Port Moody Youth Arts Festival Songwriting Workshop


A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.

I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.

The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.

Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.

As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.

The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.

I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project,  the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.

They all rose mightily to the occasion.

Carrying Stones

Voyageur at Unplug'd 2012
Photo by @cogdog

I arrived at Unpludg this year without a finished draft of my letter.

Either out of procrastination or by an unconscious but deliberate choice, I made the journey east resolved to not panic about not having completed my draft and to try my best to remain open to the vibrations of the moment over the course of the weekend, to soak the experience in, and use the time set aside for peer editing with my group to finish the song.

Our songwriter, Bryan

Earlier in the week, I had sat at my kitchen table looking out over Burrard Inlet strumming the familiar opening chords of G major, D, and C, singing I’m gonna write myself a letter…  until I settled on the opening groove of the song. Pretty quickly I had scribbled down the opening two verses and had a chorus that scratched at a theme of a collective voice emerging from so many individual journeys out toward the Edge.

My own curiosity about this year’s event, now expanded to include international participants, centered around what a diverse selection of passionate educators (to quote Rob Fisher from last year, “People who care about education so much it hurts.”) might create in a mosaic of their voices. Last year this had seemed easier, as our focus was the ‘limited’ prospect of a Canadian identity, and I wondered what my role would be an a conversation about about a more diverse voice.

UnPlug'd 2012 Visual Notes

@giuliaforsythe's visual notes

It wasn’t that Unplugd this year wasn’t still a heartily Canadian affair, with Ontario and educators from across Canada, not to mention the Edge hosts and Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar, playing a role in welcoming our friends and colleagues from the United States and Australia. Thursday night’s reception in Toronto, culminating in a presentation from Jowi Taylor about his journey to collect the artifacts composing Voyageur, a guitar made up of mythically charged Canadiana – Trudeau’s canoe paddle, the Golden Spruce, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup Ring – provided an opportunity for the story of the guitar to begin the weekend’s conversation about people and place.

Being asked to play a song on Voyageur was an honour that was both invigorating and daunting, as I knew in some ways the performance would serve as a sort of host’s welcome to our international friends and local guests. But I had little idea the emotional weight such a guitar could bear. And when the story of Jowi’s journey to have the Voyageur built wound to a close, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having my voice, and my words, spoken through this mystical object, joining in the chorus of the pieces making up the guitar, as well as the thousands of people who have held it in their hands, and contemplated their own relationship to the country and one another through the songs Voyageur has helped them sing and hear.

Needing a few minutes to settle myself at the front of the room and hopefully provide some context for the song I had chosen to sing, I talked about the idea of Canadian soul homes, and that truths are woven in places where people are living, as Martha reminded us in this year’s opening circle, “at the pace of creation.” I had arrived in Toronto the day before having brought a stone I picked up in the estuary of Noon’s Creek near my house, a barnacle encrusted river rock forged a hundred million years ago in  Heritage Mountain that now lolled in my neighbourhood’s high tides. Thinking about how I’d found the stone earlier in the week on a low neep tide that in the fall will be carrying streams of salmon home to spawn in the creeks where they were born, and that I was now being given the opportunity to make music by playing notes that would resonate through the sacred wood of the Golden Spruce struck me as especially moving in that moment.

 

 

As it turned out, leaving my letter unfinished was the right choice.

I think about writing songs a little like archaeology: once the hook – a riff, lyric or chorus – is discovered, the rest of the song is usually nearby, obscured just below the surface of sedimentary dust. They are like puzzles, where a songwriter creates an opening image, or symbol, builds upon that theme by creation tension (either literally or musically), and then resolves that tension for their audience.

Going into the weekend, I had written the first two verses and a chorus for my letter-song, but couldn’t have written the third verse (the resolution) before Thursday night, or the rest of Unplug’d had played out. The tension of the song was created out of my own question about the experience: what would this group come together to say? I would need to write the song, and capture it, from the middle of the experience.

Writing a song on Voyageur

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

The rest of the Unplug’d participants helped set it to music.

You can continue to join in the song by playing along to the lyrics and chords I’ve posted here.

