Errors, Trials and Process | Jay Albert

A class of 4th graders came in with a poem. It was for a residency I designed using songwriting to explore the relationship between literary voice, choices in musical composition, and how revision plays a vital role in expressing oneself in both media. It was a great project, but not a lot of time in which to do it. I had two half hour sessions with them to turn it into a song that they could perform with me in an assembly. The poem had been written by two of their number; it was lovely, brief, and expressive. Our first session consisted of finding a melody for it and editing the text to make it more rhythmic, more performable. My process was to listen to their words and group-recited rhythms, and then offer musical ideas for them to vote on. (I love the whole voting thing, in a situation where I must provide musical material for a group it enables them make concrete choices and own the composition that results.)

The poem included internal rhymes and half rhymes, its rhythms were quite irregular; in total it was challenging to set it melodically. Once they were able to recite the first two lines rhythmically as a group, they began to gravitate around several pitches. I pointed this out to them and they chose to use it as the main melody of the song. All in all, the first session went well — they had definite opinions about how the song was progressing and achieved consensus repeatedly on the various points of composition.

In the interim I did some planning in order to better proceed in our next session. I thought the song was a good start, but a bit repetitive and directionless. I mulled it around, played it and tried several ideas that I could present to the kids next time. I was unimpressed with what I came up with. At least I was happy that I had thought it through…expending that energy on it, even though not productive of solid notes or even ideas, gave me a foundation and a familiarity with the material that would form the basis of later work with it.

Coming back together with the class, we rehearsed what we had done and tried several solutions for the final section. Nothing inspiring.

“So, okay,” I thought to myself “I’ve got nothing and they’ve got nothing, we need to get a new perspective or something to kickstart this sucker.”

I started asking the class questions, just simple things like “which word is most important here?” or “would you like to hear the melody go up or down?” (I don’t remember exactly, it was off the cuff. Though I had recorded the first session I did not record the second one. I very much wish that I had!)

One girl suggested the melody go up. We tried something and talked some more. One boy suggested that we hold out the last syllable of the word “survive.” (I love comments like these two, it shows me that they are really thinking at the cusp of language and melody.) I noodled around a little more with chords on the guitar and sang some notes for them.

It was at this point that something clicked for me. I believe it was a function of my failed pre-compositional trials and particularly the two comments from students. I tried a chromatic chord and a couple of notes that fit the harmony. Both the kids and I went “ooooh.” We sang it together: it ascended and held the syllable previously suggested, only now it started to move somewhere. Then I got the idea to climb even higher and put the melody on the 7th of a chord. This is all upping the difficulty for young singers and I hesitated to ask it of them, but when I demonstrated it for them they cheered and insisted on it. It came out with a rather dramatic, pop/R&B kind of climax that the kids loved, and they sang it beautifully.

This takes so long to explain verbally and I know that some readers probably have to skim over details like “chromatic chords” and “7ths.” But what I really adore about this little story is that after hitting a wall, we as a group worked out a solution that even with my blahdiblah years of experience I couldn’t come up with alone. The kids were into the song all along, but when this clicked they totally loved it. I did too. The denouement was a flash, but it only could have happened because of the previous work and the open cooperation of a group interested in finding a solution.

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