This is the fifth and final blog from our guest editors, Jenny Goodman and Bid Cousins.
“So, Songs of change is now over but we carry the learning with us into future projects. We promised you some notes on methodology that you might be able to adapt and apply yourselves – so here they are. You can also follow our blog on wordpress.”
Key principles for us were:
- Accessibility (both physical and in the sense of making exercises understandable and easy to do regardless of musical experience and skill)
- Collective and collaborative work (although solo work would be fine, the whole point of the weekend was to build something together)
- Working only with voices and body percussion – ie what you have available to you anywhere and in any situation
- A safe environment for experimentation and creativity
Within this framework we wanted to offer:
- A range of different tools for songbuilding
- Scope to create, and play
- Time to sing existing songs together
There are many structures for a song. Within the acapella framework we use there are some very simple ones, such as Call and Response and the round or canon. At its simplest , Call and Response simply consists of a key phrase which is echoed back; you then build on this.
More starting points can be :
- Rounds are great because everyone learns the same tune and words, but sings them in a sequence so that harmonies are formed. Here we are learning one of Bid’s.
- parallel harmonies – where the lines sung by different parts are the same ‘shape’ and follow each other up and down. Here’s one of Jenny’s (words from Benjamin Zephania)
- drones ( a sustained single note, the sort of thing you hear under a bagpipe tune, but with voices) or a strong bass line.
- ‘one song to the tune of another’. One group writes new words to a well known tune, and their partner group writes a new tune for the old words. Put the new tune and the new words together, and Hey Presto you have a new song!
Creating lyrics and melody can be challenging – people often feel stuck with this especially if they don’t have a musical background. One song to the tune of another allowed a fun way to create both new words and new melody.
- Another way to create fresh lyrics is thinking about a concept i.e. freedom and asking people to think of the sensory qualities – what does it sound, smell, look, taste and feel like and what might it say! From that people created a phrase and those were put together within an improvisation format and taken from speech into melody.
- For developing melodies – We gave everyone coloured cards, each of which represented a note on a scale, undisclosed . People could take more than one of each colour. They then arranged them in a line that pleased them, and we played them back the melody they created. The advantage of this exercise is people have no preconceptions of how the phrase will sound – unusual and interesting intervals may appear.
Before you start singing though, you need to warm up properly. This is not only good for body, breath and voice but is a great part of the team-building stuff. Some of the exercises make you a little ridiculous (eg blowing raspberries of laughing like a goblin or a witch) so doing them together is a bonding thing. The trick here is for the leader to model everything and participate fully; I was once in a group where the leader stood on a stage and told everyone else what to do but didn’t do it himself – that went down like a lead balloon. And even tho they may feel ridiculous they are all based within clear techniques to free the voice by releasing neck, shoulders, jaw, tongue etc.
So we stretch, massage our faces and heads, make silly faces, roll our tongues around, blow raspberries, shake and roll various parts of the body, make different sounds, and practice breathing in different ways. We breathe in and then use different sounds for an out-breath – a hiss, a shhh, a gentle blowing, a sigh – which help us relax, open the lungs fully to people are fully supporting the voice with the breath and also make us aware of the role the diaphragm plays in control and support of singing. We play games in pairs, mirroring each other’s movements and making sounds to express a movement.
We make funny noises, using the whole range of the voice. Finally we begin to hum and sing vowels. We sing in a circle to generate a shared sound and a feeling of togetherness.
When it was time to starting the writing we used a box of inspirational quotes that we had gathered to give people ready-made lyrics. This can be a useful starting point especially when some of your group have not written before.
There is a creativity involved in selecting the quote or a suitable part of one, tweaking it to be singable, that is just as challenging and interesting as writing your own lyrics. One group liked a quote from Millicent Fawcett ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere, and it’s strength cannot be denied’
With a little editing those words became singable and a great song emerged.
One of the final songs written was incredibly complex. It involved a group of six people; there was a whispered bass line that became a sung drone and a call and response part that grew with harmonies as the song progressed, and a slowly building dynamic towards a powerful ending, on an environmental theme.
Another of the songs used a double drone with a melody above to echo Indian song as the song had been inspired by a visit to India . The theme was a reflection on poverty and the environment based on the writer’s own experiences there.
On day two we also put the men in a group to enable them to work separately without the constraints of pitch that sometimes make it difficult in mixed groups where women predominate.
So what reflections can we, as practitioners, take from this weekend?
Jenny: I think it’s realising that our song-writing approach which is based on play, opening up, improvisation and working as a group mirrors our approach to singing and is very powerful – especially but not exclusively for people who feel they can’t write songs because they don’t have a formal musical background. I realised over the weekend that sharing my experience of song-writing as someone who is not formally trained and doesn’t use written music was a liberating thing for people in the group to hear. My final thought, however, is just how moving and exciting it is to hear people creating new songs in the moment with each other. Each group took the words or ideas in their own directions, in ways we would never have expected and those words had power because they spoke about change in the world and inspired people musically. I look forward to hearing the next steps of the journey both for those individuals and those songs – who knows what changes they will inspire!
Bid: I really enjoyed developing the exercises and trying them out and learned a lot from observing the process. I was amazed and excited by what people did with the toolbox we gave them. I realise how important it is as an experienced singer/songwriter/music leader to sit back, let people just get on with it and not impose my model of what should happen on what is happening. Meanwhile I’ve now got a whole lot of new songs buzzing in my brain to write down and take further. For both of us our singing practice and musical communities have been enriched by this weekend. Let’s see what happens next. We leave you with some final words from Ruth and Jude, two of our participants….