out, like how in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” the chords move diatonically along with the bass line, which is different from Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” and the Beatles’ “While my Guitar Gently Weeps,” where a bass line descends underneath a static tonic chord. The girls observed that this makes it feel like there’s more going on in the music and can lead to greater harmonic instability, which creates tension.

 After our lesson on the bass line (and it should be mentioned that the students weren’t the only ones to learn something from Dave’s demos!!),  we divided up into pairs and trios to continue to write the songs that the girls had started last week. When groups were having difficulties developing a song into a new section, they were able to come up with really solid concepts, when pushed, for how to derive new material from what they had already introduced. We were getting great ideas, like how a melody could be repeated verbatim, but over a different chord progression, thereby creating a really different mood. The girls also realized that with the bass line alone, we can take a song from a major key to its relative minor and back without altering the melody or the rest of the chords. The most exciting thing was to see them come up with these hypotheses of how they might go somewhere new in a song and then hear their ideas come to fruition. We ended by letting the groups share their songs with each other. One of the best reactions from one student to another group’s song was, “I’d buy that!”

To check out Dave's Descending Bass Lines Spotify playlist, click on this link: https://open.spotify.com/user/123180854/playlist/2YUWbiYkpE9Ktvs3PeXRU1

Enjoy!

 

Freedom in Form

Freedom in Form

In our last two workshops, we decided to give the students free reign: we discussed traditional song form, and then encouraged them to break away from the norm and trust their own instincts.

Along the way, we learned a bit about song form ourselves! Here’s the basic model that we introduced to the class:

Introduction

  • Sets the mood, and can be a simpler, thin texture compared to rest of song

Verse

  •  Lyrics are very important in the verse because they set up the story or arc of the song

(Refrain)

  •  A line or two that come back several times in the song, often occurs after the verse and before the chorus
  • Often leads into the chorus

 Chorus

  • The core of the song; the chorus can come back several times throughout a song, is often the catchiest part and the most memorable part
  • Expresses the main theme of the song

Bridge

  • New material that we haven’t heard before. It serves as a kind of transition.
  • Could be a Solo/Instrumental Breakdown
  • Can be contrasting in mood!

(Return to Chorus or Verse, or a “Collision”)

  • After the bridge, the music can return to the verse, or to the chorus
  •  OR, the music can return to the chorus, but with other material happening at the same time! For example, the melody of the refrain could be sung/played while the chorus is also being sung/played. So there is a kind of a layering effect going on. The texture gets thicker and more exciting/intense.

Coda/Outro

  • Closing lines of the song

We performed and played recordings of some examples that highlight this structure pretty clearly, including one of Nathaniel’s songs, “Smiling Hearts.” In total contrast, I performed some solo Bach (the prelude to the first cello suite) to show how music can flow from harmonic progression, with a clear beginning and end (intro and outro!) but a ton of freedom in the middle. 

Breaking the girls up into pairs, and even some solo acts, we worked on a more personal level these past two workshops, with the goal of short but complete songs, creating something whole. Some beautiful lyrics, melodies, and chord progressions came out of these classes, but there was one common trend: everyone would get stuck once they had produced their first idea. For instance, one pair, including a guitarist and a singer, came up with their chord progression and their melody, which had an improvisatory but very catchy feel. But the girls got completely stuck when it came to adding lyrics. In another group, the lyrics were pouring out and completely fitting to the mood and melody that the group had come up with, but the song lacked a chorus.

With some guidance, we have been gently nudging the girls to complete their work: with the help of our iphones, we’ve been recording everything that gets written, so we can keep returning to the material that really sticks. And with some personal tid-bits from Nathaniel about what he does when he gets stuck, not to mention some guidance from our bass-line master, Dave, about what to do to mix things up in a song, we got things moving forward this past Monday.

A peak of the lyrics from Kylie, one of our students, from last class:

I’ve been waiting for the voices in my head/to give me a clue/give me a clue

Can somebody please help me now/I’m falling down/Stop me now/I’m out of bounds

 

 

how to write a Melody

Picking up where we left off in the last class, our third class took a deeper look into how we set lyrics to melody. Kind of like writing lyrics, there’s no real rule to writing a melody and some of the best ones stem out of improvisations, akin to a musical brainstorm session.

 We started out the class by playing a few songs, our instrumental cover of the Hendrix tune “The Wind Cries Mary” that features Dave on the acoustic bass, and an original song, “Smiling Hearts," which happened to be the “unfinished song” from the first workshop! Our students recognized it instantly when we got the chorus.

 Next, we sat in a circle and shared some lyrics that had been written during the week, this time with the idea that we would be trying to sing them. Some students who were shy to read their own lyrics allowed the person next to them to read the lyrics for them. We talked a bit about what the mood of the lyrics might be and what sort of qualities a melody could have in order to have the same mood. Nobody wanted to take a stab at singing just yet, so Nathaniel had the idea to just speak the words while we improvised an instrumental accompaniment. We were able to experience the same lyrics over different musical backdrops, which created different moods and intensities. Our first attempt was received well at first but ultimately was scrapped because it was “too dark.” Once we settled into a more laid back groove, one student started singing the words in an improvised melody and this became the start of her first song.

