Rock ’n’ roll (middle) school
Adam Ezra has come up with a novel way to get kids excited about music: Teach them to write a pop song
LITTLETON — The students want to write a song about all sorts of topics this morning. From a table of four comes a list of themes they’d like to explore, all of which would easily fit into a good rock song or perhaps a pop ballad.
Losing a friend.
A bad break-up.
That last comment sends up a voice of dissent from the back of the room. “Um, excuse me,’’ she says, “but you’re in sixth grade.’’
Such is the harsh reality check on a recent Monday morning at Littleton Middle School, where about 30 students, ages 12 to 14, have gathered in the cafeteria for a songwriting workshop with Adam Ezra Group, a local roots-rock band.
At a time when many schools are cutting back on programming, including the arts, Littleton is bucking the trend by investing in Ezra’s pilot project, which he debuted earlier this year at the town’s high school.
“It’s a unique program for kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks,’’ says Charlene Bemis, who coordinates events for Ezra, a friend since they attended high school together in Wayland. She’s also the daughter of Littleton Public Schools superintendent Diane Bemis. “We had one student from the high school program tell us that it’s almost like being educated by accident.’’
The conceit is simple: Ezra and his band conduct a day of workshops with students selected by teachers for their writing and musical skills. In the morning, the band meets with the writers to come up with the lyrics and mood for a new song, and the musicians congregate a few hours later to flesh it out on their instruments. The band returns in a few days to perform the new song in front of the student body, no doubt giving the budding writers and musicians cachet among their peers. It was a multimedia affair, too, with other students photographing the event and creating a poster for the concert.
Ezra gets paid $3,500 for these workshops, a fee the superintendent found more than reasonable. She says her district has saved nearly $400,000 in energy costs the past two years after a technician devised a strategy to maximize efficiency. The workshop fee is money well spent, she says.
“I’m a big believer that the more diverse the educational experience is, the more the students will benefit from it,’’ Diane Bemis says. “These kids learned a lot this week, and that’s the whole point of what we do.’’
She admits that teaching songwriting in a middle school is a novel idea, but it’s also another way to keep up with students’ increasingly tech-savvy education.
“I don’t know if we’re seeing more students playing music these days, but the ones who are committed can certainly do more at an earlier age, as soon as they have the equipment to record,’’ says Steven Bergman, one of Littleton Middle School’s two music teachers. “It’s great that we can offer this kind of program, because when schools cut the arts, it forces families to find other opportunities that cost. And with the recession right now, it’s harder than ever.’’
Word of mouth has already piqued interest in expanding the program to other schools. In the audience at the first workshop is Carla Tardif, the executive director of Music Drives Us, car mogul Ernie Boch Jr.’s foundation that funds music programs in New England. Beside her is Kate Lee, who teaches rock music at Fayerweather Street School, a progressive arts school in Cambridge. She’s heartened that this kind of project has found its way to a public school.
“We’re so embedded in classical music, but why isn’t rock considered a viable kind of music to teach in schools? I think it is,’’ she says.
“When I was in middle school, I would have killed for this kind of program,’’ says Ezra, 33, who feels strongly that his music should not just entertain but also empower the community. (Ezra’s band performs at the Ramble, a benefit for Haiti, tomorrow at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury. Go to www.getrambled.com for more information.)
His hair tucked into a knit cap and his sandals almost anywhere but on his feet, Ezra is a natural with the students. He’s patient and engaging as he describes to them how the kernel of a song often begins on an acoustic guitar. One by one, he brings his bandmates into the mix, explaining why each instrument is important. Bassist Robin Vincent Soper, Ezra says, lays down the carpet for the song, while percussionist Turtle adds spice.
When they’re done playing one of Ezra’s tunes as an example, they solicit song ideas from the group. By a show of hands, the consensus is that the song will address three themes: daydreams, getting lost, and losing a friend.
Adam Byrne, 12, has his own vision for the song, and it involves someone getting run over by a car, a suggestion that elicits big laughs from his classmates. Ultimately, the group decides no one’s going to die in this song. Instead, two friends will grow apart because one is always lost in a daydream. What should the song say emotionally, Ezra wants to know. Sad and a bit angry, in this case.
Fast, slow, or medium tempo? Medium. And the kids want minor chords to convey the song’s melancholy.
Acoustic vs. electric? Acoustic, with fingerpicking instead of strumming.
The students break off into clusters of two and three and have five minutes to write some lyrics. (Surely the famed Brill Building never had so many songwriters with mouths full of braces.) Flanked by two friends, Valerie Higgins, 14, jots down ideas and crinkles her nose. She scratches out a line in favor of something a little more nuanced: “What were you thinking when you walked away?/ All of the things I never got to say,’’ goes the first verse. “Got a picture of the way you want things to be/ I’m never gonna fit in your reality.’’
OK, so Bob Dylan can rest easy tonight, but many of the lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated. Ezra collects the sheets and rattles off a list of sentiments, singing and reciting them as the band plays behind him.
In the afternoon workshop, a new batch of students arrives. These are the musicians, and they look the part: a Beatles T-shirt here, a pair of Converse there, a whole lot of the Ramones-style shaggy haircuts. Once Ezra describes what the first group came up with, the students pair up with one of the band members for instruction on how to bring it to life.
“Then in the chorus I did a D over a G,’’ says bassist Soper. “Do you know what I mean by that?’’ Two boys holding basses nearly as long as they are tall nod in agreement.
Three days later these same students are invited up onstage with the band as 400 of their classmates, crammed into the cafeteria, scream their approval. There’s hardly a stray note as the song roars out of the speakers, the students looking confident as they sway back and forth.
Afterward, Bryan Gallagher, 14, says this was exactly what he needed to supplement his six months of learning to play bass.
“It’s invigorating,’’ he says. “I find being on a stage is my best moment, and the pressure of performance is really a lot better than noodling around at home by myself.’’
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.