I am Donna Rhodenizer. I am a composer. It took me a long time to grow into the label and embrace it as part of my musical skills. When I was a young music student, I wrote little “ditties” that I would play on the piano. In high school there was a serious song about my “one true, forever love” (which ended when I went to university) and a three-part choral arrangement I wrote for my high school choir as part of a grade 12 music class assignment. I wrote songs, yes, but the title of composer was a bit of a stretch. I started writing songs in a more serious way when I was in my elementary classroom teaching children in grades Kindergarten (Primary) to grade 6. We were all young then. Full of youthful vigor and fresh ideas. Together we made beautiful music, but was I a composer? I didn’t think so.

Donna writingI had fun writing songs for my students. I would create amusing story songs that went over well at school concerts. I wrote a school song (for every school in which I taught!) and chronicled graduations, school closings, centennial celebrations, and retirements with songs.

My first song was, “I Need a Home for My Dinosaur.” This remarkably simple song, written over 30 years ago, has had an amazing history. As part of our 30-year anniversary/birthday celebration of this song I wrote a blog about the journey this simple song has afforded me as a composer, performer, award-winning recording artist, and educator. Read more about my dinosaur here.

With the very humble beginning of my dinosaur song, I was launched into my composing career. Still, if anyone asked me in those early years, “Are you a composer?” I would shyly mumble that, yes, I did write songs, but to refer to myself as a composer was not yet in my vocabulary. My collection of songs grew and slowly spread from being used by my local music teaching peers to teachers further afield and eventually my songs made their way around the world to music programs and choirs across Canada and the US, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America. I also grew into my label of “composer” over time. It is something that was nurtured and developed through opportunity, training, and practice. I embrace the part of myself that is now defined by the description, “composer.” It is part of who I am as much as my sense of humour, or my love of chocolate. I love being a composer and sharing my music with singers around the world.

As I wrote more songs it seemed like a good idea to group songs into collections. Computer Cat is one of five collections I have written for elementary aged singers and in a format intended to be useful for elementary music teachers. There is a mix of grade and skill level across the 12 songs in the collection and the songs can be used for classroom singing or with elementary choirs. There are vocal scores for students and printed lyrics (that the teacher has permission to copy and distribute to students), a director’s score/piano accompaniment, and recordings that have both performance tracks and instrumental tracks for accompaniment and concert use. The print book/CD format has changed somewhat these days to include e-books, PDF music downloads, audio track digital downloads, but the music itself has stood the test of time.

The songs in the Computer Cat song collection were written over several years and are very organic in their construction. Many were composed for concert programs for which I needed music. Some were written when events at school or in my personal life sparked my imagination and I would start writing.

There are four penguin songs in the Computer Cat Song Collection. This four-song series was motivated by a grade 2 teacher who was doing a penguin theme with her class. She came to my music room and asked if I knew any penguin songs I could sing with her students to go along with her penguin unit. I asked her students to tell me what they knew about penguins and they erupted with penguin facts: penguins can’t fly, penguins hold their eggs on their feet, father penguins stay with the egg while the mother goes to eat (for two months!), there are seventeen different kinds of penguins, and on and on! I was inspired to write the four penguin songs which ended up in this collection. I chose contrasting styles: a march, a waltz, a country line dance and a simple art song and I utilized the language that the students had used to tell me their facts. Some of the songs had actions and for others we created simple dance steps for the musical interludes. All four songs were received with great excitement by the students who knew they were the inspiration for the songs that they were singing.

Basic elements that are essential

Writing music for young singers is not just about finding a topic that will be of interest to the students. When composing (or choosing) music for young elementary students there are some very basic elements that I feel are essential.

  • Appropriate language (age and subject matter)
  • Vocal Range
  • Musicality

Appropriate Lyrics

The lyrics must be age-appropriate while leaving room for a bit of “stretch”, adding in some words that might expand the vocabulary or that are fun to sing. The subject of the song needs to connect in some way with the young singer, be it tickling the imagination or giving them a voice to express emotions they might feel but not know how to put into words for themselves.

Song lyrics are enormously powerful. We can edify or we can diminish the world of young singers with the words that we give them to sing. When a child learns a song, memorizes the lyrics, rehearses the song over a period of time, and performs it, the lyrics eventually sink into their memories and become internalized. With that knowledge comes the responsibility to choose wisely the lyrics that we give to our students to sing. With this in mind, I am very particular that the language I use is appropriate for children. Language that is not acceptable in school or in public conversation is not a consideration for the lyrics I choose to write. Neither is mature subject matter that is so often the topic in the popular songs of the day.

