Archive for the ‘songwriting’ Tag

Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading

“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

What: Fits of the giggles among the sopranos

Where: Choir rehearsal at Pelican Primary School

When: Thursday afternoon, last 30 minutes of the day

I look up with irritation. “What, Hafsa?? What is so funny?”

Hafsa looks a bit embarrassed to be singled out, but says in a small voice, “It’s because of cow-dung!” and she and all her friends all start giggling again.

We’re at Pelican Primary School and singing a song called Shelter that I wrote with students from the English Language School at the end of last year. It’s a very upbeat, catchy, danceable song and it’s become part of the Pelican Choir’s repertoire in 2012. The song is all about the right to housing, and at one point lists all the different things a house can be made from – in the experience of the Language School students who come from all parts of the world. At the time that we wrote the song, one boy from Ethiopia spoke with great excitement and confidence about houses made from cow-dung in his country and so that phrase made its way into the song – have a listen:

Brick. Plant. Rock. Concrete. Glass. Cow-dung. Mud-brick. Bamboo… Tarpaulin. Steel and wood.

Normally at Pelican Primary School’s choir practices, we keep strictly to task. At that time of day, too many transitions or moments of ‘down’ time can mean the end of any concentration, so I keep the teacher-talk to a minimum. But on this day, the question of cow-dung gave us the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation.

“Why do you think all these words are in the song?” I asked the children. “What are they referring to?”

A few people offered their thoughts, and one identified the common theme – these are all things you can build a house with.

“A house from cow-dung? That’s disgusting!” they all chorused in delight and disgust.

“Well,” I said, ever the practical one, “It’s probably really sensible if you live somewhere where there aren’t enough trees to chop down for wood for your house, because everyone needs some kind of shelter. In lots of countries, people build their homes from whatever is available nearby.”

I described some of the houses I’d seen in Timor-Leste, where all the different parts of the bamboo plant were used – the sturdy trunks would be used for the frame, thinner trunks or branches sliced longways would be tied tightly side-by-side to make the walls, and the long stringy leaves would be intricately woven and thatched to make a strong water-proof roof. They were fascinated by this description and sat quietly, picturing these houses.

“But Gillian, how could you make the bamboo house strong enough to stop people getting in?” one boy asked me. I thought about this, and explained that the doors could close, and they could probably be locked with a padlock but that if someone really wanted to break in, they probably could. The boy looked worried at the thought of this, but I went on,

“But the people live in small communities, where they know everyone. They all work together and help each other, and so they trust each other. The moment someone new arrives in the village, they would all know about it, and be watching carefully. Knowing each other well like this helps to keep their houses safe,” I explained.

One boy at the back of the altos then shared a story about helping to build his family’s mud-brick house when he was living “in Africa” (he’s lived in Burundi and Kenya as a refugee and maybe some other African countries as well).

“And best of all,” I said, in closing, “That cow of yours is going to keep doing droppings every single day! This means that you could build your cow-dung house for free! It might take you a long time – I’d be getting my kids to make the bricks everyday when they came home from school, as part of their chores – but it wouldn’t cost you a lot of money!”

By now, they were all completely sold on the idea of a cow-dung house and they sang their hearts out for the last few minutes of the day. I think this was my favourite choir practice of the year so far.

Writing songs of home

This term at the Language School, we are focusing on the theme of ‘homes’. We explore this in different ways with each of the three classes, but the starting point is the same – I ask each child to draw a picture of their home in their country of origin, and interview them about what it shows. I use the words from these interviews to create song lyrics.

Sometimes the process throws up interesting challenges. For example, in Middle Primary, the students had been learning lots of ‘house/home’ vocabulary and had little pictures of various kinds of dwellings stuck to their desks. When they started on their drawing task I realised that many of them were copying these archetypal images (square plus triangle plus small rectangle equals ‘house’) rather than drawing a picture of their own home. Did they worry that their real home might be considered ‘wrong’? Or were they just keen to copy a picture? Also, some students had been in temporary housing and countries (refugee camps, second countries) for so long they had only vague memories of their home in their country of origin. For some, recalling these temporary shelters was unpleasant as life had been hard – even awful – there.

