“Young children are very open to singing,” says artist/educator Victor Cockburn, who is featured in Program 3 of Art to Heart. “They sing all the time. They sing when they play. And they make up songs all the time in their heads. They’re excited about the possibility of actually writing them down because often they are really good and if they aren’t written down, they’re forgotten.”
Bringing songwriting into the classroom empowers students with the idea that they can use language to express themselves, Cockburn says. “And in order to do that, they have to increase their vocabulary. They have to find out about new words, especially when it comes to rhyming words, but also how to describe the world as well using metaphor, simile, and other writing techniques. For example, sometimes we use persona, sometimes we write odes, and sometimes we write ballads. There are different forms of telling a story, real or imagined. And by exposing them to the different voices that people have used, it really helps them to get a repertoire not only of music but of the language they can use.”
Using Folk Music and Songs
Cockburn often uses folk music from different cultures when he goes into a school. “We talk about how people all over the world are writing about similar things—in different languages and different styles, but similar things. There are lullabies all over the world. There are ‘play songs’ all over the world. I also take songs that other children have written,” he says.
When he is introduced to a class, many times Cockburn doesn’t even play his guitar for the first 20 minutes or so. “We sing a cappella, so the children understand that you don’t always have to have a musical instrument to make music. You are the music.” He often reads or recites poetry—not to music—so that children can hear the rhythm of the language.
Taking a Bow
Ending a songwriting residency with some sort of performance—either a formal performance in the school auditorium or an informal one of one class performing for another—increases the impact on the young songwriters, Cockburn says. “I watch the children’s faces when people are singing along to a chorus they have written or when people comment about the song, and I know it’s made an effect in their lives; that they’re actually empowered to go and create more songs.”