Teaching Songwriting to Children
In addition to writing custom songs, I have a background as an educator. One of my most successful teaching ventures has been a class called Songwriting for Kids. Today, I thought I would share a very basic lesson plan that I’ve used in numerous settings which has always gotten great results. Many of the steps in the process can be viewed as stand alone tips. Naturally different age groups require different lessons, but here is a list of activities that can be applied to nearly any bunch of youngsters in a classroom setting with the goal of writing a song. Enjoy!
1. Start with a group project in which the whole class writes together.
You can do an entire song this way, or you can do the first portion of the song together before splitting into smaller groups or doing individual work.
2. Establish a broad theme or subject for the song.
The more specific your theme is, the less the students will know about it, and some might feel left out. For instance, Animals or Outer Space make great topics, whereas Raccoons or Mercury do not (unless the students have been educated specifically about these subjects).
3. Illuminate the theme.
If you know your subject ahead of time, choose a theme related read aloud book to share with the class. This can really help with creating word lists.
4. Make word lists!
Start by asking students to name words associated with the topic. For example, ask “What are your favorite animals”. If possible, display your list by compiling words on a whiteboard, chalkboard, or large sheet of paper. After you have received a good number of words for your initial list, ask a related question “What do animals like to do?” or “Where do animals live”. You can add these words to the list you started, or create different lists.
5. Play a freeze dance game using the words from your list(s).
Have some music ready, either pre-recorded or you can play an instrument. Call out a word from the list and start the music. Have the students pretend to be or act out what the word suggests until the music stops, at which time they will freeze and make a statue (standing still/quiet). For example you could say “horse” and students could gallop and make horse sounds until the music stops. Similarly you might have the word “roar” on your list and the students would make that sound until the music stops.
6. Begin writing lyrics.
Have students sit on the floor in front of the word list. Ask the question “How do we want to start our song”? Have a paper and pencil ready and to write down suggestions. This is where things get tricky as the results are unpredictable, but in my experience one of two things usually happens:
1. You are flooded with suggestions. If this happens acknowledge each answer by writing it in on your paper.
2. The students are shy and do not make any suggestions. In the latter case, refer to words on your list (for instance “Squirrel”) and ask “Can anyone tell me anything about a squirrel? Keep prompting students with more questions until you get a suitable opening line for your song. In the former case, acknowledge each answer by writing it in on your paper.
Once you have a number of lines, look to see if any of them rhyme, or could be made to rhyme easily. If so, start your song with those two lines. If not, choose a line that has an end word that lends itself well to rhyme (anything with an ay ending for example). Start your song with this line.
7. Rhyming Words
Compile a list of words that rhyme with the ending word of the first line (or first two lines). You may or may not need to write them down. Ask students to come up with sentences that end with one of the rhyming words. You may need to help students with the length of the sentences to make sure they will fit rhythmically and aren’t too long or too short.
Continue this process until you have about four lines. Or, for younger students you might want to repeat the lines several times (think She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain). If there is room, write the first verse on the whiteboard.
8. Now it is time to create the music!
If you do not play a musical instrument and are not musically inclined you can consider adapting your words to an already existing song such as This Land is Your Land, Camptown Races Etc.
If you do not have an instrument, but are musically inclined, take the lyrics and simply sing them with different improvised melodies, or allow students to try it. After two or three rounds of this, have students choose the melody they like best.
If you have a musical instrument play some chord patterns and improvise singing the lyrics over the chords. Again, after doing this with two or three different patterns let the children choose a pattern that they like. (I find that strumming I to IV patterns such as G to C is a great place to start, then make sure the next pattern features a minor cord).
10. Take a break
If time allows, take a break at this point and play the freeze dance game again.
11. Repeat the process
Review the song and then repeat steps 6 and 7 until you have another verse
At this point you either have a short song with two verses, or you can teach the students what a chorus is (a part of the song that repeats itself) and choose one of the verses to be a chorus. Alter the melody and chord pattern for the chorus and then sing it before and after the verse.
13. More verses
Repeat steps 6 and 7 as time allows if you would like to have more verses.
13. MAKE A RECORDING OF THE SONG.
Despite recording technology being so accessible these days, kids still love hearing themselves on a recording and still get excited about making them. Even if it is just on your phone or ipod, make a recording of the song and play it back for them. This will also prevent you from forgetting what you’ve done in case this project is going to continue for more than one class period.
Things to consider
Before you begin a new songwriting project with kids, I like to ask myself the following questions:
Is it important that there be a rhyme scheme?
Is it ok to have non-facts in the song (things like talking animals)?
How long should the song to be?
Is the purpose of this exercise for students to have a chance to be creative, or are we using the song to teach them about a topic?
I hope that some of this information will be valuable to you, and that your Songwriting for Kids endeavor will be rewarding. Let me know if you have any questions about any of the information that I’ve included, or if you are interested in ordering a custom song!
Here are some samples of songs from the classes I’ve taught.