Writing Songs with Children

Lisa Garrison, SING OUT! MAGAZINE(9/75), Pp. 24-25.

Songwriting with children is the art of letting go. For the adult participant, it is knowing when to be invisible, and how to elicit a response from even the shyest child in the group. I often begin a session with children by teaching them folk songs and having them move to the music. Sometimes I ask questions and encourage them to shout things out in response. Most important, I try to get them to pretend I’m not there.

Role Play: A Bird Game:

(1st & 2nd Grade)

I sparked off a bird game by throwing out questions: “How would you feel if you were an earthworm?””What if we were birds?” The children were quickly transformed into feathered creatures, fencing off a corner of the room for their nest and swooping about the room with wings outstretched. They were soon drawn into the excitement of singing their own hums and words and began to call out a kind of narrative about their lives.

I recorded the children’s response, tried to hold onto the tunes they sang, and suggested rephrasing of certain words or rhymes(At this point, you have to remember to keep you sense of humor in case your suggestions get completely canned!). Little by little, we pieced the phrases together into songs.

“Poor Birds”, the most serious song we wrote, was inspired by a New York Times article (March 18, 1974)

Thousands of birds had dropped dead in Newburgh, NY, most likely from fertilizer poisoning. The songwriting group made up a dirge shoe plaintive melody and unanswered questions impressed me. I was struck by the way the children immediately personalized the experience, identifying with the school children in Newburgh and imagining that they themselves had discovered the dead birds. It became clear to me that songwriting is a form which helps children question, protest, celebrate and even grieve about events they hear about on television and in newspapers–just as it is for adults.

It isn’t necessary to have extensive musical experience to write songs with children. By simply taking a tried and true folk tune and putting together new words, you’re engaging in a wonderful recycling process. Just be relaxed about your expectations of what a song should be, and something will come growing up out of the bunch of you.