And What They Have To Say May Surprise You
Bert Ambrose Elementary School is located in Fort St John, B.C. This energetic city once claimed to be the Arts Capital of Northern British Columbia and in the fall of 2016 it was the location for the most ambitious school songwriting schedules I have ever been part of. I’m happy I lived to tell the tale and be able to share some excerpts, as students describe the songwriting experience in their own words.
Here’s Our Production Schedule And How We Organized The Week
There are approximately 350 students at Ambrose from K-G6. Over the course of one week, I worked with 6 different classes to write 6 original songs, in addition to working with a 7th class doing filmmaking. This was an unprecedented production schedule, and frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone! I typically write one song in a week as I work with all the students in a school, and this is in itself incredibly ambitious. So it wasn’t until I actually got to the school on Monday morning that I realized what I’d agreed to. For you songwriters out there, imagine writing, recording and performing 6 original songs in 5 days with 200 trained professional musicians…it would be madness right! Well, this project involved writing original music with 200 elementary students. I would record the melodies and chord progressions of the songs on my phone so that I could listen to the melody walking down the hall from one room to the next. Each song was completely different, so keeping the melodies and chords and lyrics straight was a challenge. So if you hear me talk about the value of taking creative risks, I want you to know that I definitely walk the talk.
I’ve had the privilege of working at Ambrose for a number of years in a row, and it has let me develop great working relationships with many of the teachers. After the week was over, I got an email from Paula London, who teaches Grade 5 & 6. She let me know that students in her class write blogs, and she gave me access (and the student’s permission) to go read the blog entries they’d written on Friday afternoon immediately following the general assembly where they had just performed and recorded the song we wrote together. The following excerpts are written by the students. I want to share their observations because sometimes I think it’s easy for creative people to forget how amazing the process of being creative is.
I’ve spent my life writing and playing music on stage and in the studio with other people. And while I love it and appreciate it, I can’t honestly say I always recognize what a miracle it is, and how amazing it is to create something original with a group of people.
Students Describing The Creative Process
Jordyn – Having Rik come to our school to write a song with us this week was great! On day 1 we started getting some ideas from students in the class about fair play. On day 2 everyone wrote a small story telling about something that happened in their life or just making it up. Then we gave them to Rik to inspire some ideas for the lyrics of our song. On day 3 we pretty much had a song written we just needed to edit. On day 4 our class practiced singing the song together and in the right melody. And on day 5 our class sang the song in the assembly to the school. Rik is a very awesome guy! If you have him at your school, I bet will be a really great week!
Dane – Rik and us have been working on a song and it’s really cool. We started by just getting into groups and just writing ideas of what we should put into our song. Second we started going through the ideas and making a song. Third we started to go through the song and read it. Fourth we started singing and practicing. Last we started perfecting it and keep on singing it and start to get ready to sing In front of the whole school. Thanks for listening.
What Did You Want To Write About?
Jaci – Hey everyone I’m writing about our visit from Rik Leaf this week at Bert Ambrose School. First, we planned a really cool song and it’s about Fair Play and it has lots of cool ways to explain what fair play is. Second, we started to write the song and we added more things as we made it. It was the best experience I ever had.
Emma – I am telling the story from Mrs. London class. The first day Rik walked in the door we were all excited to get started. We had already figured that we were writing a song. Now this song was going to be not any ordinary song, it was going to be a song about fair play. During the week we wrote and practiced. Today is the day we present the whole song to the school. My classmates are very nervous but also excited to share our creation.
How Does It Feel To Write A Song?
Arianna – This past week Bert Ambrose elementary was very fortunate to have an amazing poet named Rik Leaf. He went to every classroom around the school telling kids and teachers stories and writing songs! The faces of happiness when he walks in the room. When he leaves the class everyone waves and says bye Rik! After that, we have to do something quiet so Mrs. London can calm us down. Just because Rik gets us so excited! He doesn’t say, this is my song, he says what do you want to do cause this is your song! He is always so excited and has a happy and free spirit.
Mika – The Rik Leaf Experience! On a normal Monday at Bert Ambrose school someone popped through the door and said, “We’re gonna write songs together!” So we started working and came up with ideas. That’s when we had! The most amazing song ever written. We all practiced and practiced until it was Friday and we had to sing it in front of the whole school! Everyone freaked out because we didn’t think we were ready. That’s when Rik said, “let’s practice one more Time!” So we practiced and nailed it. We got ready and sang our hearts out in front of the school. The school loved it! The school wanted to learn it right away and they did.
Jessie – The past week at Bert Ambrose has been extremely exciting. The children have had the whole week to spend with Rik Leaf and they created amazing songs. When the kids get to sing their song they have so much adrenaline running through their little bodies that they are almost jumping up and down. So if your school is looking for a singer/artist to teach you class or school how to make a song you should pick Rik Leaf!
What Are Students Saying About Their Experience?
