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Wednesday, 19 February 2014 13:02

Songwriter helps Central School create centennial song

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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Students at Central School received a glimpse into the world of a songwriter when they recently created the school’s centennial song with the help of Jeffery Straker.

The singer-songwriter, who is a classically-trained pianist, held a songwriting workshop at the school Feb. 5-7 and also performed at the Art Gallery of Swift Current Feb. 8 at a Blenders concert series, the Grand Piano Session.
Straker combines his hectic touring schedule of more than 100 shows per year across Canada with songwriting workshops for students and adults, but his visit to Central School was quite unique.
“This one is different from anyone I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’ve done a fair number of workshops in Saskatchewan and Alberta schools and some in Ontario schools, but usually it’s like ‘Please come to my school and teach or expose these students to song writing.’”
Central School is celebrating its centennial in 2014 and the intention was to compose a song with the involvement of all students. Music teacher Celia Hammerton felt the workshop was a real success.
“The kids just got so involved with it right away,” she said. “They took ownership of it. … I think it gave them a better understanding of the whole centennial. It really made them think about that and what it meant to them and what the school means to them.”
Straker spent time with the Grade 1 to 4 students during the first day of the workshop to gather information that was used for the text of the centennial song.
“I asked them questions,” he said. “There were sort of 10 questions, just getting them to respond and give words and language about their thoughts about the school.”
The questions varied from what their first day at school was like to describing the school’s personality.
The second day was an intensive songwriting process with Grade 5 students. They were asked the same questions and then they also received the responses from the other grades.
“So then they had this pool of words, which is useless until you start to filter it,” he said. “I took them through this process of how you might turn that into a song.”
They spoke about tempo and key and verse-chorus form. They listened to familiar pop songs and discussed how those songs were created. Then they worked in small groups to create verse and chorus.
“They did a really good job,” he said. “They got it and they asked tons of questions. They asked me to help when they got stuck and their verses came together really well. We got them to work on choruses separately and then we merged the best chorus that they all liked.”
The final part of the day focused on writing a melody, based on a number of suggestions by Straker, and the editing of the song to get rid of extra words.
“It was an intense day,” he said. “I can’t believe they focused that well. They’re Grade 5, but they were really into it. It’s impressive.”
The final part of the process took place on Jan. 7 with the recording of the backing track in the morning by local musicians Ken Friesen (acoustic guitar), Michael Lyngstad (bass guitar), Tanner Wilhelm-Hale (drums), Hammerton (violin) and Straker on keyboard.
Students practised the song and Friesen recorded it that afternoon with the school choir singing the verses and all students singing the chorus.
Hammerton said the song will be available as a download and it might also be put on CD. She felt the creation of the song has an importance beyond the school’s centennial year.
“It’s a really cool thing to do but for me it’s a way for the kids to remember the school,” she mentioned. “It’s kind of a combination. It’s our centennial but there’s also a lot of change at the moment and so it’s something for all the kids to take away with them and to keep.”
Straker’s performance at the Blenders concert on Feb. 8 was part of the final leg of his current tour across the prairies before he starts recording a new album. He has already released four studio albums. His most recent recording, Vagabond, was released in October 2012.
“It did really well,” he said. “I got great reviews and fans really enjoyed it.”
He is excited about representing Canada at the 55th annual Vina del Mar International Song Festival in Chile Feb. 23-28. He will perform four times in a 20,000-seat amphitheatre and the televised broadcast will reach more than 100 million people.
“It’s a big opportunity,” he said. “It’s the biggest song festival in Latin America.”
He described his music as piano-driven folk-pop with a hint of cabaret in it. He grew up on a farm just outside the village of Punnichy in Saskatchewan. He developed an early love for music through the encouragement of a local music teacher.
He started piano lessons at the age of seven. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and received a diploma in piano performance from London’s Trinity College when he was 19.
“To make a decent living in classical music is so hard without teaching and I don’t want to teach,” he said. “I tried teaching and I don’t have the patience.”
He returned to university and completed a degree in plant biology at the University of Saskatchewan. He worked for a while as a researcher and helped with the breeding of a tomato plant species that was sent up to the space shuttle, but he found the work too mundane.
“I was doing some electron microscopy on these things and watching them sprout and it was just horribly boring,” he said. “I was literally measuring sprouts coming out of seeds with an electron microscope.”
He then moved to Toronto to work in marketing and there he discovered the city’s singer-songwriter scene.
“It just never dawned on me that that was an option,” he said. “So even though I had my job, I was dabbling in that and it sort of grew from there.”
He has been working full-time as a singer-songwriter for the past six years. He tours a lot across Canada and he has also performed in China, Ghana, Ireland, Panama and the city of New York.
“The thing is, you have to love it, because I probably work about 70 hoursa week,” he said. “None of it feels like work. I really love it.”
He finds it exciting to present workshops to students as a way to create awareness about songwriting as a potential career.
“If someone were to have come into my school when I was in Grade 5 and said here is a career option,” he observed. “Hopefully there will be one kid in here who is probably taking music lessons already. … All you can do is expose them to the idea. Let them do with it what they want.”

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