Lower Primary painted their pictures – large, brightly coloured images that filled the corners of the page, and the detail led to two verses – one about kinds of houses (lots of apartments, reached by going in the lift/elevator, and pressing a button to go up, up, up…), and one about the people and things they left behind and now miss (grandparents, toys, even a baby brother and an older sister).

Upper Primary had access to some excellent books showing different kinds of houses around the world – mudbrick homes, bluestone farmhouses, igloos, simple dwellings from cow-dung or bamboo, glass and steel mansions, even emergency shelters made from UNHCR-branded materials. Their song – slow to emerge but now progressing well – considers all the different things you can build a house from, and the fact that shelter is a basic human right for everyone around the world.

Middle Primary’s song has emerged from the interview-to-lyrics process (I typed up their words and they read from these sheets to select the lyrics), and a ‘cycle of 8’ graphic score process to create melodic material. In today’s class we sang three of these melodies and improvised with words from the typewritten sheets to come up with a chorus and three verses. I think this song is my favourite, which is interesting because it came about through the most chance-driven processes, rather than me getting things rolling with a chord progression or catchy riff.

Some sample ‘cycle of 8 ‘ scores – first we practised counting the cycle, then they colored in the boxes they wanted to clap, then they assigned pitches, then we learned to play them and decided which ones would work well as song melodies.

Words about friends

With the Middle Primary children at Language School this term, we are creating music about friendship. Today, after getting the feel-good vibes working with a rendition of Bob Marley’s One Love, and discussing the general characteristics of friends and friendships, I asked the students to draw a picture of themselves and their friend, or friends. It could show their friendships here in Australia, or depict a friendship from their country of origin.

When they finished their drawing I engaged each child in conversation, asking about their picture and about their friends. I wrote down all their words – their phrases and sentences will go on to form the core lyrics for our class composition.

Their descriptions were vivid, and often poignant:

This is me in Honduras, at the beach that I like the most. I am with my brother and sisters and lots of friends. One is my best friend. We share things, we give things to each other, we play together, we sleep in each other’s houses. We read books, we like almost the same things. I don’t have a friend like this in Australia. Not yet.

This is me and my friend in Ethiopia. She comes to my house to play. Then in school-time, she gives me a flower, and I give to her a flower – a flower from Ethiopia.

In Australia, all in the school are my friends, but my sister is my good friend. The school here gives us good friends, and I’m not speaking my language, they are not speaking their language. We all talk in English.

This is my friend – he is Australian but he knows Vietnamese language. He gives me a hug when I am sad and sitting under a tree. Sometimes I give him a flower. Now some leaves in the tree are falling down but the sun is shining.

In Australia and in Ethiopia, my sister is my best friend. We go to school together, we [are] eating together, playing together, going everywhere together. She is my two times friend – she is my sister and my friend!

In Syria we can only go to school. No places to play. In school we can just sit and talk. Or play in the street hide and seek. I miss my friends in Syria. I have best friend, Yusef. He taught me to read Arabic, and now I know how to read and write.

Friends who share things, help each other, and – quite frequently – give each other flowers as an expression of friendship. Four of the eleven children I spoke to mentioned giving a flower to their friend, including one boy. There is a sweet innocence about this that I find very touching indeed.

More songwriting in East Timor

I’ve just finished editing another video from my East Timor residency. This one shows clips from the songwriting workshop I led at the local English language classes in Lospalos. About 40 students took part, and elected to write a love song.

Songwriting can be a very engaging and interesting way to encourage people to use the English that they know. They discover that they know more words than they expect, and they also learn new words very quickly, because they use them in context straight away, and attach them to music (which helps embed them in the memory).

