The Science of Inspiration:
Creating Rockademix Songs
What goes into the creation of a Rockademix song?
When I was using the visual and performing arts in my public school class, I spent hours combing through existing classic songs that would lend themselves to a more authentic way of learning. This was no small feat. Not only did the songs need to include information related to a host of academic standards, but also they had to have a catchy rhythm, and be age appropriate. The process was time-consuming and often seemed impossible!
With Rockademix, all of these hurdles are overcome through custom written music. Last spring I struck up a relationship with three-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer Dennis Walker. We talked about me using classic songs to teach kids.
He recommended I license the songs I was using. However, I didn’t get a response from the publishing companies that owned the songs. With some encouragement from Dennis, I started writing my own songs, and I found that I was able to write material that is both informative and catchy. You can listen to a few samples of the new songs here:
Sample of “Transportation History Blues”
[zoomsounds id=”Transportation History Blues”]
Sample of “The Constitution Song”
[zoomsounds id=”The Constitution Song”]
Sample of “The Tech Train”
[zoomsounds id=”The Tech Train”]
When I shared my songs with Dennis, he was really surprised. Here’s a really neat testimonial he wrote:
“Not only is Jon a really great teacher, he’s also a very good musician. The lyrics he’s written are absolutely first class. I mean, really good. And each song is a very viable and succinct lesson. I’ve been writing songs for forty years and I was amazed.”
Lots of people have asked me to explain my songwriting process, so here it goes…
To start, I determine what I want to write about – a period in history such as the writing of The Constitution, or a general concept such as the evolution of transportation. These topics stem from what I’ve seen as lacking in the general knowledge of students in my 15 years teaching California public schools, things that haven’t been taught because teachers have been forced to teach towards bubble tests devoid of historical content. It’s unfortunate, because the education system has evolved to where, in a large part, it’s not passing down the history of our nation and culture to the next generation.
After extensive research – I pull from online sources, dig out primary sources, and spend hours scouring my rhyming dictionary and thesaurus – I finally manage to get some of my thoughts on paper. Often, I’ll take words from primary source recordings and embed them directly into my song. I just wrote a song about Apollo 13, and after I listened to the actual recordings of the conversation that took place between Mission Control and the astronauts during their near-fatal accident, I included some of the exact words in the song. This will be great because it will inspire the kids to listen to these same primary sources and do their own research. The recordings are actually incredibly dramatic – you can hear a sample here:
Apollo 13 Mission Control Recording
Apollo 13 Mission Control / Photo courtesy of The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) / http://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-7-3.html
I also look for varied ways to introduce standards as well as things such as idioms, metaphors, other figures of speech, word families, multiple meaning words, etc. – anything that serves to enrich the learning experience for kids.
Next, I consult a PhD in History who is on the Rockademix team. We go back and forth, making sure the information is all correct, pertinent, and geared toward our audience. I work on the melody and eventually send it to Dennis Walker, who also serves as our producer. Dennis helps me figure out which songs will work well. I’ve written several that were chock full of information but weren’t succinct enough to double as a listenable tune.
I concentrate on basic arrangements. And when Dennis and I agree on the tunes to record, I send them to Dennis’s frequent collaborator, the esteemed keyboardist Jimmy Pugh, whose credits include Robert Cray, Van Morrison, and Etta James. Jim transcribes the songs to charts. I can’t read music so the charts are for the guys we meet up with who will eventually lay down the final tracks.
Recording Rockademix songs with blues heavyweights Dennis Walker, Johnny Griparic, Alan Mirikitani and Jim Pugh.
We meet together at a recording studio in Burbank with engineer and guitarist Alan Mirikitani, drummer Lee Spath, and Johnny Griparic on bass. Tom Peterson, who played horns on The Tonight Show with Doc Severinsen for 17 years, has also joined us and contributed horn arrangements with a trio of some of LA’s finest. At the studio, I play through the song once and in a collaborative effort, we chat and try ideas.
I have some decent guitar “chops” and sprinkle a few guitar leads in the songs. Since the guys in the band are some of the world’s best musicians, I leave the hooks and grooves up to them. I can’t hold a candle to their playing. They put some incredible magic into the songs. It’s amazing to watch because by the time they’re done with them, they sound about 700 times better than I ever imagined they could! Eventually a new Rockademix song is fully realized.
We didn’t even touch on the kinesthetic features, creative projects, technology components and lessons that evolve… that’s a story for another day!.