It is also important to me that the accents in the music and the natural accents of the language are not distorted or shifted. I am vigilant in creating lyrics that sound as natural when singing as they would when speaking. I have songs that have been translated from English to French. I personally worked with the Francophone translator to be sure the meaning of the lyrics was maintained, and I adjusted melody lines to accommodate the accents that naturally occur in the French language. Lyrics with stressed syllables falling on unaccented notes (and vice versa) make a song more difficult to sing and it just sounds wrong!

Vocal Ranges for Young Singers

The vocal range of a song is an important factor in making it accessible and successful for a young singer. The optimal vocal range of elementary-aged singers (ages 8-12) is approximately an octave (between middle C and the C and octave higher).

vocal range

Songs that creep into the top and bottom notes of this range are fine if one doesn’t stay in the outer ranges for extended periods of time.

Younger singers (ages 4-8) have higher lighter voices than older elementary singers. The optimal range for young beginning students is a narrow range, approximately a fifth between D and A within the octave depicted above. Again, songs that stretch beyond this range are certainly usable with caution that the outer limits are brief exceptions in the overall tone set of the song. This range will expand as the voice develops.

range 2

As I compose my songs, I am very aware of the limits of these vocal ranges and I constantly adjust my songs to keep the melody within those parameters. There are some melodies that extend beyond the octave range and in these instances, when it is possible, I will give an optional note to accommodate singers who find the outer range too difficult to reach.

Musicality for Young Singers

The third element that I consider essential when writing vocal music is musicality. Melody lines can be simple with accompaniments and styles that provide support, but which are interesting. I call this “harmonic depth”. Young singers may not be able to sing in harmony, but with a well-supported melody, they will derive great satisfaction singing their simple melody with the harmonic depth and sophistication of interesting chords and musical styles. When a song has harmonic depth, more experienced singers will find themselves humming along with a harmony line or counter melody.

My melodies are written to flow as musically and naturally as possible, while trying to avoid being “predictable” or clichés. Over the years I have become known for writing melodies that stick in your head (sometimes referred to as “ear worms”) due in large part to the effort I put into creating natural, singable melodies. Simple melodies can also be used with a variety of musical styles. Teaching young singers to “swing the eighths” opens opportunities in swing and jazz idioms; introducing waltzes, country stylings, marches and lullabies offers a rich musical experience that can broaden their musical world.

Composing – Putting it All Together

With attention to lyrics, range and musicality always simmering beneath the surface of my process, song writing becomes an exploration into whatever subject my imagination takes me. I have great fun looking at the everyday world with a unique perspective. I constantly keep a notebook (or several!) nearby to jot down ideas as they appear in my consciousness. Many song ideas come while washing dishes, driving, or in the shower. Concepts for a song story, catchy phrases, funny observations and bits and pieces of melodies get recorded in my notebook or a digital recorder to be worked on at a later time.

Sometimes song ideas come from funny things I see or things that people say.

The song, Computer Cat, was written because of an innocent question asked by my young son, Daniel. He asked me, “Mom, what would happen if the cat ate the mouse for the computer?” This was such an amusing picture that I immediately started jotting down ideas for the story part of the song. Writing the music came a bit later, although for me lyrics and melodies are often crafted together. Sometimes the initial idea for lyrics comes first and sometimes it is a melodic phrase that I sing as I am driving or a chord progression that I play as I noodle at the piano. Eventually the music and lyrics are influenced by each other and it is a symbiotic process.

I love writing songs that give human characteristics to things from the natural world. When I was driving with my three sons along a country road, we saw telephone wires near a farm that were laden with birds sitting wing to wing. We mused that the birds might be trying to listen to phone conversations through their feet and then we started suggesting ideas of other things the birds might do. Forty Little Birdies was written with a jazzy feel, swinging the eighths, and using a chorus of peeps as an introduction to improvisation. This was a fun style in which to write and a challenge to stay within a rhyming scheme that centered around the word wire. With my thesaurus in hand, I made use of flyer, retired, fired, and choir. My sons wanted to add in “all of them on fire” which I vetoed in the spirit of trying to stay with a more positive vibe!

Looking at “normal” things in a different way can result in interesting song lyrics. Splashing in the Puddles looks at rainy weather with the optimism of someone who has rubber boots (galoshes!) and an umbrella ready to take on the day. The verses were written with call and response phrases as a simple part singing introduction for my elementary students. The song admonishes that even though some folks sing “Rain come back some other day” we shouldn’t be grumpy sad or blue about rainy weather. The lyrics pose the question, “from the sky above or in a lake of water, isn’t the idea to get wet?” This song was part of a spring concert staged with a soft shoe dance routine, umbrellas and a whistling solo added to the instrumental interlude.

