Intergenerational Learning through Songwriting

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Intergenerational Learning through Songwriting

Kateri Lirio, teaching artist; MAT, Longy School of Music, ’21


Photo: Kateri Lirio.

Teaching artists have long been pioneers of the learning landscape, with unique approaches to creativity and community-building in their ensembles. During my graduate studies at the Longy School of Music at Bard College, I studied intergenerational learning—that is, how both young people and adults learn. I discovered that despite the generational and cultural divides between Gen Z-ers, baby boomers, and millennials, there were more similarities than differences. I wondered how I could foster authentic connections in an intergenerational space where everyone learns more about one another. This approach provides opportunities to grow, no matter the participants’ ages. My chosen artistic medium, songwriting, is simply a way to talk about life.

I’ve used songwriting in this way in my one-off workshop, “Building Trust In A Community Through Songwriting,” and also in a modular ten-week course, “Songwriting is Easy!” This method supports breaking the ice for ensembles at the beginning of a semester and has the power to build bridges across corporate environments, non-profit organizations, and community groups with deep roots (I’ve sometimes conducted the workshop with executive directors, board members, teachers, and students in the same room). Participants don’t need to have songwriting experience. They don’t even need to read music. All they need is the willingness to grow and learn about themselves and everyone else in the room.

This process is inspired by the “cipher”—an authentic approach to community songwriting and storytelling first popularized in Harlem through the Five-Percent Nation, a Black Nationalist movement in the 1960s. I first encountered the cipher during my undergraduate experience at Cal Poly Pomona, when the university hosted a popular campus event that brought together local artists to express themselves through dance, rap, or improvised song. In Toni Blackman’s 2013 TED Talk, “The Cipher, the Circle & Its Wisdom,” she explains that the cipher is “…very simple…It’s about completion of thought. It’s giving and exchanging information, energy, and ideas. The cipher is about community building. It’s about connection. We’ve been ciphering for centuries… dancing…eating, praying, drumming forever since mankind has been around.” As a young college student, I was too bashful to participate, and I analyzed these ciphers as an observer. Now, as a teaching artist, I can empathize with the fearful emotional state that students, employees, and even leaders might experience when they are asked to be vulnerable in an unfamiliar space with new people.

To build confidence and demystify the songwriting process from start to finish, the process begins with a simple personal story. I recount childhood memories, life lessons, or career snafus, depending on the audience. Traditionally, this bard-like style of storytelling has antecedents in West Africa and is often accompanied by an instrument. My instrument of choice for this purpose is a beatmaker. Lately, I’ve been using the cloud-based music and podcast tool Soundtrap for Education because of its accessibility to creativity without the pressure of having to know music theory or advanced recording techniques.

The meat of the process comes from participants. In workshops, for example, I pose four questions as simple as “What do you like on your pizza?” or “What’s the most challenging part of your job?” Participants take some time to think, compose their “verse,” and finally read (or rap) it aloud for the first time. The most daring participants keep flowing and improvising off the page. If the room is very comfortable, a “hook” or catchy part of the song often comes up naturally. This brings a smile to people’s faces, because they have all found a connection with each other, and the tension in the room dissipates. Trust is built.

Songwriting is a natural and powerful way to build trust in the spaces we influence. What if our classrooms, board rooms, and retirement homes were as transparent and authentic as a song? My method is just one way of fostering connections through art, but its results are universal: connection through honest expression, trust through vulnerability, and joy through the creative process. When we experience these feelings, we remember that we don’t always need a hammer to break the ice.

To learn more about Kateri Lirio, visit her website.


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