New standards for young songsmiths

Issue: Volume 97, Number 10

Posted: 7 June 2018
Reference #: 1H9j8Y

The introduction of songwriting as an NCEA achievement standard last year has brought about strengthened connections between schools, music teachers, student songsmiths, and those who inspire them, says award-winning songwriter Bryre Aish of Hamilton Girls’ High School.

When Mike Chunn was at school, he dreamed about “being a Beatle”, along with Tim Finn and his brother Geoffrey. The three would famously go on to form the nucleus of one of this country’s seminal bands, Split Enz, but at the time Mike says there weren’t many teachers who thought music was anything more than a waste of time.

 “It seemed to me like they saw songwriting, and wanting to be in a band that wrote songs and played them all around the world, like wanting to be world champion in tiddlywinks,” says Mike.

Times have definitely changed, thankfully, and Hamilton Girls’ High School student Bryre Aish is a great example of why Mike has always believed that music is much more than a diversion from a ‘proper’ career path.

Bryre was a finalist in last year’s Play It Strange songwriting competition, administered by the Play It Strange Trust of which Mike is CEO. Mike says Bryre’s song Blue Skied Baby was one that really grabbed him among all the entries. That’s high praise, considering Bryre doesn’t know whether she wants to pursue music as a career choice after school. She does know that gaining NCEA credits while strengthening her songwriting craft – not to mention getting to meet inspirational Kiwis like Mike – is something that’s helped her along the path to becoming the sort of person she’d like to be.

“For me, after school, I don’t necessarily want to do music as a career, but I think it’s very important. I definitely want to carry on writing songs, and playing music and performing.

“I personally think that doing creative things definitely rounds you more as a person, and is really good for your overall happiness and mental health.

“Getting to take part in Play It Strange has honestly been so cool. I never thought I’d get to go and record my song at this beautiful studio [Roundhead Studios, owned by Neil Finn]. It’s so cool as a student to get the chance to do that. I think these days high school students have so many opportunities that otherwise we’d never get to do.”

Getting heard

Mike started the Play It Strange songwriting competition in 2003, and says he wanted to offer students the chance to have their music recorded and heard, something he had to wait until he left school to do. Mike frequently uses sport, another of his passions, as analogy for his message.

“In sport, it’s all about participation. They don’t talk about how many people are going to go and watch a game on Saturdays [at school], they talk about who’s going to play. I just believed that there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of young people who would want to write songs, perform them, and record them. So they needed somewhere to send those songs to start the wheels spinning, and that’s how Play It Strange began.”

Head of Music at HGHS Joanna Dickinson appreciates the wider range of students she’s now able to reach after the introduction of the songwriting standards, and says that there’s now more cross-pollination happening.

“The need that I wanted to address [when introducing the songwriting standards] were the students who were naturally gifted, but found writing down the intricacies of music really hard. Because what [some students] tended to do was just produce the sounds, and the song – so it was a joy to see the students actually having their work produced, and making the best of what they’ve done.

“There’s quite a lot of cross-curricular work going on too, for example with the girls that are working with the Pasifika group. Some of the work that’s done there is used for our assessments as well.”

Not a soft option

When the new credits were introduced, there was some suggestion that songwriting could only ever be a ‘soft’ standard. Nothing could be further from the reality, says Joanna.

“The outcomes that I’m hoping to achieve with the songwriting standards are for the students to understand how to structure their song; correct use of chords; and eventually recording their music so that they can use it somewhere else, either in a competition or in our assessments.”

Mike says that anyone who considers songwriting to be a ‘soft’ exercise has never tried to do it.

“Putting words to music and creating a song is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, from my experience, writing songs that people want to listen to over and over again is one of the hardest things you could ever hope to do.”

Bryre says that her finalist song Blue Skied Baby, which is written in both English and te reo Māori, is about the country she’s always called home.

“It’s pretty much about how New Zealand is the only place I’ve ever known. It’s always been a land of opportunities for me, and so I think it’s important to include both [te reo Māori and English] because Māori is so important.”

Mike says that he feels like the craft of songwriting, and music in this country more generally, have an even brighter future now that the provision of music education has been expanded.

“What’s happened is that the musical environment in school has expanded. Songwriting isn’t about replacing anything.

“Songwriting has been welcomed in schools, and I’m zipping around different places to talk with students and teachers about songwriting – I just think it’s an exciting world that’s now even more buoyant.

“A life writing songs is something you can carry through to your dying day. I just want New Zealand to be like Ireland, where the words and music of songs tell the story of the people who live there.” 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 3:00 pm, 7 June 2018

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