Early Demos from My New Fake Band

In a few different broadcasts over the past year, I’ve messed around with some of the various filters and effects available with the free version of Nicecast and found its dials and visual interface both a lot of fun and helpful in the makeshift studios I’ve set up in my classrooms and house.

With a new one-man-band on the horizon, an extension of a #ds106 Visual Assignment, I turned to Nicecast and recorded a live session that yielded the following tracks. Ladies and gentlemen of Camp Magic Macguffin, I give you Dactyloceras lucina!

Not generally in my “wheelhouse of sound,” I was going after a certain, heavy, atmospheric texture that seemed appropriate for my randomly generated band name and album cover. “Goth soul,” Alan Levine calls it, which GNA Garcia clarifies as “rhythmic Emo-noise,” which is what I think I managed to create.

Dactyloceras lucina – Untitled Jam 1 by Bryanjack The stupidity that keeps us from knowing any better by Bryanjack

Theater of Wild

DSC02050 Theater of Wild by Bryanjack

The year before I graduated university, I spent six weeks working as an assistant aquatics director at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, in Arkansas. An internship component of an academic scholarship I had won the previous year, I spent that summer sleeping in a canvas tent under the watchful eye of the Airforce National Guard, who used to use our pool and lakes as laser-target practice for their C-130 bombers, and living immersed in the particular strain of Americana that spends its weekends and vacations marching to chanted troop slogans, saluting the flag and praying before meals.

I had been a transplanted Canadian in the south for three years, running on a track and field scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and had made a place for myself among the urban college scenes of Little Rock and Fayetteville, acquainted myself with Memphis, New Orleanes, and the dirty-vegas facsimile of Tunica, Mississippi. But this was my first prolonged excursion into the wilds outside of town, and after four years in Little Rock, quickly became what I still consider my southern home (I returned to the camp as Aquatics Director the following two summers).

The friends I made in those woods, and the things that the Quawpaw scouting community taught me about myself and the world and my fellow man were a culmination of my university education, and a perfect synthesis of my British Columbian and southern roots, where we would be swimming lengths before dawn in the mist of the pool, and watching heat lighting accompanied by the buzz of cicadas. It is all much more than I can hope to capture in words: a densely peopled time in my life that left such deep marks upon my heart and mind that without any deliberate effort the characters from these stories continue to create my daily life and living.

We’ve talked a lot in TALONS the last few weeks (or I have at least) about the Precious, an unspeakable love and adoration the classroom community passes in held hands and knowing glances, in laughter and tears, a bond and affinity that stems from a flowering seam of wilderness and wild that the Gus Blass Scout Reservation helped light in me those many years ago now, and which I will never forget.

Poetry is Nothing

A few weeks ago I saw a post by my “Internet-twin” Jabiz Raisdana that included a few photos and a poem beginning, Poetry is Nothing…

Poetry is nothing… – Based on a poem by Jabiz Raisdana by Bryanjack

As I’ve had inspiration to do a few times before, I took Jabiz’ lines and picked up my guitar, began strumming a few chords, and almost immediately had the thread of a melody line to fit with the first stanza. Within a half hour, I had recorded a demo of the song, and sent it back to Jabiz.

This week, the poem continues to lengthen its tail, as I’ve introduced it to my guitar class.

Learning in Public

You can view the continued installments here: Day 3, Day 6.

It’s been said and discussed often here and many places that a real shift for educators is moving from teacher to learner. Not so much moving, we still need teachers, expertise matters but until we see ourselves as learners and intentionally show are students we can’t be the educator our students need us to be. The Learning Project

I have been following Dean Shareski‘s recent drive to learn guitar as part of his work with preservice teachers in Saskatchewan, and thought I would extend my support of his Learning Project into my own instruction (of guitar) by making it a goal to learn to play the Pearl Jam song, “Daughter.

My students are working toward a performance next week, and as a challenge to them to use their class time until them to make the best performance possible, I vowed to work out the rhythm and intricacies of a song that – for the moment – is beyond my grasp as a musician, and plan to document my progress (and presentation) here, and on Youtube.

