FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Seven middle and high schoolers tossed around ideas as Andrew McKnight, a singer and songwriter, wrote them down on a white board.
The students were brainstorming songs, using the idea of struggling to open a door as inspiration.
Maybe opening a door could be a metaphor, one student said. Maybe we’re opening a door to get away from something, even ourselves, another chimed in.
The seven students were taking part in a songwriting workshop at YMCA of Frederick County on North Market Street, aiming to learn more about the creative process.
All the students are planning to submit an original song to the 2023 Step Up! Frederick Student Songwriting Contest next month. The workshop was the first of four.
The annual contest is hosted by Chords of Courage, a nonprofit that encourages children to engage in songwriting as a catalyst for change.
For the competition, students must submit a song about a person or group who triumphed over suffering and sparked positive change. The prompt is the same every year, said Tomy Wright, music director at Chords of Courage.
But the time frame changes, Wright said. This year, the students must write about someone who was alive within the last 50 years.
The winners of the contest can receive cash, studio recording time, Frederick Community College scholarships and more.
Arguably the coolest part, Wright said, is seeing the finalists’ songs performed by Baltimore-based band ilyAIMY during an awards concert.
Aaron Henry, a student at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, said he was planning to write a song about Greta Thunberg after he thought of two potential lyrics.
“I was literally in the shower, and I was just thinking about music, as you do in the shower, and I came up with these two lines,” Henry said, pointing at a sheet of paper in front of him. “‘Why go when you can stop, why run when you can walk.’ And … it really just really hit me.”
Henry was feeling good at the end of the workshop, he said. He’s written a lot of pieces, but never finished them. He felt the workshop gave him the tools to complete a song.
Kastle Smith, a Frederick High School student, was a finalist in last year’s Step Up! Competition. She wrote a song about a woman who lost her son to suicide after he was bullied for being gay.
She said she wasn’t sure what she’d write about for this year’s competition, but that she would leave the workshop with fresh ideas.
McKnight, who led the workshop, has worked with Chords of Courage since 2018. He loves the process, he said, and enjoys seeing how the children tell stories through music.
“Music is a way that we express ourselves as human beings, but it’s also a way that we remember our stories,” McKnight said. “And the fact that they’re taking the time to learn somebody’s story and to tell it in a musical way — I think that’s a really powerful, meaningful exercise for them about being human.”
At one point, McKnight had each student write down every thought they had in a 15-minute time frame, without stopping. It’s meant to get the creative juices flowing and tire out the part of your brain that’s always criticizing your own work, he said.
The students were all shaking out their hands and flexing their fingers by the end.
Bella Altman was jotting down her thoughts in her Hello Kitty Journal. She wrote about the headache she had and Walkersville Middle School’s upcoming production of “Frozen,” where she will be playing Elsa.
She said she didn’t have any lyrics for her song yet, but the workshop gave her some tools and ideas to work with.
Nikitha Tlkala, from Windsor Knolls Middle School, said she had a lot of vague ideas, but was having trouble tying them together. Like Altman, she said the workshop helped.
She’s always loved using songwriting to decompress, she said.
“(It’s like an) escape from school and this other stuff that’s bringing you down,” she said. “Just a comfort space.”