I loved the sentiment of this song. Favourite line?

I’m happy because I found another love.

We met at the market, buying some bananas.

Of course! What better place to chat up a new love interest than at the banana stall? You can read more about this project here – it’s the post I wrote at the time of doing the project.

Three-course musical feast

I finished the term at the Language School with a concert on Thursday afternoon – all three classes performed their ‘food-inspired’ compositions to each other and to their parents and teachers, and sang two learned songs with excellent blending of their voices.

The food theme felt a little stodgy and uninspired early on in the term, but it eventually resulted in some highly original concoctions. Lower Primary worked on their percussion skills (in particularly playing accurately, all together, without speeding up, and watching me for their unison cues). We embedded these skills in their song ‘These are all good everyday foods’, which listed sensible ‘everyday’ things to eat for breakfast and to bring to school for lunch.

Middle Primary made a ‘fruit salad’ song in 5/4, listing various fruits, playing the rhythms from these fruity lists on glockenpiels and xylophones, and singing a happy, light-hearted chorus ‘Big fat fruit – one piece to eat in your lunchbox’.

Upper Primary wrote a song with three verses and a chorus that warned of the dangers of additives, and too much oil, fat, salt, sugar and MSG. The irony was that at the end-of-term party, held that morning at 10am, each of those ingredients frighteningly well-represented! Oh well. They all felt sick for the rest of the day… it is all learning!

We opened and closed the concert with two massed singing items. There was a strong sense of lightness and joy through the whole event – many people commented. This was my first term back since June last year, and two of the class teachers were first-timers, so it was a suitably celebratory end to a term of new beginnings.

Songwriting in Timor

My current evening task is to edit footage from my Timor residency, in order to present some of the ‘themes’ and projects that emerged while I was there. It’s wonderful to watch all this footage with the bit of distance I have now – I’ve been back 2 months this week. I feel like I am only just starting to digest my experiences, and to put them into succinct story form so that when people ask me, “So, how was Timor?” I have coherent things to say!

This video is from Baucau, and shows the initial songwriting workshop I did with the women’s centre there.


And this video from Lospalos shows some of our instrument-making activities. I love the energy and activity that this footage shows.

Songwriting with the English learners

Lospalos, Tuesday, day 96

For the last couple of weeks, Tony, Sarah and I have been making fairly regular visits to the local English language classes that are on everyday after school. I suggested to the teacher that we could come in one day as a group and do a songwriting project with everyone. That’s what we did today.

We were a group of 6 – Tony, Sarah and I, and the three ANAM students. About 30 students took part in the workshop. We started with a name song which goes around the circle with each person singing their name, and it being repeated in unison by the rest of the group.

Then, as a rhythmic warm-up, we created word-strings, and clapped these. First I asked each person in the circle to volunteer one English word that they liked. Then as a group we invented three strings of four or more words each. We said these out loud, exaggerating the rhythm of the syllables, and then clapping the rhythms in unison, and then in three separate groups. I conducted groups in and out of the texture to create some variations in the layers, and then cued a tight stop.

Now that we were warmed-up (we taught them the word ‘warm-up), we discussed ideas for a song. Each group discussed their preferences, then we shared these and looked for common threads between the three groups. There were several themes that emerged:

  • A sad song, expressing sad feelings
  • A happy song, thinking about things that make you happy
  • A love song

From here, we chose a narrative arc for the song, with verse one describing a broken-hearted, lost love situation. The chorus needed to emphasise a determination to move on in life. The second verse continued the story into one of new happiness, with the narrator finding a new love and all being well again.

I am sad, but I’m not broken

I am strong

I’m okay with you

Broken heart – no way

Broken heart – away

Tony and Lina worked with the chorus group and once their words were locked in, I sent them outside with the guitar to develop a way to sing their chorus with a good hook or catchy melody. They delivered with a very funky chorus. Meanwhile, the other two groups were developing the narrative focus of the verses.

