Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Engage kids with songs

Julie and I play music for the youth (up to 4th grade) at our church once a month. Over the Easter service, we played three services with about 150 kids at the largest service. The big challenge was keeping the kids engaged for 30 minutes. A few things that we have noticed that help keep kids engaged:

· Providing an opportunity to add to the song. We do Karen Drucker’s song “Thank You For This Day” and we ask them what they are thankful for? We then do the verse with their suggestions. To close the song out we do a final verse and ask them to just shout out their responses, everyone participates. Another opportunity was having them add sounds like on “All God’s Creatures,” with verses that end like “the old coyote (howls)....”

· Using hand motions – We always play Barry Ebert’s song “Growing With Spirit.” Most of the kids know the sign language parts for the song. We also do “This Little Light of Mine” where the kids hold up their finger as a light. Lately we’ve added “Give Yourself to Love,” and we made up hand signals for the chorus. It helps the kids remember the chorus and they have something to keep their hands occupied.

· A one line chorus with a simple melody – Barry Ebert wrote the song “Gingerbread Man,” and the chorus goes “run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.” This repeated numerous times throughout the song and the kids sing it without you.

· No more than a four line verse – In almost all these songs, there’s never more than a four lines verse before some sort of engagement.

Having kids clap along hasn’t worked that well for us since we both have instruments and can’t lead them in the clapping. A dangerous way for engagement (sometime good or something bad) is having them dance along to a song. Potentially out of control....

If you have any other tips or suggestions for engaging kids in the songs, please leave a comment.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Musical treat - Leonidas Gonzalez

We were in a hotel in Quepos, Costa Rica and heard outside a band playing "Knocking on Heavens". It sounded great and we headed to the bar to hear more. What greeted us was a solo guitarist, playing a classical guitar, with a Boss drum machine. There were only two other folks in a very large room. Being happy hour we figured what do we have to lose and sat down to listen. What a great decision! The guitarist, Leonidas Gonzalez. was amazing. He played a few Latin tunes and realizing that we were Americans started playing Eagles, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and a host of others. We asked for Santana and he not only nailed all of Carlos's licks but added more on top, all on a classical guitar. What was especially impressive was his blending classical, rock, and Latin styles. Clean, fast, and improvising while keeping to the melody. We ending up being captivated for almost two hours. I think he was equally thrilled having an appreciative audience. As we finally said our goodbyes and left to eat dinner, I realized how lucky we were to have had the opportunity to listen to him play. I can't help wondering, how many amazing musicians there are around the world, who are happy to play no matter the size of the audience.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tapping into the creative process or waiting for the cosmic two by four

Some days an experience triggers a song and it just comes out. Many of these are experiences that I could do without. How many heartache, got hit by a train songs have we heard? It’s like this cosmic 2 X 4 hits you on the head providing all the content and emotion needed for writing a song. The challenge is tap into the creative process, whenever you want, even if everything is going great, possibly ducking that 2 X 4.

I was in a class on the creative process the other night. Just learning something new sparked creativity. Here are some other thoughts.

· Creation is going on all the time. New ideas and thoughts are everywhere. At times you are either drawing things in or pushing them away. (Ernest Holmes). The challenge and opportunity is being open and receptive to new ideas.

· “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one we have” (Emile Chartier)? “The best way to get a good idea, is to get a lot of ideas” (Roger von Oech). The number of ideas and your ability to generate new ideas is unlimited.

· In the presence of some people or experiences we are inspired, uplifted to great things. From where do your ideas flow?

· There are infinite perspectives on an idea or experience. People have been writing about love for thousands of years and can still find a unique perspective.

These are great concepts, so how do I use them in songwriting?

· To get inspired, I need to have lots of new experiences. This means getting out of the house, going to the mountains, being around interesting people, reading a good book...

· When I write, I often write one verse, go for a walk or do something else. The next verses come when I can tap into that stockpile of ideas hidden within the clutter in my mind.

· Take a concept or word and find multiple meanings. Here’s one example, I took the word “Cup.” Some of the ideas were - full or empty, large or small, cold or hot, steamy, hot chocolate, open or with a lid, right side up or upside down, cracked, water/beer/wine, part of a set, dusty, lipstick on the rim, spots left by the dishwasher, ....

The last point inspired me, now off to do the dishes.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Singing/Rapping Poet

At songwriter's group last night, Jim treated us to two poem-rap songs. I and another member had just gotten through extolling the virtues of a 3-4 minute song, when out came this 8-10 minute long "song." My only saving grace was there's always an exception to every rule, and this was one of them.