Jackson – Good morning everybody my name is Jackson and I am going to be your news reporter for today. It is 11:24 in the morning here and we have breaking news! A class in Fort St. John just had CELEBRITY Rik Leaf come to their school and write a song with them. One of the kids in the class said, “We had a blast writing the song!” Another said, “We loved making the song with Rik he is so fun and energetic.” That’s what some of the kids said and I think they had a great time working with him.
By now you’re probably dying to know what the finished song sounded like when this class performed in front of the school. We liked the idea of someone from the class introducing the song to the school before we performed it. To let the other students know what the song was about and why the class had decided to write about that topic. In the case of, Fair Play, this is a subject that affects students every day, and I think it just made the assembly and the performance of the song that much more meaningful.
We all love being in a situation where we can be part of creating something fun and original. Something like songwriting is cool and lets us discover more about ourselves, and hopefully how we fit with those around us. That is certainly a good description of my own experience writing songs with other people and the inspiration behind this songwriting series in schools.
The Combination of Vulnerability & Confidence
There is a really interesting combination of vulnerability and confidence that comes from sharing the creative process with others. I find creativity blurs the edges of the broad brushstrokes we use to define ourselves and others. When you’re being creative it honestly doesn’t matter if you’re a jock or a dork, or a dorky jock…because it’s a moment of connection, that connects our mind, body, and spirit, but also connects us to others. If your class or your school is dealing with intolerance, lack of acceptance, bigotry, racism or bullying, a creative project like this can be an incredibly powerful agent of change.
When we start writing a song, we have to break the initial moment of inspiration down into words that can work as lyrics. When I walked into the room this class knew that they wanted to write a song about fair play. So that’s where we started. At that point in the process, my role is to ask questions, things like, what is fair play? Do you have a personal story where someone did or didn’t play fair? How did that make you feel? Why is it important? This is a quick photo of the whiteboard at the end of our first brainstorming session.
Creativity and the Point of Connection
I find inspiration always has an emotional point of connection for me. Inspiration seems to live in close proximity to imagination, which is where we need to be as songwriters when we are creating something out of nothing. We’re not revamping and old idea, we are leaving the shore and paddling into uncharted territory searching for something totally new. And in addition to connecting our spirit and mind, music physically connects us with our bodies, our vocal cords, or maybe through dance or actions in song. And a song that connects our mind, body and spirit has incredible potential to move us emotionally and spiritually. That’s when a song can talk about things that make us dream and hope of being better than we’ve ever been. Of being the change we’ve never seen. Students start to imagine solutions to problems like bullying or people not playing fair…and it happens in songwriting sessions all the time.
Finding Our Voice & What We Are For
That’s why I really loved reading how these students described the energy and excitement, as well as the process of writing Fair Play. Lots of times we can get into a habit of describing what we’re against. We’re anti-bullying, anti-exclusion, anti this, that and the other thing. But what are we for? That’s where creativity comes in. Cause it draws us in, it makes a space to come together and create something bigger and better than any of us could on our own.
I might be the ‘professional’ in a school songwriting session, but that doesn’t mean I’m more important than anyone else… when we’re being creative together, we’re all equal. Because everyone has a story. You might be 10 years old, or 40 or 80, but no matter how old you are, you have your own story. We’ve all experience success, we’ve all experienced failure. We’ve all had people say mean things to us and other people who have said really encouraging and inspiring things. We know what that feels like and age does not qualify or disqualify anyone. Everyone’s story is important. Certainly, your story is important for you, but it’s also important for those around you. Because it informs your perspective. The best lyrics in a song about bullying are going to come from a student who has been bullied. Someone who is vulnerable enough to channel their experience and their story into the creation of a song is going to find a confidence and a strength. They will inspire themselves and those around them.
Roots of Empathy
In almost every school I go into, I see a sign in the hall that says, Roots of Empathy. In my humble opinion (and experience) there is almost nothing better for teaching the roots of empathy, than a creative project like this. Because we all need a safe place to take a creative risk and try to do or be or say something we’ve never done before. I don’t care who you are, if you take that risk, you know that scary feeling. Offering a lyric. Trying to sing a melody. Suggesting a phrase or maybe a different groove or an action for the song. Whatever it is, being creative requires vulnerability, and that teaches the roots of empathy and compassion. It’s the perfect training ground to treat others the way we want to be treated and be the change we want to see in the world.
Songs From Schools
Fair Play is one of the most recent songs that has come out of a school songwriting session. If you’re interested, you can listen/download to a brand new album of Songs From Schools that has just been released called, Listen to our Story/Ecoutez Notre Histoire. It features English, French and First Nations students from across Canada.
Hi, my name is Rik Leaf. I love everything I get to do as a recording artist, producer, slam poet, and writer. But I particularly enjoy working with schools and communities where I can empower and encourage students by helping them discover the unique opportunities their talents, interests, and abilities can provide. Songs From Schools is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been part of!