Mike Chunn: Songwriting should be part of the curriculum

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Annah Mac benefited from mentorship outside the school environment. Photo / Jason Hailes
Annah Mac benefited from mentorship outside the school environment. Photo / Jason Hailes

There's a big difference between a song and a poem, writes Mike Chunn, chief executive of the Play It Strange Trust.

In 2004, Kimbra stormed into the Play It Strange secondary schools' songwriting competition Top 10 with her powerhouse original It Takes Time. She was 14 and at Hamilton's Hillcrest High. The entry recording she sent in was just guitar and voice. Now she strides across Australia and New Zealand beaming out from all the airwaves you can think of. Her debut album Vows has just been released.

Two years later a young 14-year-old from the Catlins, Annah Mac, sent in a recording of her song Blue Butterfly and it took the top place in the same competition. Again, just guitar and voice. Now Annah is on the Great NZ Songbook as the "voice of the future" with her song Home and her debut album, Little Stranger, has just been released.

It's worth mentioning that Kimbra and Annah Mac took to stages in those formative years. Kimbra was placed second in the Rockquest National Final at 14 and Annah won the Rockquest female musician award at the age of 16.

Both songwriters were spurred on at an early age by musicians who recognised in those youngsters a real potential to make waves. Kimbra's guitar teacher, Simon Middlemiss, and Annah Mac's songwriting mentor, Mike Hood, provided feedback and direction. And in those processes the recording of original songs came to be. It's just that it all happened outside the school gates.

The stories of these two artists provides a chance to assess what is going in schools and how their paths might be replicated in vibrant, contemporary curriculums. There is a real pragmatic path to be followed today in which songwriting, performance and recording complete the milestones that can lead a musician writing original songs to a career.

The music curriculum in secondary schools is coming to grips with the new age, and the NZQA is leading the way. But first, there is one major hurdle.

The word "song" is not in the curriculum. Despite songs being a staple in the diet of life, the weaving together of words and music such as a song is cannot be assessed in the music curriculum. The music can - that is called a composition. But the words can only be assessed in the English department, as poetry. One of New Zealand's premier lyricists/poets Damien Wilkins says: "Song lyrics need to fit the form of the melody, the chord changes, the beat; they're in the service of a larger thing; whereas the words of a poem are the boss of everything. Poems carry their own music, which is made up on the spot from language. Hence a poem put to music is a risky thing, in effect, because it's music on top of music."

It is imperative that the Ministry of Education places "song" as a single entity in the music curriculum.

And then there is the craft of recording. With access to sophisticated technology at a fair price, the recording of songs can be done on multi-track software in any environment.

Bedrooms, classrooms, rehearsal rooms all serve as ideal mini-studios. The Lion Foundation songwriting competition with its 402 songs entered this year shows an increasing sophistication in the recording of songs throughout the country. So it seems an ideal time for recording studio practice to be an integral part of the music curriculum and for NCEA credits to be part of that learning curve. The NZQA understands this.

In a recent press document it states: "To meet the needs of all music students, additional standards have been developed at Level 2 to allow for more specialisation ... Students can progress seamlessly to Level 3 in each standard they successfully complete at Level 1. Thus, for example, the student who composes aurally [records] is assessed alongside his/her peer who chooses to notate [write a manuscript]."

With this change comes the chance for students to now take music knowing they can be assessed for the music components of the songs they write, the performance of their songs and the representation of their songs in a recorded form.

It is a heady time for New Zealand's emerging music tradition as the school environment provides platforms for the recognition, celebration and successes of our own songs.

www.playitstrange.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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