Miscellaneous » J-Term 2012 » Going to Nashville

Going to Nashville

Students Learn Songwriting in Music City

 “We’ve come to Nashville, we brought our dreams along. We’ve come to Nashville, to learn how to write a song.” [Listen]

Students in the Craft of Songwriting class at Bethany Christian Schools wrote this chorus—along with two verses—and then recorded their song in a workshop with country musician and songwriter James Dean Hicks at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Due to time constraints they did not write an original tune, instead recording their collaborative work to a tune popularized by Johnny and June Carter Cash, Jackson. In working with the students to comprise their lyrics, Hicks reinforced much of what they had learned already, but also emphasized the importance of writing from your experience and telling the truth—don’t make things up.

Craft of Songwriting students were in Nashville for one week as part of Bethany’s J-Term program in which high school students take an experience-based course for credit during the first two weeks of January. Students spent their first week in the classroom (8:00-3:30) learning the components of writing a song. English teacher Eileen Becker-Hoover and instrumental music teacher Barbara Slagel team-taught the class, focusing on their areas of expertise: lyrics and tunes respectively.

Throughout the course, each student worked at creating a song using songwriting tools such as metaphor, rhyme, and productive repetition in their lyrics and sequence, repetition, inversion, and contrast to create tunes. And they practiced putting the two together, sometimes letting lyrics influence the music—such as letting the most important words get longer notes—and sometimes letting the music influence the lyrics.

 Josh performs at the Bluebird Cafe.Stacie Park, a junior from South Korea, has a strong musical background—she has sung in a school musical, plays piano and flute, and is self-taught on the ukelele—yet she discovered that that her lyrics were quite important to her as she wrote a song in English. So she used lyrics as a starting point and worked at creating a tune to help her express those words. She was one of four Bethany students—also Jean Ahn, Sadie Gustafson-Zook, and Josh Helmuth—who performed their songs at Nashville’s Bluebird Café, which is recognized worldwide as a preeminent songwriter’s venue. They were among those selected from the audience to try out new material and practice their performing skills during its Monday night open mic. [Watch Stacie perform her song, “I Don’t Care,” at the Bluebird Cafe.] Stacie so enjoyed her first attempt at writing a song, that now she is using what she learned to write a song in Korean for her parents.

 Jean at the Ryman Auditorium.Unlike Stacie and most of her classmates, writing songs was not new for junior Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Last year for Bible class, Sadie, who has performed with her parents since a young age (and more recently on her own), wrote a song, If I Loved, which later won first-place in a national competition! So though her expectations were quite different, nonetheless she found the class beneficial. Now she thinks more about the technique of what she already had been doing and is more aware of the how different songwriting tools can help her create better songs.

Through this class, junior Ike Lehman, whose musical background is primarily instrumental (sax, trumpet, and guitar), gained a new appreciation for singing. While he had picked at tunes on his guitar before, this was his first effort to intentionally write a full song with lyrics and tune. As he practiced his song, he realized he isn’t such a bad singer after all and grew more comfortable with singing. His song, To Remember Me, is about his relationship with his mother—though his last verse is looking into the future as his mother hasn’t died yet! Watch Ike perform.

Contrary to his expectation that the class would be oriented more towards music, Ike was pleasantly surprised at the good mix of music and lyrics, and especially the depth of detail he learned in crafting lyrics. He says, “as subsequent verses in a song provide more detail, the chorus can take on different meanings by the end of the song. Now I hear that in songs on the radio—it has changed the way I listen to and understand music.”

An unexpected benefit of the trip to Nashville for Ike was learning about the business aspect of the music industry. Working in the music industry had intrigued Ike before taking this class, and the trip to Nashville helped him see this as a more realistic option.

 Another unexpected moment provided an enriching learning experience for the whole class. While teachers had planned for the class to stay in a Nashville church, they were unaware—until they arrived—that the church also was hosting a group of homeless men and women and needed some people from Bethany to assist. Eight student volunteers helped with their laundry, woke up early to serve breakfast, and washed and stored mattresses. Many students also chose to hang out in the game room with some of the men and women, talking and playing games together.

Both Slagel and Becker-Hoover were proud of the way students adapted to this surprise and showed willingness to pitch in. Slagel says, “At Bethany we talk with students about seeking God’s calling in their lives and being attentive to the unexpected. At times this happens with intentional instruction, and at times this learning comes, unexpectedly. It was great to see our students respond the way they did.”