[HOW TO] Write a song with young people

How we wrote ‘Make it on my own’ by Michael Davidson,  Hertfordshire Music Service 

hall with instruments

‘Make it on my own’ was written at one of the first song-writing workshops HMS ran in June 2003. This took place at Broxbourne Music Centre, which was then based at council offices in Cheshunt. The workshop was attended by an entire GCSE music class from Sheredes school, Hoddesdon ( now Robert Barclay Academy) 

You can hear the track at https://soundcloud.com/michael-davidson-74/make-it-on-my-own 

The group 

The 13 young people were divided into groups to work with tutors in different rooms around the centre. 

The group I worked with was formed of young people of wide range of instruments and abilities, aged 14-15. A keyboard player who just played simple melodies, a grade 3- ish flute player, and a singer. 

We began working in one room at a piano, starting by finding common musical reference points. The singer new some Motown tracks through here parents which offered a start. 

Chords 

We taught the keyboard player chords, beginning by getting him to play a C major scale, and showing how to form a C chord, with the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes in the scale. 

We encouraged him to play it with syncopation to make it more interesting, and to play a low C in his left hand 

Next, we invited him to change the low C to Am on the syncopated note, retaining the C major chord to make an Am7, and to cycle between this and C. 

Next, we showed him how to play an F chord with his right hand with the same rhythm as before, and to use D and G for the bass notes.  

This gave us our C Am7, Dm7 and F/G chord sequence that would form the basis of the song.  

Melody and Lyrics 

We encouraged the singer to improvise with stepwise notes over the chord pattern, and to start ahead of the beat to create momentum.  Using rising and descending notes helped her create a question and answer structure in the verse melody.  

As well as an upbeat, and syncopated backbeat and altered chords. The Motown common ground had suggested an assertive lyric, so I started singing ‘Make it on my own’ as a chorus. 

The words suggested a different syncopation to the verse, and the singer said she liked this and quickly joined in. 

We found that varying the start note and syncopation from the verse meant we could use the same backing chords and rhythm as the verse, and still have enough variety. 

Slowly she began adding words to fit the mood of the verse melody, everyone started to chip into this to create lyrics for two verses. 

Middle Eight, and Intro 

For variety we encouraged the keyboard player to form Fmajor7, Em7 and Dm7 and to use them to form a descending syncopated run. We decided to make this an instrumental break to feature the flute player, who improvised a simple line. This section then doubled as an introduction to the whole song. 

Performance 

At the end of the day all the groups gathered together in the hall to share what each other, teachers and parents what each had written. I and the other workshop leaders ( a bass player and a drummer) played along to scaffold the performance. 

Reflection 

On reflection we could have developed a more varied flute part, to create more interest, and challenge for the player, but I was pleased how far we progressed the pupils in a day, and that we managed to get a good quality song , performance and recording from a mixed ability group. The day got highly positive feedback from the school teacher, which delighted the head of service, John Witchell.  

We went on to use ‘Make it on my own’ to demonstrate Song-writing practice, both when training other teachers, and as part of the songwriting element of Musical Futures, when it ran in Hertfordshire. Encouraging pupils to suggest their own listening as an intitial reference point would better enable pupil voice, and would be more practical now, with easier pupil access to the internet via mobile technology. 

Recording on a mini disc player produced an over-compressed sound. Better access to technology now would enable close mic-ing an multi-tracking, for later production and mixing. 

Changing Tracks is a programme of peer support and learning for and with music services wanting to improve equality, diversity and inclusion. It is run by Hertfordshire Music Service and funded by Youth Music as part of the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England. It was previously called MusicNet East. We help music services to be more inclusive by providing a peer network facilitated by Music Mark, funding for action research, support and challenge, advice and resources.

Find out more about us, or check out the other resources and blogs on this site for more help for music services, or visit the AMIE Musical Inclusion Resource Hub for more inclusion tools and guidance, blogs, videos, and case studies, to help you break down barriers to music-making.

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