I love someone but they love another

I cry all day and can’t sleep at night

I try to forget but when I close my eyes

I always see your face.

With the harmony for the chorus, it didn’t take long to find the melody for the verses. A bit of tempo adjustment was needed as initially the lyrics suggested quite a different feel.

I’m happy again because I’ve found another love

We met at the market, buying some bananas

My new love is smart, and has a good heart.

The love of my life!

Excellent lyrics for English language students who have only been learning English (in a remote part of East Timor) for three or six months, don’t you think? We set ourselves up to do a full performance of the song and record it. The performance was great! But in all the excitement we forgot to press ‘Record’ on the recording machine, so have no record of our great song, other than in our memories.

Still, we hope to revise it for this Saturday’s TOKA BOOT so we may be able to get a recording of it there.

Bamboo, buckets and stones

Sunday, day 75 (Boxing Day)

Lospalos has a much-loved community of nuns living in its midst. Known by the initials ADM, it is an Indonesian Catholic order that provides a home for young people from the villages who are in Lospalos in rder to attend school. It also runs residential vocational training for twenty young women who have had to leave school early, for numerous reasons. In amongst all of this good work, the sisters have a well-established garden that includes many medicinal plants. They make some natural remedies, one of which was given to my mother while she was visiting, when she had a nasty bite (or what looked like a bite) on her arm.

I first met the sisters and their volunteer helper Brigitte (from Germany) by chance. We were in Com at the beach, and got chatting to the sisters while chilling out beside the water. Later that afternoon our car broke down on the raod home. A replacement car needed to be sent from Dili, our driver needed to wait for it, and my friends and I decided to see if we could flag down a ride home. It was the nuns and their party of young people who stopped for us. That’s how we got talking about why I was in Lospalos, and of course once we realised the similarity of our missions, I offered to come and do a workshop with their young students and the neighbouring children.

On Sunday Tony and I went to ADM to lead that workshop. We weren’t sure who we would be working with. We understood there was still a small group of teenagers living at the residence – many others had already gone home for the holidays. But Sunday afternoons are well-established among the local children as a time when activities are on offer, so there was a chance that some of those youngsters would also come along.

We took some of our favourite instruments with us – the black buckets to use as drums, and the pieces of bamboo we’d cut the other day. In order to draw the youngsters before us I played a bit of clarinet on the verandah outside the workshop room. This caught their curiosity, and eventually drew them inside, and into a circle. We started our workshop with about 15 participants – a mix of children and teenagers – but it soon swelled to about 45, including several of the sisters. We began with a song – Mobako meeno fway, from Africa – which is now established as a firm favourite for me, as it has been such an engaging, well-received song in all my workshops here in Timor. It has a simple dance step that goes with the chorus, and the movement always inspires lots of giggles and gets people relaxed and less inhibited.

Then I tried passing a clap around the circle. By now our group numbers were starting to swell, and people were joining in with this game cold. It therefore took awhile to establish, but I explained in Tetun the importance of eye contact, and it was wonderful see little children who had at first been quite unsure what they were supposed to do, start to figure it out with each successive round of the circle. We built up speed and changed direction, but I didn’t add any further layers to this game.

From here we did some call-and-response rhythms. I clapped and tapped rhythms on different parts of my body for them to echo. I tried to  use a big variety of sounds – they particularly enjoyed the hollowed-cheek taps.

From here, I established two separate rhythms and divided the circle into two groups. I did this without any words at first, but in the end needed to clarify my intentions briefly in Tetun! Two rhythms, one clapped and syncopated, the other stomped and grounded on the beat. We repeated a few times, then switched parts.

Next I introduced a whole-ensemble stop. I showed them the countdown signal I do with my fingers – “1, 2, 3, 4, STOP!” – and we started to do this. This led to a counted-in start cue as well and before long they were creating some very slick starts and stops.

