Tuning into Creativity: Students Make Music in Camp Merit Songwriting Class

Two students are smiling, sitting next to each other and looking at their iPads. Both are wearing headphones.

Who knew 10- and 11-year-olds could be composers? After two fun-filled months, summer camp season at Merit School of Music recently culminated in Camp Merit, a two-week intensive bringing together band, choir, and orchestra. In addition to building skills on their primary instrument, the students spent an hour every morning and afternoon away from their main ensembles, gaining new skills and discovering new passions in engaging elective classes of their choosing. For some, this was an opportunity to try out a new instrument without the commitment of starting private lessons or a group class in the Intro to Piano, Ukulele, and Guitar classes. Others broadened their horizons globally by learning all about North and West African Percussion or taking a Musical Theater class.

This summer, one of the most sought-after electives was a Songwriting course, taught by Merit voice faculty Douglas Orofino. Over the course of two weeks, 20 Songwriting students learned the basics of composition and put those principles into practice in their own original musical pieces that were played for their families and friends during the final day concert. And wow! They were terrific!

Electives at Camp Merit
  • Intro to Ukulele
  • Intro to Piano
  • Intro to Guitar
  • Musical Theater
  • Drumline
  • Songwriting
  • North and West African Percussion
  • Conducting

While some of the students had previously dabbled in creating their own songs, the class was designed with complete beginners in mind, the only prerequisite being an interest in songwriting. “It’s a great way for students who are interested in composition to get from the ‘I noodle around on my piano’ or ‘I like to hum a tune’ phase to a place where they understand what it takes to make a piece of music,” says Pam Shortall, Voice, Guitar, & the Marlene M. Bowen Piano Program Director.

How should a young aspiring songwriter start their journey? According to Orofino, it all starts with the music you’re already listening to. “Pay attention to why you like what you like,” he advises. “What makes this song work? What makes it interesting? What makes it function? It’s important to ask these questions of the music you love listening to.” On the first day of camp, the students did just that, brainstorming and analyzing their favorite songs to understand what makes them effective.

“It’s a great way for who are interested in composition to get from the ‘I noodle around on my piano’ or ‘I like to hum a tune’ phase to a place where they understand what it takes to make a piece of music.”

– Pam Shortall, Voice, Guitar, & the Marlene M. Bowen Piano Program Director

Because the students had only two short weeks to compose a complete original piece, choosing the right technology to capture the students’ compositions was of vital importance. Orofino opted to use GarageBand, an easy-to-use music creation app complete with a sound library that allows exploration with different instrument sounds. “It lowers the barrier for entry, especially with this age group,” he explains (most students in the Songwriting class were under 12 years old). “You don’t have to know everything about musical notation, voice leading or chord progressions in order to start composing and creating successful musical ideas.”

During the first week, they explored various ways of writing music with GarageBand. “We practiced the different ways that you can use GarageBand to compose and tried to dissect a little bit of what makes certain things musically successful,” Orofino says. Since the technology is intuitive and accessible (to digital natives like our young students), the students had plenty of time to play around and practice the ideas they learned in exercises that they shared with their teacher and peers alike.

A student stands next to Douglas Orofino, who is seated at a piano. Orofino is reviewing the student's piece on his iPad.

Orofino provides feedback to a student on his composition.

“It’s all about finding a balance. How do I give a piece of feedback that might help the student create a song that functions a little better without squishing the creative impulse and the joy that comes from making something?”

– Douglas Orofino, Voice Faculty & Songwriting Class Instructor

Like so much of what we do at Merit, the lessons taught in Songwriting class have far-reaching real-world applications beyond music. Throughout composing their final projects, the students often turned to their peers for input, practicing giving and receiving feedback on their work in a respectful manner.

At the end of two weeks of learning and growth, the young composers shared their masterpieces with their families and friends. From a melodious chorus of angelic singing to an epic, video game-inspired rock score, the students of the Camp Merit Songwriting class poured both their artistry and their personality into these songs. We hope you enjoy listening to their unique, exciting compositions, and we can’t wait to hear what they compose next.

There's So Much More to Summer at Merit!

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