Today I welcome Julia Amisano, Founder of Grace Music Studio NY (www.gracemusicstudiony.com), as our guest blogger. Thank you Julia for your insight into writing songs!
About Grace Music Studio NY:
Grace Music Studio NY is a place where people come to take Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons and Brooklyn acting lessons, but also they come to be inspired. Every year, Brooklyn voice lesson and piano lesson students perform in February and June. It’s inspiring when a person gets up and performs a piece they could not sing or play before. It’s even more inspiring when they wrote the piece themselves!
Songwriting -Part of Julia’s Mission:
When I opened the Studio in 1999 part of my mission was to change peoples’ minds about music and what kind of people get to call themselves ‘musicians’. I believe everyone is a musician, and set out to prove it. How do you change someone’s mind if they think they are not a musician? One of the quickest ways is to help them write a song. Since songwriting is a criteria that the outside world would use to deem someone a musician, the person’s concept of themselves changes as they learn to write songs. My job, as a music teacher, is to teach them the skills needed to become great musicians and songwriting is a really fun skill.
Group Songs – What Qualifies for Grace MusicS tudio NY Recitals:
Whenever I am helping a voice lesson student or a piano lesson student write a song, I am listening to see if it has the potential to be the ‘Group Number’ at our next recital. All Brooklyn voice students and Brooklyn piano students perform a solo piece at our bi-annual recitals. At some point in the recital I like everyone to perform a song together; I call this piece the ‘Group Number’. There are five criteria i use to determine whether or not a song will work for our ‘Group Number’. The first is whether or not its appropriate for all ages. Currently at Grace Music Studio NY Brooklyn, about half our students are adults and half are children. In order for a song to qualify as a good candidate for our next ‘Group Number’ it has to be appropriate for adults and kids. The second criteria is it has to be positive. Grace Music Studio NY has a mission to inspire and for this reason, the ‘Group Number’ must have a positive message/moral, or be uplifting in some way. The last three criteria I use to determine whether or not a song would make a good ‘Group Number’ are 1. The key, 2. The range and 3. The Rhythm. The piece needs to be in C Major/A Minor, easily transposable, or in an easy key (not a lot of sharps and flats). I love for Brooklyn piano lesson students to accompany us so when it comes to the key, easy is better. The range needs to be within one octave or just outside it. With a mix of people singing (male and female, children and adults) a range a lot bigger than an octave sounds a bit unstable. The last criteria is rhythm. The rhythm also has to be easily felt and not too complicated. For example, if a songwriter writes a piece in 5/4, or the piece has a lot of syncopated passages, I’m not likely to use that for our ‘Group Number’.
Group Songs- How to start:
All songwriting starts with an idea. It can be a melodic idea or just words or both. When I am working with voice lesson students or piano lesson students who are children, I usually ask them to think of something positive, something they ‘like’. When they respond with ideas that are too personal, for example: ‘I love Transformers’ or ‘Hello Kitty’, I ask them to think of positive things that everyone would like, even their parents. Sometimes I nudge them a bit by giving a bunch of examples like: Happiness, Safety, Peace, Smiling, Heaven, Beauty, Sunshine etc.. Usually this will help them to think of something. In the case of Grace Music Studio NY’s most recent ‘Group Number’, written by 10 year old Donovan, all I had to say was ‘we need to say something positive, what should we write about Donovan?’ He responded immediately with ‘Peace and Love!!!’.
First Create ‘Hook’/Chorus:
Once you have an idea or a theme, then you take what you’ve got and create whatever is missing. If you have words, create the melody. If you have a melody create the words. If you have neither a melody nor words (just a theme or idea), I suggest creating the words first (especially with kids). People are used to expressing themselves through words, so this is easier than asking them to create some music that sounds peaceful or happy or safe.
Create the Words for ‘Hook’/Chorus:
Just start talking out loud about the theme or idea. Ask the student to do the same. Once they are talking, you are on your way. Have them keep talking about the theme until they come up with a phrase they like. Encourage them to keep their phrases short and simple. Give BIG praise for the discovery of the phrase they like most, this is, most likely the ‘hook’ (most memorable phrase) of your ‘Hook’ (most memorable part of the song – usually the chorus). Now create the other lines in the Chorus. There are many different ways to create a chorus, I like to use a simple three or four lines that somehow rhyme. So, once the student has written the first line, encourage them to come up with two or three more phrases that rhyme with the first and/or with each other.