Now it was time to bring out the instruments. We started with drums, sticks and shakers, keeping to the same rhythms, and passing the instruments around the group so that everyone got to play something.

Then we called a short break, where we sent people outside to get a pair of bamboo sticks from Tony. Meanwhile, I got 3 of the older boys to help me arrange all the chairs in a large circle. When everyone came back in, they could select a seat with a bucket or shaker in front of it (organised into sections) or sit with their bamboo sticks in any of the other seats. We found we had more participants than instruments, so invented a new sound from two smooth flat stones being tapped together (these stones were plentiful in the garden immediately in front of the workshop room).

I explained to them that we wanted to create new music, and asked for their ideas for possible rhythms. This kind of question is always risky – there is the possibility that no-one will suggest anything, that they will either feel too shy, or won’t really understand what it is you are asking them to do, or how they should set about doing it. If everyone stays silent for too long, it can result in a tremendous loss of energy among the group. However, you only ever need one suggestion. You can seize upon it enthusiastically, and get the group playing it, and others will start to feel braver, and begin to offer forth their own ideas. So I always feel it is worth the risk, even if it is easier to just teach everyone rhythms that you make up yourself.

We did indeed get one suggestion – from one of the bucket players. We established it with the pulse and got the whole bucket section playing it in unison.

“There’s a bamboo player over here who’s come up with something,” Tony announced, gesturing towards a young girl sitting with her legs dangling from the chair, not reaching the floor. I crouched in front of her.

“Can you show me?” I asked her in Tetun encouragingly. At first I thought she was going to refuse, but then, without making eye contact, she began to tap out her idea. It fitted beautifully with the bucket rhythm and we taught it to all the other bamboo players in her section.

Things progressed quickly from this point. Soon we had a rhythmic groove happening with 4 different parts to it. We jammed on this for awhile, Tony and I playing clarinet and saxophone respectively, and adding pitch to some of the rhythms.

Next we decided to write a song, a short song that we could include as part of this piece we were creating. Again, I explained our intention in Tetun, as best I could:

“We want to write a song with you, a song that you can help us write. We want to learn new things in Timor Leste, so we are interested in your ideas. First let’s decide what our song should be about. What do you want to write a song about?”

“Timor-Leste!” someone suggested (I think it was one of the sisters).

“Diak los!” I enthused, and wrote ‘Timor Leste’ as a heading on a big sheet of paper.

“What can we say about Timor Leste? Its history? The land and environment? Things that are special to here?”

Everyone thought hard. Then one of the boys suggested,

“Rai Timor Lorosae”.

Delighted to have our first lyrics offered so freely, I wrote them down straight away. The boy continued:

“Rai ida bee hau moris….. hau hodomi deit… ho mesak doben… Rai Timor Lorosae”

I wrote them all down, then held up the page so that everyone could see. Tony strummed a pair of chords, one after the other.

The sister sitting beside me murmured to me, “Mana, will you now teach us the melody to this song?”

“Well,” I answered, in Tetun so that everyone could hear. “We are going to make the melody now, all together. I want this to be a song that everyone has helped to write. What we will do is, read the words together, but say them with a rhythm. And gradually, a melody will start to emerge.” (Actually, I didn’t say emerge – I don’t know that word. I said things like arrive or enter, and hoped that I was making enough sense. People kept nodding and smiling at me, so that was encouraging).

We read the words several times, accompanied by Tony on guitar. In truth, no melody emerged. So again, I spoke.

“Does anyone have an idea for a melody?” No-one spoke. I paused.

“Every time I sing by myself, I feel shy – really! It is difficult to sing by yourself. You need to have courage! But, it is the only way that we can share ideas with other people. When we share our ideas, we can inspire others too. So this time, Maun Tony will play, but I want everyone to sing the words together. We won’t be singing the same melody, but that’s okay. I will listen carefully and find the melody that you sing.”