As an elementary music teacher there are many things that provide fodder for song ideas. The grade 5 class hamster ran away and the forlorn students that arrived in the music room had nothing but their loss on their minds. My lesson plan was set aside and we spent much of music class exploring their feelings of loss, regret (who was supposed to have latched the cage?), worry (what would the hamster eat) and hope (would the hamster return?). I went home that evening and wrote My Hamster as a reflection of their concern and emotional upheaval. This song provided them with a vehicle to express their feelings and in some way gave them some comfort. A happy ending to the story was made possible when, after three days, the missing hamster was found in a bin of basketballs in the gym. The song was not re-written but remains intact as an exploration of heartfelt emotion.

I regularly started my music classes by “singing the news.” Students had the opportunity to tell me something about their day or their family and we would use this as a time to sing and catch up. One student said, “My mother went on vacation and I don’t know when she’s coming back.” The phrase struck me as something that would make a good lyric, so I wrote it down. Eventually I composed The Vacation Song which is based on the premise that each family member goes somewhere on vacation leaving the singer at home. Each family member is represented by a different instrument which gets added to the song as an improvisational solo in specific spots in this bouncy syncopated melody. The final verse is a request that all the family members return home to make music together, which they do!

With the addition of instruments and other complicating elements, the chorus is written with lots of repetition. The young singers are learning multiple verses, adding instruments and improvising, so the easier repetitious choruses gives them a break. The chord structures and ‘calypso’ feel of the accompaniment add harmonic depth and makes it satisfying to sing. There is also the opportunity for a bit of theatrical flair if the students are up for creating costumes as well as specific instruments that are associated with each of the family members in the song.

Thinking about going on vacation led to the creation of the song Packing. A list of seemingly random items must be collected up to prepare for a trip. There is concern when, “I can’t find my teddy, I’m not nearly ready. If I don’t get going soon, I’m sure to miss my plane.” With so many things to bring, the list “is exponential” (a word that is just fun to sing!) and the list must be checked to be sure we haven’t missed “anything essential.” The chorus is a list of items (actually chosen by my own children and those of my singing partner who helped us with the Donna & Andy recording of this song. You can hear our version by scrolling down in the player at this link.

Give your students the opportunity to create the list of items they want to sing in the chorus. Students must fit their list of items into the rhythmic confines of six bars of music, but otherwise, there is complete artistic freedom to add whatever items they wish. I love creating this small opportunity for composing and taking ownership in this song.

Serious topics such as world peace and taking our place in a world “community” were addressed in the songs We are the Children of the World and I’m Wishing. These songs help give a voice to emotions that children may not know how to express, even though they have deep feelings on the subject. Both songs were written with older students in mind, therefore options for harmony singing are included and the ranges are wider than would be written for younger students. Both of these songs are excellent repertoire options for use with an upper elementary choir. We are the Children of the World also works extremely well as an all-school finale for concerts, combining all the students from Kindergarten to grade 6. Older students provide the support for the whole song and younger children can sing along with the choruses.

We are the Children of the World talks about the world as a community, “Every face is different, yet we are all the same” and it is a great starting point for class discussion as the song is introduced. It is also immensely powerful to give the students language to internalize their role in the future of the world, “Look in our eyes, see all the promise; we know the future’s in our hands.” With a pop-rock feel and strong lyrics, this song reverberates with strength, community, and hope for the future.

I’m Wishing starts out with a melodic reference to the familiar children’s chant, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” and the lyrics are about wishing on the first star of the evening. The wishes are big ones: “peace instead of war, love each other more” and “more laughter, children playing safely everywhere.” Children are concerned about the world in which they live and giving them these lyrics acknowledges their concern and gives them a way to express their feelings. The song goes on with the message that we all have a part to play in making the world a better place to be. I’m Wishing has longer phrases and some harmony options in the verses and is best suited to older elementary singers. It is also an excellent repertoire choice for elementary choirs. We have used this song as part of our Remembrance Day ceremonies at the school.

When writing songs for students there are many factors that must be considered. As an elementary music educator and a composer, I weigh the factors from both perspectives when I pick up my pen to flesh out those tidbits from my song idea notebooks. Inspiration may strike and the idea may be fantastic, but it will have to stand up to the test of being age-appropriate, with the correct vocal range and with the best musicality I can provide. When it has passed my stringent standards, I am confident offering it for inclusion in the musical repertoire used in vocal studios and elementary music classrooms.

I am Donna Rhodenizer, I am a composer, and I love sharing my music with young singers around the world!