“If you have a story you want to tell, write a song.”
The advice was from performing artist Amy Fogerson of the Voices Within artistic team. Based on their November 15th Culmination Performance, the fourth and fifth grade students of Mount Washington Elementary definitely took her advice to heart.
With the history of communication as their theme, the students sang about drum signals, the Pony Express, Morse Code, the telephone, sign language and the Internet. All of the songs were composed by the students during Voices Within: the Los Angeles Master Chorale's (LAMC) award-winning 10-week in-school music education program. Marnie Mosiman, Artistic Director of Voices Within, notes that since she created the program 13 years ago, over 25,000 children have participated and 300 songs have been written. “We do a lot with a little,” said Mosiman proudly.
Participating Mount Washington Elementary teachers Cindy Lowery and Safini Convey worked with Principal Elizabeth Valentino to determine the “history of communication” theme, which will be tied to lessons throughout the year. For instance, Ms. Lowery said that the students were surprised women couldn’t be Pony Express riders. That realization influenced the theme of The Secret of the Pony Express.
Some of the fifth graders had participated in the 2011 Voices Within but most students had never composed a song or taken music lessons. Before the morning’s performance began, Fogerson, with the help of the students, explained the process of how the students learned to write a song. In addition to songwriting fundamentals -- the verse tells the story and the chorus conveys the feelings – the students learned techniques to spark creativity (“Learn to focus.” “Learn to trust.” “Learn to let go and play.” “Be brave.”) and how to collaborate (“Say yes.” “Don’t judge yourself or others.”).
During a guided meditation, the students came up with words and phrases inspired by the theme ... and learned not to dismiss them just because they didn’t make sense. Lyricist Mark Savage helped the budding songwriters shape the lyrics by explaining rhythm (“the pattern of long and short notes”) and pitch (high and low notes). Composer David O then helped the students bring the music in their heads to life. According to performing artist Fogerson, the kids knew exactly what they wanted down to the “dit-dah - dit” in M-O-R-S-E and the galloping sounds in The Secret of the Pony Express.
The absolute respect for the children’s work sometimes makes the lyrics “tricky to sing” according to alto Tracy Van Fleet, one of the Master Chorale singers who performed with the children. Van Fleet, bass Scott Graff and base Abdiel Gonzalez confirmed, however, that the singers’ contribution was strictly interpretive; every word they sang was written by the students.
The highlight of the program was Joyful Sign Language. The students “signed” part of the song about a child helping a deaf grandfather communicate through sign language. Even the Master Chorale singers were wiping away tears.
At Mount Washington Elementary, if you have a story you want to tell, write a song.