The Fitzroy Valley New Music Project #3 Week 3

This blog post of week 3 is written by Gillian Howell – Tura’s current Musician in Residence in Fitzroy Crossing, Kimberley, WA. This is part of a three year program supported by Healthway, promoting the Act-Belong-Commit message, and The Ian Potter Foundation.

Week 3: Songwriting as voice

For this second 2018 residency in Fitzroy Crossing I’ve had an underpinning theme of ‘voice’. I wanted to explore the idea of voice both literally (developing students’ singing voices, encouraging them to explore, enjoy, and celebrate the sound of their voices) and metaphorically, where finding one’s voice, raising it, using it to claim rights, tell truths, or express something meaningful is a source of power. The theme was occasionally a prompt for discussions, but more often it was an underpinning principle.

Voice also supports the Act-Belong-Commit message embedded throughout this residency. Songwriting – whether undertaken individually, in small groups, or as a class – is a creative experience and journey. It embraces personal motivation and impetus (‘act’), focus for collaboration (‘belong’) and is a powerful vehicle for expressing your ideas or concerns and raising your voice about something that matters to you and therefore is meaningful (‘commit’).

Given this theme and associated messages, it was particularly satisfying to witness an increasing interest in songwriting among the students over the course of the residency. Pairs of students began to approach me, asking for my help with songs they had started to write. We would meet at recess or after school. I helped them organise their ideas into verse and chorus structures, to think about syllable counts in order to make their words and messages fit within the established phrase lengths, and to improvise melodic shapes. Some of the songwriters had very clear ideas, with lyrics mostly written and a strong sense of the musical phrasing and likely accompaniment. Others were still figuring some of this out but knew what they wanted their song to be about.

One Grade 3 girl wrote a song encouraging an unnamed other to acknowledge her/his strengths and ability to shine:

In the night you’re very bright

In the daylight you’re quite shy

I think you should face your fear

And we’ll give out a great big cheer.

You shine too, you shine too, you shine too.

Shine with me and I will shine with you.

Another Grade 3 girl came to me with a desire to write about clouds and their journeys and ‘graceful dancing in the sky’. She confided that when she is very stressed, she likes to lie on her back and watch the clouds. This song was more dreamy in feel, and switched between talking to the clouds and talking about clouds and her life.

Two Year 7 girls approached me with a song they had started to write as part of a ‘personal project’. (FVDHS is a Big Picture Learning school, and students spend time each day on nominated personal projects, which can be research- or creative-based, or both). The song was angry and direct, called “Stop That” and directed towards adults in their community that they were telling to stop drinking, smoking, and fighting. The first day we met, I gave them some ideas about how they could organise all their different ideas for lyrics into themes or topics, with each one becoming a possible verse.

The next day, they came to me with four printed copies of their lyrics (“one for each of us, one for you, and a spare” – they are very organised). We worked on developing some musical accompaniment for it and tightening some of the musical phrasing (reducing the syllable count in some lines, and finding more economic ways to give the same message). These students hadn’t yet heard of my ‘voice’ theme because I hadn’t been working directly with their classes, but nevertheless included lines like this:

You should hear my voice, I changed everything.

If you can hear my voice, you can make the right choice.

When combined with the songs that have been written in previous residencies, we are fast developing a ‘Fitzroy Valley Songbook’ as one of the outcomes of this three-year residency.

Week 3: Don’t stop the flow

During this second residency for 2018, I spent a lot of time with the Year 8 class. Initially, I thought we might create a song-and-soundscape project about the power of collective voices, using the 1946 Pilbara Walk-Off and Strike as a thematic starting point. However, conversations with the class shifted the focus to their concerns about the environment, and issues concerning plastic waste and rubbish disposal more specifically.

Don’t Stop the Flow brainstorm board

We brainstormed lyrics on the whiteboard, and individuals then used these ideas to write verses and a chorus. As the song emerged, it was clear that the verses were going to be a rap, but the chorus would be sung. One girl wrote a set of lines that were a perfect sung chorus:

Don’t stop the flow

Pick up your rubbish

Don’t stop the flow

Chuck it in the bin

Don’t stop the flow

It’s bad for the environment

Don’t stop the flow

Stop the rubbish.

According to researchers I met with from the Australian Rivers Institute, currently undertaking a cultural value study of the Fitzroy River, the concept of ‘flow’ is particularly salient. Flow can refer to the movement of water through the river system, where it is an indicator of the river’s health. But it is also a concept relating to human wellbeing and health. In the local languages, the word that translates into ‘flow’ with regard to the river is the same word that is used to describe particular states of wellbeing. Because of this, the researchers were excited that ‘flow’ had been such a central theme in our songwriting. It captured a concept of high local cultural value that communicates concern for more than the river itself.

I set up a backing track using GarageBand, and the students and I spent a couple of days recording all the vocals. The young songwriters selected which lines they wanted to sing/rap, sometimes changing the lyrics to words that suited them better, a sign of the collective ownership that they felt over the song.