Looking Forward: Singer-Songwriter Program at Interlochen Arts Academy

After establishing myself as a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn New York, over the course of ten years, I found myself travelling back to Interlochen eight-months pregnant. I had been invited for a second interview while on tour opening for the Jayhawks. My life has seemed to frequently be presented with the choice of touring and being a singer songwriter or teacher. I knew that this opportunity was different. This was not only an opportunity to teach but also an opportunity to guide and collaborate with the next generation of incredibly talented singer songwriters.

The singer songwriter program is built as a two-year program. The first year starts with formal music education consisting of the classical foundations of voice, guitar, or piano, music theory and choir. On top of the standard formal music education, each student takes a class in elements of poetry, which they take through the creative writing department. Students have a private lesson with me. Their singer-songwriter lesson varies on the individual needs of each student. Some students need guidance on structure and arrangement while others need help with lyrical content or performance. In the afternoon our focus varies from how to listen to music and music production to music history and music business. We have various writing exercises focusing using prompts, film, art, paraphrasing, and peer to peer feedback.

Collaboration is an essential part of the curriculum. The first attempt at writing together with a class of 20 students was a challenge. Students didn’t feel listened to by each other and there was no thought that individual musical ideas could help or hurt the piece. The students needed to learn to listen to each other and realize that the person on another instrument can hear their musical idea better than they can because they are the observer.

Writing for and to film, is a skill that they will need in a professional setting. Licensing songs is the most frequent way for musicians to make money and pay for their own recordings. I showed the students the beginning of the movie Fantastic Planet. I wanted them to have something visual for inspiration in writing together. We began this process with half the students on the various instruments and improvising. The other half wrote lyrics while listening to them. After a few hours of this, some obvious melodies cropped up and great lyrics started to come about. We recorded our process. I then asked a student to take us from this initial idea into a completely different one. From that process, two songs were created and the class was divided. When inspiration sparks, the ideas just kept going back and forth.

Because inspiration is so important, our classroom is a musical playground. In our space we have a grand Steinway, celeste, vibraphone, Hammond chord organ, auto-harp, orchestra bells, tubular bells, drum kit, vintage marching drums, amps, and various percussion. When a writer feels stuck, it helps to just pick up an instrument you know nothing about and write with no pressure of expertise on that instrument. The instrument is the muse for the work.

Throughout the year, the students have opportunities to work with professionals in the field. We have had workshops with Tim Jones, Jonathan Perkins, and Jeffrey Foucault. In the second semester we are beginning conversations with other well- known songwriters and music business professionals from entertainment lawyers to managers. This experience not only gives them more than one perspective but it also allows them to begin relationships with important people in the industry that they can reach out to for help when they leave Interlochen.

Our second year students continue with music theory, choir, private lessons, and creative writing but the focus of the afternoon seminar shifts into audio production and recording. The students will learn how to make a record, microphone placement techniques, and how to use the pro-tools program. Each student is expected to record and produce a full-length album. They will also create all the parts necessary for a proper release.

It has taken since the start of school to create the environment needed to get the students to break off from where they were before. I could not be more proud of what the students are creating and how they are thinking. I suspect it will take us the rest of the year and constant reflection to even understand where this might be headed for the future. I keep reminding my students to forget about genre or what their style is because it’s impossible to know what you are doing when you are in it. Ten years or more from now, we will be able to look back and see that what we accomplished here at Interlochen Arts Academy was truly groundbreaking. There has been a need of validation since the beginning of time in this field, and my students are just beginning to receive this by having this program offered at Interlochen Arts Academy.