The Art of Songwriting, and How Kids Can Get Started by Laurel Nakai
Music has always been a big part of how I express myself. As a young child, I used to sing the Sesame Street song on the playground at the top of my lungs, and I spent countless hours listening to my mother’s records of Broadway musicals. I wrote poetry, and I loved to read and write stories. I always approach songwriting like a form of poetry. It’s storytelling, just with a different set of tools. I learned to play the clarinet in 4th grade, but it was when I picked up the guitar at 13 that the words and music came together. It became my go-to form of self-expression.
Even now, when I am feeling sad or trying to make sense of something I don’t understand, I sing about it. I find the right notes and phrases to express what I’m feeling. That was a lifesaver for me growing up. It allowed me to explore myself and my world through all of the ups and downs of adolescence. Music is amazing that way, and so are all forms of art. I think it’s so important, especially for kids, to have that kind of outlet.
Tips on Getting Started:
If you want to be a writer, read. If you want to be a songwriter, listen. Listen to as much music as you can. Learn how to play your favorite songs. Try to figure out why they resonate with you and how you can replicate that feeling. Every musician starts out playing covers. We learn from the greats that have come before us, whether it’s Beethoven or The Beatles.
- Keep a notebook, or recording device with you to capture sudden inspirations. Melodies or phrases often come to me while I’m driving, so if I’m able to, I will record myself on my phone. If not, I just keep singing over and over until I am able to write it down. I once wrote almost an entire song this way while stuck in traffic! I have also had the opposite happen, where I think of something great, but then don’t write it down or record it, and it gets lost forever. You never know when inspiration will strike, so be ready!
- Practice with friends. Collaborating with friends is a great way to get started and take the pressure off. You might find that you are better at writing lyrics than making musical arrangements, or the other way around. Working with others, either in a band or co-writing, helps us learn from each other. It’s also way more fun, and a little less scary, to get up on stage with someone else.
Speaking of getting on stage…
Learn to harness your stage fright.
If you’ve got a major dose of stage fright, you are not alone! Some of the most famous, A-list performers, still get stage fright. I have always thought of stage fright as a natural response. My body is flooded with adrenaline, and I can either freeze up in the face of that, or I can harness that energy and put it into my performance. I try to imagine the adrenaline filling up my body, not as fear, but as strength and confidence. That’s a pretty metaphysical thought, but I have some practical tips, too:
Do a ritual. Many performers have rituals they do before going on stage. Some do breathing exercises, some gather in a prayer circle with their team, some have special objects that they carry or foods that they eat. Maybe it’s just a superstition, but I think anything that helps calm you can be a way of tricking your body out of that fear response.
- Sing to the wall. Find a spot on the back wall (a clock, a poster, a crack) and perform to that. This will help you tune out other distractions, like all those people in the audience!
- The show must go on. I’m about to tell you my most embarrassing moment. I was 12, and I was doing a dance with a friend in front of her church. In the middle of the song, my skirt fell down. It was mortifying. I ran off stage, pulled my skirt back on and jumped back into the routine. I’ll never forget that performance, and I’ll never forget all the people who came up afterwards telling me how brave I was to keep going. We all fear making mistakes. Nine times out of ten, the audience won’t notice if you just keep going. Even when they do, if you can laugh it off, the audience will be forgiving, maybe even call you brave. You’ll also remember to bring extra safety pins for your costume next time!
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to start out. Get a used, but good quality, instrument and use your phone or computer to record. There are lots of apps and programs out there like Garageband that make it easy to play around with sound recording. Still, I do most of my initial writing with just my guitar and a pen and paper.
Most of all, write what you are passionate about. So many songs have the same themes— love, loss, overcoming adversity— but we all have unique ways of telling those stories. We need your unique voice and your music, so keep singing!
Laurel Nakai is a singer-songwriter and children’s author. You can find original songs, parodies, and Songwriting 101 videos, on her YouTube Channel SongBird. She is also a team member for KidLit TV where she contributes music for theme songs and special projects. Find out more on her website, and connect with her on facebook, and twitter.
Other Resources to check out:
SoundCloud– Soundcloud is a great place to find new music, as well as connect with some established artists. You can upload your own sounds and find followers there, keep them private, or post them on your own website or social media.
Little Kids Rock– a non-profit organization that teaches music to kids and provides schools with resources for music education. Their website features lots of resources for kids and educators including lessons, games, and video. Their YouTube channel also features inspiring videos including kid songwriters performing their original works.
Acappella App– An app that allows you to make acappella videos (the ones where the same person sings all the parts). It’s fun to experiment and play around with. You can keep your videos private or share them with the social media feature. There is also a collaborative feature that lets you contribute to other people’s videos.
HitRecord- If you’re looking for collaboration, HitRecord is a production company started by actor Joseph Gordon Levitt with an interactive twist on creating. People can post and use each other’s work to make unique creations. For instance, a songwriter might write a song to someone’s or an artist might draw illustrations for another person’s story. There are even ways to get paid if some of your work is used. If nothing else though, it’s a haven for creative people and ideas.