Studio 237 Music Lessons: Songwriting with Kids


By Scott Gilmore

In this time of “tech overload,” it is essential for young people to embrace the idea of building something from scratch that is uniquely their own creation.

As a small child, in our modified garage, I remember watching my father building hydroplane racing boats starting from plans drawn on a drafting table. He created championship caliber boats for himself and other racers.

The smell of glue, mahogany and sawdust still evoke cherished memories of my younger years, my father, and the excitement of that time.

For the last six years I have been a music instructor at Studio 237 Music Lessons in Santa Rosa Beach. Although I am primarily a Classical / Pop Guitarist, I have been allowed to expand my teaching responsibilities to include Baritone and standard Ukulele, Piano and Theory. However, the area that has been the most rewarding and inspiring for me has been as a “Songwriting Facilitator.”

When first inspired to collaborate in songwriting, I had no blueprint in place. My mentor at the time was renowned Stone Carver, Mary Lou Waterfield. Utilizing her master’s in clinical art therapy (FSU M.A.T. ED.) she taught me techniques cultivated from working with children who had survived trauma and other issues. She demonstrated the importance of asking questions and developing listening skills.

I want to share with you some basic ground rules that guide the process:

1) No violence (real or video games related) or adult themes allowed! Encourage students to consider their audience.

2) Emphasis on song ownership. The song belongs to the child. My job is to ask questions. Not surprisingly most songs end up being about dogs and other pets, unicorns and dragons and princesses. Their song can be silly, sad or serious or a tribute. Always their choice!

3) Encourage the child to write about what they know such as songs about going to the beach, trips into space or riding a horse for the first time all make wonderful themes. For example, one of my students performed a song that she wrote at her beloved grandmother’s memorial service.

4) What is the tempo (speed of) the music for the song? Fast, medium or slow? What chords and chord progressions? This writing phase can be a rich “teachable” moment.

5) Realize that songwriting is done outside of chronological time. Until the song is finished, we are free to move everything around. If painted into a corner, we can go back and change the song so that we won’t be. It is even okay to start completely over!

6) Because we are often writing during a limited class time, no writer’s block is allowed. “Green-light” thinking rules. My position as a facilitator is to see the child as a creative genius and to expect greatness. If there is a songwriting flow problem, I am not asking the right questions or listening.

7) Wait for a “great” first line. Everything that happens after that is a response.

8) Train like an athlete. I have taken a vocabulary test every day for the last six years ( Write lyrics that work can be about how the word sounds, rhymes or conveys a more complex idea in a more concise way. Use new words as a “Teachable Moment.” Discovering new words can be a BIG part of the adventure.

9) Organize and document. “Rarely throw anything away.” I received this tip directly from world-famous composer Johannes Moller. If you can read music, then modern notation software can be very useful for quickly documenting song elements. My recommendation is “Notion” by Personas. A $15 app version for iOS is also available.

10) Encourage performances. A song is only completed when shared with others. It is a celebration of ownership for the young songwriter. Performing at recitals, agreeing to post on YouTube, or even making an audio recording is an important part of the process. Sharing the song is a gift to friends and family that can never be purchased at a store.

Songwriting with kids requires more “out of class time” organizing and editing, lyrics and music. It can even include investing in additional equipment. Recently I purchased an “Arranger Keyboard” to expedite this purpose.

Nothing I have ever done professionally has been as rewarding as “Song Writing with Kids (of all ages).” Helping another to write a song is like building a boat together that everyone can take a ride on.