I find this is a very successful approach for me, but whenever I introduce it to a group, I know they feel doubtful. The important thing is to try it straight away. So I cued Tony, and asked him to play “Very strongly!” to give us courage.

Finally, a melody of our own began to emerge. I played it on the clarinet line by line to clarify it (and also to memorise it for myself). Then we sang it several times in a row, to lock the phrasing and pitches into everyone’s memories.

And so we reached the final part of our workshop. We structured the music so that we went from playing the rhythms to singing the song, back to playing the rhythms, back to the song – in a ‘looped’ binary form, essentially. We added some expressive dynamics, building up to a bar of suspension and silence, and used our by now well-established whole-ensemble stopping and starting skills to great effect. We filmed the final performance of the full piece.

We ended the workshop back in a circle, with the song Mo bako meeno fway. The sisters loved it, and made me repeat several times more than I’d planned! Later, one of them said, “When you come back, please bring us more songs from Africa! They have such great rhythm and energy – like the songs from Papua!” I promised I would bring more. Certainly, after a such a warm reception from the sisters, ADM is a place I definitely plan to bring more workshops.

Post-script: Further to my ongoing Timor theme of Things never being quite what they seem, I learned at the end of this workshop that the words offered up for our song actually already exist as a different song. No wonder they were created so swiftly and painlessly by their volunteer! No wonder this group of Fataluku-speaking, barely-at-school children learned them so quickly! Oh well… it wasn’t quite what I’d intended but it was a catchy song just the same.

When things may not be what they seem…

Thursday, day 63

The other day I asked Tony if he’d enjoyed the women’s singing at the Baucau concert. He’d been sitting on the far side of the stage with all the children while they performed – I’d been accompanying the women on the clarinet.

“Oh yeah,” he said immediately. “That was great! All the kids were singing along!”

“What, with the traditional songs, you mean? The ones they sang second and third?” I asked.

“No, with all the songs.”

I was puzzled. “But they can’t have sung along with the first song. That was the song the women wrote with me! No one else has heard it before.”

“Well,” he said, “They were definitely singing along. I don’t know if they were singing the same words” – Tony hasn’t had the chance to learn any Tetun yet – “but they definitely were singing along. Maybe some of the kids have a parent in the choir.”

“No-o-o-o, they all live in a different part of town,” I said.

I think I have to re-think things now! When I wrote the post Singing a Future about the songwriting workshop, I described how quickly the women wrote that song. Was that  because they weren’t inventing it, but remembering it?

At the time, I tried to ascertain this. “Is this a song you already know?” I asked. They said no. Later, I asked, “Where did the melody come from? Do you know it already, or is it coming from your heads?” From our heads, they told me.

This could be a confusion about language – “writing” a song could mean just writing it down. “From our heads” could mean coming from the memory. Perhaps the melody is familiar, and the words were new. Perhaps some of the words were new and invented that day, and others were already known. Perhaps the whole song was indeed created on the spot that day by the women, and the children were only singing along with the chorus as it was repeated (it is a very catchy chorus – you can listen to it here, by the way, on my website!). The Timorese are very musically-attuned – they pick up melodies, harmonies and words far more quickly than the children I teach in Australia would. Perhaps they only needed to hear a few lines of the melody to be able to jam along with the performance. Perhaps they were making up their own words, or superimposing the words to another song that they all knew, onto this song, in order to sing along.

I asked Lorraine (who knows the group well) for her thoughts on this confusion.

“No, they did write it,” she said, frowning. But she couldn’t explain how the children could sing along with them.

There are lots of possibilities! This is another cross-cultural challenge – the emphasis that I might place on the value or importance of original music is my own. It may not make any sense here. Or it may be immaterial to the Timorese – a nice enough concept, but not the most important thing in the scheme of things. And given the way that the same words can signify different things to different people, it is not necessarily something I’ll be able to get a clear single answer on (clear, single answers are perhaps another cultural value I am bringing here with me!).