What he did was to set a groove on the guitar, sing a short verse, kept the groove going, and start speaking. He would then alternate between the poem and singing. It went on for quite a while and I still wanted more.

In our discussion/critique a few points were raised about the songwriting

1. The sung verses were an opportunity to relax - After the hard hitting rap/poetry, I could feel myself breathe again when he started singing. Once sufficiently rested, I was ready for the rap message again.

2. We can relax in the familiar - In one song he changed the verses and the other kept it the basically the same (chorus-like). The chorus-like version was much more effective in getting us ready for the rap.

3. Changing dynamics - Even though he played basically the same chord progression for a long time, he would play hard, soft, or modify the picking pattern (while keeping time) to emphasize points. He changed vocal expressions (angry, sad, joy ...). and from rap to singing. These dynamics were what made the song interesting well beyond 3 minutes.

4. Attitude is melody - He mentioned that he really needed to be in the mood to perform these songs. He had to feel these songs in order to perform them. A big component of poetry/rap is attitude and expression. Attitude is the melody, otherwise it sounds like a flat one note song.

Finally, his lyrics were outstanding. His only challenge will be to remember them all to be able to perform without his notes.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Getting out of the songwriting rut

We had been noticing that all the songs with the kids in SongCamp were sounding pretty much the same. To do something different, I brought my new Boss loop pedal. Not only can I record my guitar and add a lead, it also comes with a number of prerecorded drum tracks. The result, two totally different sounding songs.

In applying this to songwriting, I made the following observations:

1) Change the energy - Just adding something new to the mix, immediately changed the energy of the room. We were in uncharted territory. I've had this experience before with a new guitar, plugging in my guitar, or adding a capo.

2) New rhythm - A new rhythm, changes the landscape. Inspiration came from seeing something new. It pushed me outside of my typical safe comfortable patterns into a whole new world and a totally different song.

Can wait to see what we do different next week.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

SongCamp - Part 2

Based on last year’s experience with SongCamp, I signed up for another 9 weeks. Over half of the kids from last year signed up again and there continues to be a waiting list. Working with these 3-5th graders is a continual learning experience. Some of the lessons have been:
  • Write from where you are – After the earthquake in Haiti the kids wrote, “I don’t know what to think about Haiti, but I am thinking about you every day”.
  • Adding a second opinion – When writing about the Superbowl, the group sang the verse “AFC and NFC make history.” One voice responded, “some don’t care, like me.”
  • Start with a structure, but be ready to throw it out the window – For Valentine’s Day, we were struggling with names. So after two verses, we had the kids shout out names while Walt played the chords. Everyone got involved and there were lots of laughs and smiles. This may eventually be a bridge or just a great memory during the writing process.
  • It doesn’t need to be perfect – The best thing about kids ages 8-11 is that they don’t judge every line. The key is the writing flow and you can always come back and revise.
  • Collaboration/co-writing is essential – We have three adults that work together with the kids. Some of my best comments came after I was in the listening mode. Mary and Walt have jumped to my rescue when the group bogged down. Probably the best thing is that we have different strengths and styles that add to each song.


The biggest lesson for me has been just to have fun. I’m looking forward to the next six weeks of creating new songs.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Song Camp – Next Generation Songwriters

I have the pleasure to assist Walt Lofstrom and Mary Morrissey in Song-Camp, a program that writes songs with 9 to11 year old kids. Each week, we have two groups of around 15 kids, each writing a song in one hour.

Last week was great example of the success of the program. There was a boy, who from his body language, looked like a bomb ready to explode. Another boy said something to him and he said that he’ll “see him outside later.” When we asked the group for a word about some activity at school, he said “fighting.”

At the start of the songwriting process, he held back. Then he proposed a first line and suggested that we do the song as a rap. Everyone quickly agreed. Lyrics flowed quickly and when it came time for a melody, he drummed a complex rhythm using his hand and magic marker on the table. No question, it was perfect for the rap. The group circled around him and mini-studio to record the new song. At the end, accolades flowed and a smile emerged. When asked if he was a drummer, he said "no, this was his first time.” To that Walt responded, “You are a drummer now.”

These kids with no formal training continue to amaze and inspire me. They’re not crippled yet by judgment. They let ideas flow and are willing to try new things. They are all songwriters!