Create the Melody for ‘Hook’/Chorus:
Once you have the words, sometimes you can ask the student to just start improvising a melody until they find a melody they like. It’s best for the teacher to encourage the student with every step. I like to sing, what they have created, back to them and ask them if it is what they want. Always encourage the student to sing pitches within their talking range. Sometimes, my voice lesson or piano lesson students need more help. In this case, I start by saying the words with the student out loud and tapping my foot. All spoken word has rhythm, see if the student can keep a simple, steady beat while you speak the first phrase with them. Repeat the first phrase until the student feels the beat. Encourage the simplest rhythm inherent in the speech. Have the student start improvising a melody on la while you tap and speak the words out loud. Eventually a melodic pattern will emerge that the student likes. Have the student then teach you the melodic pattern. Keep guiding them toward simplicity. Now, switch roles; the student says the words and rhythm out loud and the teacher sings la. Once the melody is memorized by both student and teacher, both can start singing the melody with the words. Repeat this process for each line of the chorus encouraging them toward a feeling of finish (Cadence to the Tonic) at the end of each line or, at the last line of the chorus. With little kids, I suggest they create a couple of question phrases (these go up in melody at the end) and then an answer phrase for the last line (this goes down in melody to Tonic). Point out to them the feeling of ‘finishing’ when the melody goes back to Tonic. If the student is more advanced, this is a great time to
teach them about cadences.
Create the Verses:
Use the same method as above to create the verses to the ‘Group Number’. The only difference is I use four lines or phrases for the Verse, instead of three. You can rhyme all the phrases at the end or every other phrase. At this point, I like to give the student some freedom to decide whether he/she would like the phrases to be question phrases (go up at the end) or answer phrases (go down at the end). I typically like to create three verses with the students. So, start with one verse and write the lyrics and melody to that and then write words for another two verses. I like to introduce the idea that songs can be stories so, the next verse is the next part of the story.
Create the Bridge:
This is my favorite part because it can be completely different from the verse and chorus. I use the same method to help the voice lesson or piano lesson student write the Bridge with one added thing; I tell the student ‘Ok, what else do you want to say about this subject?’, and/or ‘Is there an action we can suggest to our listeners?’. In Donovan’s song, Peace and Love, the bridge says ‘Maybe we can make a brighter world together, Maybe all we need to do is sing together’.
Structure: Put all the Pieces together:
Every song is different and a structure might emerge that is different from a typical structure, if it feels right, just go with that. If a structure doesn’t emerge, just keep things simple. A format that is tried and true is one that has a Verse, then Chorus, then Verse, then Chorus, then Bridge, then Chorus, and one last Verse then two choruses. If your Bridge feels like it goes better with the chorus, then follow it with the chorus, if it feels like it’s a bridge to the verse, then follow it with the verse. If it feels like it doesn’t go with either, don’t worry, some of the greatest songs have memorable departures and returns to the main material in the piece. If you need to, when you are creating the accompaniment, you can create a musical bridge to/from the Bridge with chords.
Last step: Create Accompaniment:
Now that you have the words, melody, Chorus, Verses and Bridge, it’s time to put it to music. The first thing to do is go to the instrument you are most comfortable with and figure out which pitches are your melody. Then just add the simplest chords you can think of and you’re done! You’re song is finished.
Teaching the song to a Group:
Once my student finishes their song, I teach it to everyone who is going to sing in the group. In each student’s private voice lesson or piano lesson, I go through the song at least once or twice. I like to start teaching the song to everyone at least two months before our recital. Everyone learns the same melody, and Group songs are mostly sung in unison. Sometimes the songwriter wants to sing parts of the song solo (like the verses) and have the group sing the rest, I leave that up to the songwriter. If the songwriter is a child, I help them decide what they think will sound best. Because music students are creative, they will often come to me with a harmony or embellishment for the song. I also encourage students to think of harmonies, once they know the song pretty well. All harmonies and embellishments are subject to the songwriter’s acceptance or rejection. The songwriter gets the last word. At the Grace Music Studio NY recital, I make sure I introduce the voice lesson student or piano lesson student who created the song to our audience. This kind of recognition is the very best encouragement you can give to any songwriter. That person, whether it is a child or an adult then thinks of him or herself as a musician. Mission accomplished!
For more information about Julia Amisano, Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons or Grace Music Studio NY, visit www.gracemusicstudiony.com