M’CHIGEENG—Students at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) took full advantage of the opportunity to work with award-winning singer/songwriter Angie Nussey during a recent songwriting workshop hosted in teacher Chris Theijsmeijer’s music classroom after school.
Although Ms. Nussey is now based in Orillia, she was born and raised in Lively and she had her mother, who still lives in Lively, in tow during the workshop.
“I love to sing,” admitted Ms. Nussey in her introduction. “She told the students that she first became conscious of herself as a songwriter at the veteran age of “sixish.” She would write little poems that she would recite to herself as “a little prayer,” she recalled. “When I was a little older, I had a crush on this guy and I would write little things and repeat them,” she laughed. “Then I went south to become a performing musician (because that is what you are expected to do in the industry).”
At first she performed only cover songs of other people’s work, but one day she was asked why she didn’t perform any of her own work. Shortly after setting out on that pathway, she was signed to a record label and released her first album of songs, “and then another, and then another.”
When she first began writing, she found it hard to go back over her work to rewrite it. “But as I got older, I edited a bit more,” she said. “There is a humility that comes with time when you let people help you.”
Ms. Nussey spent a few moments discussing the various genres of songs in the industry and the standard accepted formula behind the writing of pop songs before she began to draw each of the students out to offer their own work. Although a few of the students were ready, front and centre, to perform their creations, many took some gentle coaxing to step up before the microphone or behind the piano.
Like a veteran educator, Ms. Nussey used the opportunity of the students’ work to, on the fly, discuss the nuances of songwriting.
Ms. Nussey noted that while she usually begins the process of writing a song with the music and then writes the lyrics, she does not always follow that process and noted that there are many songwriters who start with the lyrics, putting the music to their words.
In response to one student’s description of her own work as ‘too sappy’ to share, Ms. Nussey sat down behind the keys to sing one of her own works entitled ‘My Daddy Had Warm Hands.’ The song’s lyrics start out with “My daddy had warm hands, Rough and dirty like a workin’ man, Changing tires in a blistering storm, His hands would still be warm, I remember his leather mitts, He’d leave ‘em on the living room chair, I’d stick my hands inside, Just to see if it was warm in there, My daddy had warm hands” and continue on tapping deep into a young child’s wonder. She noted that it took her years to be able to play that song without crying. When she finally was able to put it out in front of people, it became one of her most successful pieces of writing. “There is currently a major country star looking at it,” she smiled. The songs that tap into our deepest feelings are those that are most likely to strike a resonate chord within others.
She advised the students to delve deep into themselves and their own feelings to find that wellspring of inspiration from which real music spills forth.
The mechanics are there, of course, the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat, bridge, repeat pattern from which the most modern music hangs upon the airwaves. “Maybe in the 80s the bridge would have been this amazing guitar solo,” she said. “But basically it is telling a story.”
As a demonstration of the art of songwriting, Ms. Nussey pulled out a recording device within which her latest brainstorming session was contained. The subject matter was somewhat silly, her reaction to someone who bumped in ahead of her in the grocery line.
A stream of nonsensical consciousness flows out of the device. “Start out with the craziest and silliest lines,” she suggested. “Then become serious with them.”
As a confidence builder, Ms. Nussey suggested that the students stand in front of a mirror and tell themselves each morning how wonderful they are. She also took them through a series of relaxation techniques as a warm up to writing.
“People will criticize you,” she said, but she advised against wasting time on them. “The more time you spend blaming them the less time you have to write songs.” She called on the students in the circle to accept the circle as a no criticism zone.
The outpouring of talent from each of the students that followed was almost overwhelming as each shared their work with the group.
Ms. Nussey shared with the students her secrets to preparing to take the stage, which included practicing each new piece until they could play it to perfection at least three times in a row.
Once taking the stage, the experience becomes exhilarating, she said. “People pay $500 to go up in an airplane and jump out to parachute. Playing on stage is the same adrenaline rush, but it’s free!”
Following the sharing of each student’s work and the critique/advice she had to offer, the songwriter and the students wrote a short song together. The stream of consciousness began with monkeys and flowed through a range of crazy/silly thoughts to wind up with a relatively solid base for an amusing ditty.
The two hours of the workshop passed swiftly.
Ms. Nussey performed the following evening at the popular Café in the Woods venue in Honora Bay and demonstrated the outstanding results that come from a songwriter reaching deep within to find inspiration. She clearly practices what she teaches.
MSS music students are gearing up for their musical theatre production of Oklahoma, due to step out into the footlights February 12 to 14 at 7 pm each evening.