 We split into two groups, to come up with two songs based on the two sets of lyrics that had been shared. Our students identified that one of the key elements of most melodies is repetition. Some interesting ideas that came out of the discussion of repetition:

·      Sometimes the melody and/or words can repeat but the music changes (including change of instrumentation)

·      An idea could repeat but with a slight variation

·      Repeating lines can alternate with new lines, keeping the song grounded in a general idea while allowing it to go different place

Both groups had at least one student playing guitar, two singing, and one playing violin or viola, which were especially excited about! By the end of the class, each group had written a verse to a song with a melody, chord progression, and lyrics. We had just enough time at the end to bring the groups back together and share what we had written before we all had to part ways until the next time. We’re on a homework hiatus for now, to celebrate the beginning of spring, but in our next workshop, we will introduce one more fundamental topic – the bass line! 

our own Lyrics

our own Lyrics

"We were smiling at the thought of being free"

For our lyrics-writing workshop, we wanted to show our class that songs can originate from the lyrics first (though one student, Estelle, pointed out that you need the melody to create the lyrics!) Since our goal was for everyone to write freely, we decided to approach the music from a different perspective, and saved the melody writing for later.

Writing lyrics has always been a very mysterious concept to me – Nathaniel writes the majority of lyrics for our songs, and with total ease! His lyrics, gentle and sometimes bittersweet, are a natural part of the melodies that he writes.  Although I often sing the lyrics, I have shied away from writing them myself. But in our second workshop, Dave, Nathaniel and I all joined our class in the creative writing process – we each wrote an original lyric for a song that we shared with our students. In a way, it was like ripping off a Band-Aid: it was scary to say the lyric out loud but once it was over, I was able to share in the joy of sharing something so personal.

Our students were reluctant to share their lyrics at first, and understandably so. But once we had divided the class into four small groups, the words started to flow a bit more easily. The groups each had an assignment to complete over the course of the workshop: First, generate a topic for a song, and second, collaboratively write 2 full verses and one chorus of lyrics. To start the writing off, one member of the group would come up with the very first line. Then the notebook got passed around, each of the girls building upon what had been written.

We want to share some of the beautiful lyrics that came out of this workshop:

Our eyes are lost in the shade/we can’t see the light

 Running and running away from the world/and all their needs/and all their greed/we were smiling from the thought of being free/being free

I try to soar around but it’s only in my dreams…It’s ok to cry/and it’s ok to feel/just remember that it’s not all real

I thought by now everything would be fine…it’s been like this for years/and I think I’ll be alright/it’s been some time of going no where

An Un-finished song

An Un-finished song

We’d been looking forward to our first class for so long, and finally, on Monday, Feb.1, we taught our very first songwriting workshop to a group of 13 students – 12 girls, and 1 boy (!) – aged 9 through 14.

Instruments, notebooks, pens, and granola bars in hand, we headed into the classroom. The music room at Feinberg-Fisher K-8 is nestled into its own corner of the school, where we can make as much noise as we want. We started off by performing “She Sometimes Forgets,” an original song by Nathaniel. As soon as we finished playing, one of the students, Emily, called out “You guys are good! This is going to be gooood!!!!” We laughed, but all three of us breathed a sigh of relief in that moment: this was going to be good.

Our plan for the workshop was to bring in an unfinished song and work on it with the class.  We quickly gathered some crucial info: several of the students play guitar or drums, and almost all of them like to sing. Now we could start.  

Nathaniel played a chord progression on his guitar, looping it, while the rest of us listened and hummed along. Dave prompted the class to write down their thoughts: What is the mood? The style? What could this song be about? We got an outpouring of responses, but the overall feeling consensus was that the song was happy and warm, a song about friendship, or about being confident. The next part was a bit trickier: we asked if anyone would make up a melody and sing it along with the guitar. The students fell silent for a few minutes, looking down at their notebooks shyly. The three of us looked at each other, not sure what would happen next ourselves! Finally Dave suggested that I start us off. So I improvised a cheerful melody, with just a twinge of nostalgia, to show how simple melodies can still have depth.

Dave went next, giving his solo voice debut with The alt Default (!!). Nathaniel went last, singing a longer, more developed tune, with a few melodic leaps thrown in, to add some complexity. Once the melody had stuck with everyone, we all sang along. The class was incredibly quick to pick it up and to match the tune exactly. With one verse at hand, we were ready to break into small groups and get beyond the melody.

Dave, Nathaniel, and I each mentored a group of 4 students for the final part of the workshop. Each group had a guitar player, and they learned the progression that Nathaniel had played. In our groups, we prompted the students to create a rhythm and a countermelody. In my group, we had a long, legato countermelody on “ooh,” and one of the girls sang up a third, making a sweet and beautiful harmonization. Once we added our rhythm, guitar part, and melody, we had a complete verse and we were ready to share it.

The groups reunited, and we had a mini-showcase. We performed what we had come up with, and found that while there was some overlap, each group had a slightly different take on the song. One group even featured some vocal improv over the melody!

We came up with a homework assignment for the class, and the three of us are going to do it as well. We welcome others to do it along with us, and feel free to share it in the comments section of our blog!!

Assignment: Come up with a lyric of your own, OR a short melody.

Here are ours :) 

Nathaniel - Nothin makes me think of you like smiling and looking up at the stars

Hannah - The light would wake her/it’d wake them both/from what must have been/and could only have been/a dream

Dave - I just want to sleep. Sleep. Dream and fly away between these sheets.