Poetry & Youth Songwriting Part 2: Swallow Hill Music

Songwriting is rarely taught. It’s instinctual. Or is it? Maybe you’re already do everything right. The notebook by your bed is full of sleepy-eyed, dreamscape lyrics, your phone holds hours of recorded cords and melodies, and best of all, your bff screeches, “You’re gonna be a star!” after every song.  There’s no better feeling than the encouragement from your loved ones. They can carry you through the desert lands of inspiration and be an invaluable source of collaboration. But there are also resources like SETH who will be teaching his workshop, The Poetry of Writing Song Lyrics at the November 7th Castle Rock Writers cConference (Part 1 of this article – read it here) and of course, there is the school of music in Colorado, Swallow Hill Music.

Swallow Hill Music, a non-profit established in 1979, strives to positively impact the quality of people’s lives through the art of music. Besides providing private lessons, camps and concerts for all ages, they also host a yearly Young Songwriters Competition. Thomas Koenigs, a student of Regis Jesuit High School and 2015 winner of the Swallow Hill songwriters’ competition, explains that he used to be shy about his music. Then someone told him that music was an expression of the self.

“We aren’t perfect people, but we grow. Good music reflects that imperfection and personal growth,” said Koenigs. “Expression does not and should not require justification or explanation.”

Swallow Hill’s Director of School Operations, Cheri Gonzales, counsels kids starting out to “never be afraid to try something new and challenging.”  She encourages young songwriters to perform as much as possible, actively participating to “create material that is completely unique to [them] as an individual.”

Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and into a state of unease might be frightening, but it can also lead to an ultimate experience of performance euphoria and acceptance. So make it fun, get crazy, and rejoice in the double takes and sideways smiles of those around you as you recite poetry to your dog or sing in your car. Invest in a rhyming dictionary or find one online, like www.rhymer.com, because rhyme can make for powerful lyrics.

Be sure to create an irresistible hook. Songs often have several hooks. The title, chorus, and riffs. Use everything you can to keep your audience captivated. Write about topics or events that interest you, not what’s popular in music at the moment, unless the two are the same. Koenigs’ winning song, Beat the Drum wasn’t about love lost or flashy lifestyles; it told the story about three musicians that suffered from mental illness, drug use and acts of rage. Subjects that evokes strong emotion–like Ferguson, Koenigs’ most recent song—touches both our hearts and our beliefs.

The emotions songs lyrics evoke remind us of our humanity. But it isn’t about telling: it’s about showing. Write lyrics that conjure vivid images. Try word associations by writing all the words you think about for a certain event, subject or detail, and use these words in your song.  When you think you’re done, put it down for a few days. Revisit it with a critical eye. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Just like fiction writing, don’t be afraid to kill off that character, chorus, or single line that, in the end, is throwing off your work. As Gonzales says, “It’s like a beautiful puzzle that fits together just the way [you] want it to.”

Swallow Hill Music’s annual Young Songwriters Competition starts in February. There’s no fee to enter and according to Gonzales, contestants usually take total responsibility for the process of submission deadlines, although parents are welcome to be involved. But who can wait for 2016?  Starting November 1st Swallow Hill offers a program called House of Rock.

“Here they’ll work constructively within a group of kids with similar goals and passions. You might see a timid 13-year-old the first day of camp who’s very soft-spoken and nervous and by the last day that same [kid] is shredding an electric guitar solo at [a] performance,” says Gonzales.

Teens that participate in the House of Rock will perform a concert at Moe’s BBQ for their final class.

The Castle Rock Writers Conference will offer a similar experience for teen poets who attend Jovan Mays’ Slam Poetry workshop. Jovan will lead students through the process of creating poetry using tools to craft pieces that can be performed in three minutes or less. Teens will then be invited to kick off CRW’s January free monthly workshop by performing their Slam Poetry for family and friends.

Opportunities for youth expression abound in Colorado. Coloradoans are passionate about their art and culture and want to pass on that love to their children. The success of non-profit organizations like Swallow Hill Music and Castle Rock Writers proves that expression through music and writing is an important part of that culture.

Read the full interviews with SETH, Thomas Koenigs, and Cheri Gonzales at www.CastleRockWriters.com/updates. Information about Swallow Hill Music can be found at http://swallowhillmusic.org/denver-music-school/. Swallow Hill has also donated one of their Family Memberships to CRW to offer during their silent auction. Information about CRW can be found at http://castlerockwriters.com/events/annual-conference/conference/.

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