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Songwriter - Hayes Carll

I heard this great song with the hook, "She left me for Jesus." I haven't been able to get it out of my head, so today I tracked it down on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyxEO9dqi44. I also searched for lyrics and discovered Hayes Carll.

I ended up going through a number of his songs and have become a huge fan. A few things that really impressed me:

1) Great hooks - Another song was "A Bad Liver and Broken Heart." Need I say more?

2) Simple chords, but memorable melodies - After hearing once, I can remember the melodies.

3) Each verse gets better - At Song School, Peter Himmelman talked about making the second verse better than the first. Hayes Carll has that down, with the best in the third verse.

4) Short but sweet - I didn't check the timings, but I'm sure they are around 3:00 minutes.

I've now got three Hayes Carll songs that will make it round the campfire.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Songwriting - Coloring your song

At Song School, I had the opportunity to work with Maggie Simpson in taking one of my songs to the next level. Maggie uses a process from acting to "color" a song.

There were a few steps, but one that I remember most is singing a song three ways, with sadness, anger, and then joy. I was singing to Maggie and she mirrored back each emotion . What I wrote as a happy, fun song took on a new dimension as I explored the dimensions of sadness and anger. I realized that the joy rose from these other dimensions and they now had a part in the song. I understood more of what the song was about and added it to my performance.

Another student sang a very sorrowful song. When she sang it with anger and joy the song expanded to a whole new level. The transformation in the song and performance was plain for everyone to see.

This is an amazing process for exploring behind the original emotion that we have when songwriting. It adds new depth and helped me as a songwriter better understand my own muse.

One tip, don't do this right before getting on stage. I was so wrapped up in the joy of the song that I forgot the ending. Luckily the band pulled me out...

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Capos for songwriting - Part 2

Over the last week, I've been exploring one capo position - partial capo, down from top, second fret. At this point, I have guitar parts for four songs and melodies for two. Now all I have to do is get motivated for lyrics.

To create these parts, I use a number of different processes -

1) Try familiar chord shapes until I hear something that I like
2) Explore the key of E scale and let different notes ring through
3) Find the 1,4, 5 chords in different places, add the 6th and 3rd or flat third.


Each one of these processes, has yielded the verse, chorus, and bridge for a song. I'm going to spend another week or two (or until I get bored) with this capo position before moving on. If I get really crazy, I may try DADGAD and a partial capo...

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Capos for songwriting

I just returned from the 2009 Song School. Again an wonderful experience that I'll try to recap over the next few weeks.

I took classes with Justin Roth and Bill Nash on using capos and partial capo. Want to open up your playing, take a class from either one of them. Below is a place to start.

1) Changing the voicing - Using a normal six string capo, you can easily change the voicing of your song without changing the key. For example start playing a E A B pattern with no capos. Move the capo up 2 frets and play D G A. Move it up another 2 frets and play C F G. Same key of E, just different voicing and more flexibility in the fingering.

2) Drop D without re-tuning - You can use a drop D capo, standard capo covering only 5 stings (leaving the low E open), or a 5 string banjo capo to get the drop D sound. If you place it on the second fret, you are really playing a drop E tuning.

3) Short cut or partial capos - If you place a three string partial capo down from the top (A,D,G strings) on the second fret, you can stil play around in E with some open strings open to play with. Hint: With partial capo on two, you need to cover the base on 2 to use the Em shape. Using a Shubb capo (that is not in the way), you can also put it on the bottom (D,G, B strings).

Things get really interesting when you try alternative tunings and partial capos. Bill demonstrated a full sound and some amazing complex songs using Travis picking and just one finger. I won't try to explain, just experiment!

I immediately took our song Saturday Morning and applied this. I had been playing A, Bm, C#m without a capo. With a partial capo on 2, played G, Am, Bm. I then experimented leaving some strings open for a fuller sound. Originally the sound was OK, but using partial capos things really opened up. It was also easier to play. Thanks, Justin - I'm sold!

I see capos as a way to change the landscape of the guitar. New landscape, new possibilities for songwriting.

PS - You can see Julie and I (my best side, with purple shirt) in the front left corner of the picture on Planet Bluegrass' site http://www.bluegrass.com/. I really was there!

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The English language is not universal but music is

Rob Roper in his blog wrote an interesting comment in his blog about playing music in the Netherlands.

