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Jordan Luck and Stu Green - Picture Jason Hailes
Forty percent of songwriters entering a secondary schools songwriting competition don’t take Music as a subject. Mike and Barney Chunn explore why.

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By Mike and Barney Chunn

In the last blog we mentioned that Lorde (still Top 10 in the NZ singles charts) doesn’t take music as a subject at her school. Running beside this is an interesting statistic: 40 percent of the songwriters entering the Lion Foundation secondary schools songwriting competition don’t take Music as a subject either. Why is this?

The general anecdotal feedback we get is – songwriting isn’t encouraged at their school. Often it isn’t even noticed. So it’s pursued in their own time. What’s interesting though is the increased queries to Play It Strange from parents who see songwriting and recording as exciting pursuits for their proactive offspring.

One parent recently rang me (Mike) and talked of her lobbying her school (a private decile 10 school) for a recording studio so songwriting students there could pursue their passion. She was told it would be at least five years away. She then told me how much the school spends on sporting infrastructure and equipment every year…. a figure that could purchase five recording studios. 

There are schools, however, that are building a strong songwriting culture, where students taking Music write songs and record them.

Hauraki Plains College in Ngatea – a school with a roll of only 672 – is one such school. The HOD Music Stu Green had this to say about songwriting in a future curriculum:

‘I have talked to some teachers who feel there even might be room for a separate song writing standard that could solve some of the issues around the difference between more traditional notation based compositions and studio recorded songs with less of an emphasis on notation.  Teaching and assessing song writing using the current composition standards can sometimes feel like we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Traditional composition and song writing can have very different approaches.’

For those who wonder at what ‘traditional notation’ is, think sheet music.  This notation is how compositions (instrumental pieces in the main) are presented. It might be a string quartet, a piano sonata, an instrumental guitar piece.

‘Studio recorded’ songs? Well, all of our society hears studio-recorded songs every day. Radio, television, iTunes, Spotify, the tens of thousands of iPods and stereo players in NZ and more all disseminate recorded songs.

When an iconic songwriter such as Annah Mac, Jordan Luck et al present a new song to fellow musicians to play, it is either strummed out face-to-face or handed over in recorded form as a ‘demo’. Then when it is eventually ‘notated’ for permanent public release it is also in a (more professionally presented) recorded form. It is not issued out as sheet music. Sheet music doesn’t portray evocative sounds, colour, emotional connection, distortion, reverbs and so on.

It is the recording of songs that interests and excites the emerging singer/songwriters of New Zealand and hence, schools that have no recording facilities or focus on songwriting are the ones where a contemporary culture of popular song fails to ignite.

As Stu Green said above – ‘Teaching and assessing song writing using the current composition standards can sometimes feel like we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.’

Recently a music teacher had students write their original songs in an arrangement for a string ensemble rather than a ‘verse-chorus’ form. The idea here being that the ‘challenge’ therein was a positive step in harmony, structure and complexity. This kind of deflection from the time-honoured structure of pop shows a lack of understanding of the depth of possibilities within that form. Rather than ‘fit a square peg in a round hole’; rather than develop skills and talents in a form that students don’t connect with on an everyday basis, there is the opportunity to draw out so much more from these students, if they have an avenue to develop and record their chosen craft.

A music teacher with a true understanding of the craft of writing songs would know that writing a GOOD pop song is very difficult. Rather than dismiss the genre, surely the preference would be to have students that evolve, mature and finally excel in the craft.

And parallel with this should be a focus on ‘life after school’ in recording songs as the future opportunities of employment in the music industry will be far more aligned to recording studio skills than in writing out scores and manuscripts.

So 40 percent of the school songwriters entering the Play It Strange songwriting competitions don’t take Music as a subject. Should there be a subject they could take in which they can advance their skills and find an environment in which feedback and performance provide for them a rewarding, motivating and upskilling path?

Let’s meet again in the next blog and talk about these things.

Written by

Mike Chunn

8 Apr 2013

Interests Mike Chunn has worked with original songs all his life from his days with Split Enz and Citizen Band through Mushroom Records (Dance Exponents and DD Smash) to eleven years as Director of Operations for APRA.