A Music Teacher's Journey Into Songwriting - Moosiko

This was originally written by Chelsea Dehner and appeared on the Association for Popular Music blog page. APME and Moosiko are partnered to help teachers bring popular, diverse, and relevant music to students.

Ready Set…GO!

In January a good friend said, “Chelsea, you just need to do it.  Sit down and finish a song and it doesn’t matter if it’s good, just do it.”  So I sat down on my couch and forced myself to scribble down lyrics to this melody I had been messing around with on my little Casio-46 and out came my first ever song! But, how did I do that? What do I do next? What is the process? Does this even count? Fast forward to April when I had an epiphany. “Can you get lessons in songwriting!?” It turns out, you CAN!

Here’s what I’ve discovered along my journey. My hope in writing this post is to inspire anyone who might be interested in songwriting to try it and see what happens.

Songwriting is Fun

The number one reason to try songwriting: It is SO. MUCH. FUN! I’ve used songwriting to explore my ideas, give gifts to family, collaborate with friends, learn new software, and try improvising on “non traditional” instruments. Prior to 2020, I never felt empowered  to sit down with an instrument or a notebook and create music by myself or with others and I had NO IDEA where to even begin.  Now this new hobby has enriched my time, has helped me to come to the decision to almost completely give up social media (less scrolling, less screen time, more creating) AND it’s just a blast.

Songwriting is Scary – but that’s ok!

Songwriting for the first time is SCARY!!! It feels terrifying to try new things in my thirties (or any age) that I’m not good at but it’s SUCH A GREAT LEARNING EXPERIENCE to remember what my students are going through when they’re learning new musical skills in my class.  At first, I sucked at it – how cool!! It reinforced that when you start something, “IT’S OK TO BE BAD,” and in fact…DUH! Of course I’m bad! But I’ll get better and better with practice just like anything in life.  I now have a much better idea of how I can provide an enriching and safe culture for students to be willing to collaborate and take chances because I’m doing it too!

Songwriting and Permission

Through songwriting, I learned that I can prioritize myself. I haven’t taken lessons in YEARS and once I decided I truly wanted to start writing, I felt really clueless about where to go with it all.  Now I look forward to my lessons as if I’m catching up with a cherished friend and also rediscovering parts of myself. Perhaps most surprisingly, songwriting has been a revelation to myself that I’m allowed to prioritize my creativity.  I’m allowed to spend money on something that’s “fun” and in fact, I NEED to prioritize creating or else I won’t feel whole. #missingpuzzlepiece

Songwriting Helped My Musicianship

Learning about the craft of songwriting has helped me to listen to music – especially within pop music genres – differently. Now I find myself constantly thinking, “What’s the form here? What note did they start on in the chorus vs the verse? What’s the chord progression? How did they establish sectional identity? What’s the rhyme scheme? What’s the instrumentation? What kind of music production was used to create this?”  This helps inform my writing as I continue to analyze the music I listen to and already enjoy.

Songwriting as a Music Educator

My songwriting journey has been eye opening for me personally to realize my own stifled creativity as a musician and teacher. It has also been exciting to explore all of the ways I can incorporate this into my teaching that betters the students’ musicianship as a whole.  I’m trying to teach differently than I learned, which can feel really challenging.  Thanks to 2020, I got the push I needed to jump into the world of discomfort and learn how to maintain a high school choral program and high school music electives virtually.

Sharing With My Students

The first way I shared my songwriting with my students was just telling them about it.  From talking to them, I learned that I had quite a few students that were venturing into writing songs and then I started to ask them questions about their process and learn from my students.

Creative Choir Classes

This fall, we were all faced with the unknown of virtual/hybrid teaching and I knew I needed to think outside of the box to survive. Once I gave myself permission to vary from the norm, and overcame the fear of the unknown, I was able to have FUN preparing for my virtual & hybrid classes/rehearsals. I tried to introduce songwriting in a sneaky way so that they wouldn’t even realize they were songwriting until they had already done some songwriting! The first activity I introduced to my choir students was writing a parody. I got them enthused about the idea by first creating one myself with my colleague called “Going Back To School” to the tune of Lizzo’s “Good As Hell.” (Click here to see our “Back To School” parody) I demonstrated to them how I modeled Lizzo’s syllable count, rhyme scheme, etc… and then made a silly video for them to laugh at and get inspired.  I then chose a popular song that they would all know, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’” split them into groups and told them they would be changing the lyrics to be about “Mask Wearin’/Google Meet Probz.” Each group was in charge of changing the lyrics to a different part of the song.  At the top of the next class we put it together to reveal all of the lyrics and sang the song together.  (Here is the slideshow of instructions I presented)

In my current schedule, I see my choir in three separate sections so the end result was three different parodies written by my students that were creative, intelligent, hilarious, relevant, fun to make, and most importantly, THEIRS! For the first time ever in my choir room, my students were not singing words that someone else wrote, they were singing lyrics that they themselves and their peers had created. (Click here for an example of their final product)  My students LOVED this activity and yearned for more!! Now what?!?! On our student teacher’s last day, my students asked if we could write him a song! I had not prepared a lesson plan for this but I had trained for this moment, so I said, “Of course we can!!”

