More Than Words: Salvation Army Launches Songwriting Program for Nashville Youth

The Salvation Army’s songwriting class for ages 7 to 8 records tracks at Ocean Way Studios on Music Row. Photo by Jordan Meiss.

This article appears in the September/October 2015 issue, available on newsstands September 8. 

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Driving along Stockell Street, the picturesque landscape begins to change as the outskirts of East Nashville come into focus. The sides of the streets are patched together with forgotten chain-link fences. Some houses are boarded-up, while others are in the process of being renovated to look new. Gentrification has only just begun here.

Toward the end of the street, an industrial building rises out of the concrete backdrop. A little out of place among its residential neighbors, it makes an impression with its sheer size. Behind this building’s doors is a vibrant and welcoming community. It’s the Nashville Salvation Army’s Magness-Potter Community Center.

As part of the center’s program for at-risk youth, Angela McCrary heads up the music department. Pragmatic and compassionate, Ms. Angela (as the kids affectionately call her) decided to take an innovative approach with her summer music program. Instead of just learning music, she taught her students how to write it.

When McCrary was hired in February, she was given a budget, an office, and the task of developing a music department. Today, her summer songwriting curriculum has met with incredible success as 120 students can now say they’ve written and recorded four songs as a group.

As the students walked into songwriting class the first day, none of them truly knew what to expect and, honestly, neither did McCrary. The class only had two rules: keep a positive attitude and no cursing. The rest they would figure out as they went along.

During the first week, McCrary conducted a crash course in music theory to form a foundation for the class to build upon. While some kids came from a musical background, others were starting from zero. Only a day or two in McCrary realized something was wrong when a first-grade girl broke down crying during class. She couldn’t do her work because she didn’t know how to read what was on the board. “It kept me up at night, but I didn’t press it. I just made sure they did fun, musical things,” recalls McCrary.

After tackling a bit of music theory, the class then focused on learning how to craft a tale – no topics barred. “I heard some horrific stories,” says McCrary. “One day a little boy told me he saw a guy get killed – he’s ten. He was like, ‘Man I saw this dude get blasted, get killed, right on the ground in front of me because he lied.’” Heavy issues to be weighing on the mind of a 10 year old, for sure, but this class was created in hopes of helping kids cope with such matters.

“Songwriting is storytelling,” McCrary says. “It allows you to release whatever is troubling you, or it helps you share whatever is making you happy. Not everyone is good at talking about their problems. I was one of those kids. If I didn’t have music I don’t know what I would have done. Songwriting literally saved my life.”

But these kids didn’t seem any different from other kids. They were boisterous, jovial, and eager to play games in their free time. When McCrary had local producers donate tracks to write lyrics to, the kids jumped right in – learning about verses, choruses and hooky melodies. Sometimes they would even beat on the desks to create a beat that matched their songs better. (As McCrary admits, they were very honest about if the tracks were “cool” or not.)

By week five, the kids finished up their songs and prepared for the studio. McCrary made sure everyone felt included. “Every step of the process involved team building,” she says. “You had some kids who weren’t as musically inclined and like to do other things, so I tried to give them other jobs.” In those instances, when one young girl talked about being a lawyer, McCrary had her write down everyone’s name for the credits. When kids didn’t want to perform, she asked them to be her associate producers. It gave them a sense of team effort.

With donated studio time at Belmont University’s Ocean Way Studio on Music Row, the kids got their wish on July 27 as they rapped their way through the songs they had worked so hard on all summer. With titles like “Stop Shooting” and “Be True To Yourself,” it was an emotionally charged, inspiring day.

“It was not what I had expected,” says McCrary. “It was powerful. It brought me to tears that that was what was on their hearts.”

As she thought back on the summer, McCrary’s eyes glinted. “I think there’s room to grow because I don’t know everything,” she says. “I feel good, and I feel in alignment with my purpose. I’m hoping it does something for them, so they know they can make better choices. They don’t have to do one thing. They have other choices and options.”

There’s a lot more to songwriting than lyrics scrawled on a page, and that’s something these kids are just beginning to figure out.


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