Almost all the Dutch speak English--some very well. But I could tell when I was singing my songs that, for many of them, they missed the nuances of the lyrics-- slang words, metaphors, etc. So in choosing which songs to play, I started using the songs where I created a good melody, and/or had an interesting rhythm. The English language is not universal but music is

Rob hits the nail on the head here and I think his statement holds true at home. People connect with lyrics and rhythm. I've noticed the same thing playing out. A few of my throw away songs lyrically (songs that I put placeholder lyrics until I came up with the perfect words), are some of the best crowd pleasers.

As songwriters we are always in search of the perfect lyrics. Maybe instead we should search for the perfect melody and rhythm?

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

The importance of songwriting

A friend forwarded me a link to the welcome address to freshman at the Boston Conservatory by Karl Paulnack. If you ever wonder why its so important to be a songwriter read this!

It talks about how music "has a way of finding the big, invisible pieces inside our hearts and soul and helping us figure out the position of things inside us." To help understand this, read the article.

I judge the success of my songs when it touches someone. I will always remember the faces of individuals that one of my songs impacted. Like when I received the comment "thanks for putting words to what I feeling" and "it made me feel as if I was there." I'll also remember the silent tears and the smile when there wasn't one before.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Songwriting - Dynamics

The other night, we got into the discussion on songwriting dynamics. When listening to a friend's song, he started out strumming and singing loud and kept the same pace and volume throughout the song. While the song itself it was good, it was missing dynamics that would make it interesting. In 2007, I posted techniques for changing the dynamics, in songwriters, take your listener on a journey.

A good place to study dynamics is American Idol. Last year's winner, David Cook, was the master at what I call the "American Idol build." He would start quiet, build to full out rock, and then drop to almost a whisper on the last line. His recent CD went platnium in three weeks, so he must be doing something right.

I saw another good example of a different kind of build watching the Blue Canyon Boys, bluegrass band. In bluegrass they change the tempo, speeding it up with each verse. By the last verse, they've got your pulse racing!

A comment I heard the other night was I'm just playing the song the way I wrote it. It's true that every song I write starts out with almost no dynamics. The dynamics come in the polishing phase, between writing the song and getting ready to play it for someone. I'm constantly tweaking my dynamics for the room I'm playing in, the audience, or my mood.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Songwriting - You've got the song, now what?

Stopped by and saw a friend that I had talked with a few weeks ago. At that time he was struggling with lyrics. Today he played two newly completed songs. Pretty impressive and what was even more impressive is that they are both good musically and lyrically. It's amazing what happens when you get the internal critical out of the way and just write.

Now that the songs were done, I gave him a few suggestions on what to do next. My first suggestion was to make a recording and ask these questions?
  • How long is the song? My general rule is shoot for around three minutes. Over 4 minutes look for a place to cut.
  • How does it flow? Think about a journey, where do you build, where do you get quiet?
  • Do you play you're favorite riff too often? Where would it have the most effect?
  • How often do you play the chorus, can you get to it quicker? Lately I've become a big fan of concentrating effort on the chorus, giving people a place to sing along. I try use a chorus three times.
My final piece of advice was to not consider the song finished, instead think of it as evolving. The last few months, I've been going back and reworking some of my older song and actually applying some of the comments above. It's much easier to give advice that to do it yourself.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Songwriting - You've got the music now what

I was working with a friend that has the music and melody for a number of songs, just no lyrics. He's has guitar skill that I wished I had. He made two comments that I hear a lot, "I really want the perfect lyrics for this song," and "I don't want my lyrics to sound ____ (childish, goofy, sappy, conceited ....)." These self judgments limit songwriters more than any negative feedback they will ever receive.

The best advice I ever got was, "to write crap." To write and write a lot is the key. Get yourself out of the way. Self judgement keeps your lyrics prisoner. Almost every writing class I've been in has some variation on free writing, where you write as fast as you can, whatever pops into your mind. If you wait for the perfect phrase, you end up with a blank sheet of paper or music and no lyrics.

Another comment I heard was "that if I actually finished this song, I would have to play it for someone and expose a part of me."

No doubt about it, singing your songs for other people is a scary thing. Face it! That's what's so cool when someone shares a song they wrote.

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StereoFidelics - Energizing

Needing to get reenergized about music, I went out with Rob Roper to listen to music at the Meadowlark, a place for up and coming songwriters. As usual, the first three acts were good. I was about to leave when I saw the last act walk in, the StereoFidelics. After setting up the drums, the drummer started tuning a violin and I thought this should be interesting. The guitarist had an electric and acoustic guitar. He also had way to play a base pad with this foot and an array of electronics. Sound interesting? It was!