Writing Songs As A Group

I led them through the process of writing a song that I had learned from my lessons and we went through the steps of doing a timed free-write about our student teacher, then we looked for common themes.  I told them the form (verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus) and rhyme scheme of the song, and in about 30 minutes time, this choir class had created their lyrics!! Now time for the melody!  I had them all speak the chorus lyrics out loud over and over until they started to come up with a melody.  I put chords underneath their melody on the piano and had them vote on a couple of choices and then we had it, a melody and harmony to our chorus!! Over the next few classes we crafted our lyrics, melody, harmony, and now we have an original song that my students created together as a class. The other two choir classes heard about this and wanted to write an original as well! One class wrote a song called “Autumn Song” and the other wrote a song called “Seasons.”  These original songs are going to be featured in our Virtual Winter Concert Portfolio!!! I NEVER thought that would be what my 2020 Winter Concert included!!

Looking Ahead

As of December 2020, my students have seen the songwriting process modeled and created a song as a group.  In Spring of 2021, I’m hoping to have the students create songs on their own that we can perform in large and small groups. Would I have done this before? NO WAY!!! But now, I’m seeing that these types of activities are essential! Through infusing my curricula with songwriting activities, I have learned more about some of my students that I’ve known for six years, I’ve found new ways to connect with them, AND I feel reinvigorated about teaching! There are SO many possibilities and I’m SO excited about this new avenue I have to connect with my students.  Thanks to deciding to incorporate songwriting into my classroom, I can now offer opportunities for students to create, be seen, be heard, and to feel connected in person and from home.

Bring In Guest Artists

Now that I had the students pumped up, I thought it would be AWESOME to bring in a special guest to speak to our class. Virtual/Hybrid life is the PERFECT time to take advantage of bringing in special guests because you don’t have to worry about travel, it’s all simply the click of a link! So I brought Kat Reinhert into my choir to do a workshop with each section on contemporary vocal techniques and songwriting.  This was hands down my students’ favorite day of the year so far!

My Biggest Take Away – Go Do It!

In yoga, the teachers are always saying, “You already did the hardest part, you got on your mat!” While I stand there in the hot room thinking they’re nuts for iterating such insanity, I must admit, they’re right! The hardest part of songwriting is just doing it! So how did I start? I asked for help!! I asked my colleagues that write music for help, I asked my students for help, I sought out a private teacher, I took a “Songwriting for Music Educators” class, I read books that were recommended, and I gave myself permission to dive into the uncomfortable.  This personal journey has truly revolutionized the way I approach teaching and thank goodness! Winter of 2020 is forcing all of us to reimagine what connection and music making looks like and songwriting with my students has been my saving grace. When trying something new, our brains (and our students’ brains) try to tell us that we won’t ever be good at it so we shouldn’t even try. Let’s use songwriting as our vehicle to acknowledge those voices, to empower ourselves, and tell those voices to shut up because we’ve got music to create!

Chelsea Dehner is the Lower Moreland High School Choir Director in Huntingdon Valley, PA and has been a music educator for 13 years with experience in K-12 vocal/general/instrumental music.  She has her Bachelor of Music in Music Education with a concentration in voice from Moravian College ’08 and her Master’s in Education from Cabrini College ’14.  Chelsea teaches Concert Choir, Piano, Singing & Vocalization and Guitar.  She leads the Honor, Treble and Bass Choirs, serves as the LMHS Drama Club Spring Musical Vocal and Pit Director, and holds the position of the PMEA District 11 High School Professional Development Chair.  You can find her performing with “The Hoppin’ John Orchestra,” “The Bux-Mont Camerata Chorus,” the LMHS Teacher Band, “Staff Infection,” or working at her new adventure of songwriting!  She’s a Bikram Yoga Instructor and loves to laugh, spend time with friends and family, and play with her dog Lala! You can reach out to her here: [email protected]