As it is pretty serendipitous that he is doing it at the exact same time, I’m amending this post to include reference to Alan Levine’s efforts to share his journey in learning how to play the harmonica. Alan points to four things he admires about the process Dean kicked off:

  • As a teacher, he is doing the same project he is asking his students to do. I cannot say how powerful this is, it is the thing Jim Groom has done all along in his digital storytelling courses (even before ds106) and was something I always respected Barbara Ganley for doing when she was teaching writing at Middlebury College. This changes the entire student/teacher dynamic.
  • Learning is happening in public. Dean is showing the example of examining what he is doing by putting it out in public. Not the final project, but the process. This ought to happen all the time.
  • The network is providing People are responding to his posts with suggestions, resources. etc.
  • Narrate the process doing this in video makes you reflect to an audience, but more importantly yourself. As you progress, the videos should chart your progress (can someone say “assessment”?)

Thanks to  @DrGarcia for connecting the dots and helping the learning continue.

Vote for finalists in the Write Gleneagle's Anthem Contest

Watch the video above to hear the songs & match them with their composers below:

You can listen, and download each of the songs on Gleneagle Music’s SoundCloud page:

Saskatchewan Street Poetry

My sister saw this poem scrawled on a wall in Saskatoon in the summer of 2010, and shared it with us when she got back. I copied it down and carried it around in a journal for a few months before turning it into this song:

Graffiti

Grafitti by Bryanjack

Sharing in whim

I know teachers tend to throw out mixed messages, “Be open, share. Be careful, be scared.” This could be an authentic real world experience to create something beautiful with a larger group of people than those within our immediate community. (I invite other teachers to share this Flickr set and this post to see where it can go. Ask your class to leave poems, stories, haikus, comments anything. Maybe we can write a book, record an album…)

There are many things we can do with the images, the words, the connection. I hope that at least a few of you will share a few ideas in the comments below. I don’t know who will respond, but that is the beauty of sharing in whim 1, if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

The above photos were shared on Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with an invitation to Zach Chase‘s students to join into the fun with the proposition that if enough comments, poems, phrases and inspiration and were left on the photos, Jabiz would write them into a song that he would share for future mashup, remixes, or…?

What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up! Stones by intrepidflame

And while I mightn’t have “tore it up,” or reinvented any of what had previously been created or recorded, I sat at my kitchen counter after work on Friday, donned a set of headphones, and spent the better part of an hour adding my own voice to a project spanning both North American coasts that had gained its initial motivation and impetus from an unmet friend in Jakarta, Indonesia. In kind I offer my own addition to the project in the hopes that it inspires others to lend their own creativity, perspective, and voice to collaborative expression that would have unthinkable even five years ago (to me, anyway), but is today the sort of thing that can be accomplished on a Friday afternoon, between work and dinner.

My contribution:

Stones by Bryanjack

We’ve been talking about the benefits – personal and collective – that come with sharing a lot this week in the Talons class. Seeking an elusive objectivity in media and student reflections on the recent tumult in Egypt and across the Middle East, the class has moved past a definition of the (capital ‘T’) Truth which linearly separates Right & Wrong, or Truth & Lie, to an understanding that we can only know what we might collectively deign in shared exploration, conversation and reflection, and that this process must be ongoing.

This week we blogged, commented, argued, challenged one another, and constructed our own understanding out of the pieces of media, and truths, we could piece together in posts and a collection of quotes spanning student and journalists’ words, musical evocations, and the frozen images of photographs from halfway across the world.

Yesterday we distilled some of the more potent aspects of these expressions in a Typewith.me page that we hope to continue to shape, sculpt and share in the coming weeks, as a first experiment in working with the web as not only a research and publishing platform, but collaborative space wherein there are few, if any, limits.

We invite you (Mr. Chase’s class, Jabiz’ students, and the rest of you out there) to join in this conversation: comment on our blogs, highlight or share some words that resonate with you about the power of the collective and the human will toward freedom, or take the discussion to the next level.

Share, and be vulnerable: it may just be what we’re here for.

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love ourselves with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee; to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this, just to be able to stop and instead of catastophizing what might happen just to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable is to feel alive?'”

If it is true, what Liam wrote yesterday, that, “Collective will is the most powerful force in the universe,” then we are truly onto something here. Let’s keep it going.

Today, Zach Chase writes, looking back on what a week it’s been, is the day you jump in and create something.

  1. Bryan’s note: this is so the title of the book / album / movie.