I guess I would classify them as a jam band, for lack of a better term. What was amazing was the speed in which they played and the amount of music they were able to create. To tell you the truth, I couldn't remember one of their songs until I listened to their music today. But who cares, I remember the music, fast, clean, high energy... I could go on and on.

In a lot of discussion about songwriting, there's talk about structure, form, melody and lyrics. Seeing the StereoFidelics reminds me to throw all that out the window (on occassion). Could I tell you the form of their songs, no? Could I tell you what they are saying in the lyrics, no. Would I listen to them again, probably tonight if I can drag Julie out.

By the way, I will be performing a new song for kids at church on Sunday. Maybe I'll add in a few riffs (or maybe not).

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Paper Town

In Denver today, sad news that one of our major newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News was shutting down. In hearing the news I remember hearing this same story and emotions expressed in a song, Two Paper Town by Steve Seskin.

I've gone back and listened to this song. Steve in 2007 wrote the story for today and if folks would have listened then... That to me is the essence of songwriting.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Songwriting and video to tell a story

I was asked by Allee Willis, a Grammy winning songwriter, to post a link to her newest video, Hey Jerry. What’s so interesting about the video is how it captures the life’s work of 91 year old, drummer, Jerry Thrill. In 3 minutes and 41 seconds you get numerous clues about Jerry’s life and the music she played and still is playing. I was tempted to fly out for their video release party just to meet this interesting character and hear more about her life story.

This video is a great example of how different media; song, film, and art can combine to create a fuller picture of what you are trying to portray. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYZkFOZoP-o

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

House Concert Surprise

I’ve wanted to go to a house concert, but never did I expect hosting one as a first step. Here’s the story.

We had scheduled a surprise B-day party for Julie at a local bar. Julie always wanted her family and friends to hear her play, so I invited at least 40 friends and family and a great line up of local songwriters. The only requirement was that Julie had to sit in on one of their songs.
On the Monday before the Saturday show, Rob Roper went to the bar for lunch (it’s also a restaurant, no he wasn’t drinking his lunch) only to see a sign “closed for renovations.” After verifying that it was truly closed, we went in frantic search for a venue. You’d figure, great musicians and a crowd would entice some bar owner, but no luck. Finally as a last resort, we decided on a house concert in our basement. The next challenge - how to keep it a surprise? I got the family to come to a surprise dinner at a local restaurant, while Rob and friends rearranged our house (yes, I was feeling brave). The surprise at the restaurant was good, but having an additional 20+ people back at the house was great. They did an excellent job with rearranging our house.

Now to the concert, Julie and I played an opening 3 song set. What a perfect setting. We had a full room (actually packed) and attentive audience that we could see. We were then followed by Rob Roper, Ken Morris, and Eddie Wesslhoff. What talent in our house, so cool! I remember sitting on the basement stairs listening to Ken Morris. I couldn't imagine music sounding any better.

Thanks to all who helped pull it off and sorry to any who didn’t receive my emergency change of venue e-mail.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Memorable Performances

We were sitting around camp at Song School and a reporter stopped by to ask “what was our most memorable performance of past festivals.” Being a little flip, I said Big Joe Kinser, She Only Loves Me When She’s Drunk. I went on to tell the reporter that the best music happens at Song School, not the main stage.

Two days later, I see it in print. There’s a photo of me, Joe’s names, and a bunch of names you’d instantly recognize. However, I still stand by my choice. Here's the story,

It was the last day of Song School 3 years ago. We had a night filled with great performances. The last performer of the evening comes up, a big guy, small guitar, cut off shorts, etc. I remember thinking here’s a person out of his element, first time at Song School, and he has to follow all these great acts. However, he captured me from the first line, “She only loves me when she’s drunk, when she’s drunk I’m a bar room hunk...” I went home singing that line and to the dismay of my wife for the next year. Three years later, I still remember that song and moment. I just found it on UTube - check it out.

Another moment I remember is Paul Reisler getting up on stage and singing, “I can’t remember, what I forgot.” He never sings on stage but his vocalist was a no show. You could see his hesitation until the first words came out. An incredible performance that brought tears to my eyes.

I guess my point is, it’s not the production, it’s the emotion. Emotion of the performer and the listener. It’s being your authentic self on stage and with your song. It’s a magical blend of right place, right time, right song ...

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