High school students throughout our community could be seen and heard making noise last week, some of it sweetly melodic and almost all of it joyful. The joyous commotion was generated by singer/songwriters Jonathan Kingham and Ryan Shea Smith leading songwriting workshops in all local high schools (except for Mississinaway Valley, which missed out on the fun due to the winter weather forcing cancellation of classes.) The second of Darke County Center for the Arts’ Arts In Education presentations, these sessions produced an actual song and provoked enthusiastic response from those assembled.
Jonathan began the session by explaining that he and Ryan write songs for themselves and others when they are not traveling the country as touring musicians. Then he asked, “Anybody here write songs?” After receiving a positive response from a student who qualified the admission by adding “They’re not good ones,” the professional songwriter responded, “Keep writing – every now and then, you’ll write one you like; and then write more.”
This basic message reverberated throughout the hour-long session: write, revise, re-write. The songwriting process is not unlike writing an essay for Language Arts class, starting with a thesis statement, and then defining components of that basic theme. Ryan went on to say that often one starts with the title (the thesis statement), and then riffs on that idea. He ably demonstrated the merits of this strategy, charming his audience by singing a song entitled “Stay Awhile” that was inspired by his Dad saying, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry,” thus providing a recurring line throughout the delightful song.
Jonathon then informed the assembly that in order to be a successful songwriter, one must overcome the fear of appearing foolish, and simply write down whatever comes to mind. He then offered an enthralling freestyle ode to a teacher in the audience, the rhythmic and rhyming sentences encapsulating almost everything that had previously occurred during the session, amazing listeners with humorous insight and creativity.
Prior to beginning work on the group composition, Jonathan outlined a few basics. To construct a song, a musical foundation is laid, then structure is added. Lyrics set the scene, paint a picture, each verse telling a little piece of the song’s basic story; the hook, often also the song’s title, reveals the basic message of the song. Jonathon invited any guitarists in the room to suggest a chord progression from which a melody could be devised. Next, singers were asked to identify themselves and then prodded to come forward to hum a proposed melody as Jonathan and Ryan played the chosen chords. In each of the sessions I observed, a female student with a lovely voice bravely stepped up to accept the challenge, taking the chance of appearing foolish before the entire high school while contributing greatly to achievement of a desired group objective.
Through the entire session, the camaraderie between the professional songwriters and the students was warm and palpable. They were all in this together, trusting each other, leaning upon each other to achieve a common goal. Jonathan expressed his belief (which is shared by most songwriters) that melodies float around waiting to be captured if one remains open to receiving them. The songs ultimately produced at these school sessions were – well, fun and interesting.
Lyrics were solicited to fit the developed melody, with multitudes of ideas tossed out and molded into a somewhat coherent whole. Students at both of the schools I visited wrote Christmas songs, one about snow and cold and warmth, the other about Santa Claus, each with its own quirky charm. Then all voices joined to sing their song, successfully producing that previously mentioned joyful noise.
While DCCA’s Arts In Education presentation of Jonathan Kingham and Ryan Shea Smith may not have produced musical masterpieces, the sessions inspired creativity, strengthened self-esteem, and produced a warm sense of togetherness shared by all involved. Who knows what may transpire as students, armed with the knowledge that success can be achieved with basic good ideas that have been reconsidered, revised, and reevaluated, choose to take a chance, chasing impossible dreams to their own logical conclusion.