Recently our students had the opportunity to embark on a distinctly Swedish adventure, complete with dog-sledding, cross-country skiing, and a look into the culture of the Sami people who have called northern Sweden home for centuries. But before that monumental trip, our students had the opportunity to visit a culture where bulldogs are celebrated instead of sled dogs, and people are more likely to play cricket than go skiing. I’m of course referring to our month-long weXplore of the United Kingdom, a place-based learning expedition that featured four distinct itineraries and took our students everywhere from Brighton beach to Edinburgh Castle at the start of the school year.
Students chat beneath the London Eye
I joined all of our students during the final week of the trip, which included stops in Liverpool, Oxford, and London. This leg of the journey was planned by Spanish teacher Sam Nelson, who happens to be a Briton himself. Sam is also an enthusiastic musician, and many of the activities planned during our time in these three quintessentially English cities pertained to the writing and recording of an original song, with inspiration drawn from Liverpool’s favorite sons, The Beatles.
As they participated in the music-themed activities and settled down to write their songs, each group was asked to consider questions such as “How can you make someone feel an emotion when writing a song?” and “How can music change your world?”. After recording their original song, each group was then asked to answer the inquiry questions in the form of a powerpoint. You can hear the recordings below:
Here are some activity highlights and photos from our exceptional week together, and it was amazing to see our students’ unique processes when it came to writing these songs. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!
The Beatles Story
In the morning we visited The Beatles Story, which offers its visitors a comprehensive look at the careers and lives of Liverpool’s most beloved export. Our students spent an hour and a half drawing inspiration for their own song from the amazing collection of Beatles memorabilia contained within the record and photo-laden walls. The gift shop’s selection of John Lennon-themed glasses in a variety of hues proved to be an overwhelming hit with our kids, as about half of them dropped the three quid necessary to emulate the style of the Beatles frontman.
After learning about the history of The Beatles, it was time to hear their songs played live. And while nothing will ever compare to seeing The Beatles live in concert, seeing a set of their songs played at the legendary Cavern Club, where they first got their start, was a highly energetic experience itself. The Cavern Club sits in a converted warehouse cellar, and visitors descend into its dark, dank ballroom by three sets of stairs. The club reeks of history, which is altogether more pleasant than the foul odor of disinfectant, sweat, cigarettes, bathrooms, and hot dogs that the club was associated with during The Beatles heyday.
The Cavern Club, Liverpool
We were treated to a forty-five minute set by a more than capable young performer, who got our students dancing with his spirited renditions of Beatles songs. The kids enjoyed every minute, singing along, snapping photos, and studying the songs’ various musical elements for use in their own upcoming creations.
The final stop on our musical tour of Liverpool was a visit to Sefton Park for a songwriting workshop. Here our students were introduced to Mica, their teacher for the afternoon, who spent an hour teaching them songwriting conventions such as song structure, song terminology, lyric writing, and poetic devices. After their crash course with Mica, the students broke up into groups of six, with each group possessing at least one member with previous experience playing the piano or guitar. Each group was provided with a variety of multiple instruments and two hours to brainstorm their own Beatles-inspired song.
Mica leads a lesson on songwriting
It was impressive to watch my group, which consisted of Victor, Josh, Danielle, Jenna, Tiana, and Galek, craft their song. They began by deciding which genre of music they wanted to record, collectively scratching off styles such as country in favor of more urban and soulful sounds. After narrowing their choices down, they began listening to Beatles songs on Spotify, deciding which to draw inspiration from (they ended up choosing the classic “Come Together”). With their inspiration chosen, Galek began learning how to play the song’s bass part, while Josh began practicing on guitar. The remaining students began brainstorming lyrics centered around the concepts of youth, time, and journey.
An excellent brainstorming session from my group
After an hour of practicing the conventions Mica had laid out, it was clear that the song was coming together. One thing that I noticed during this process was that each group member was highly involved and offering feedback that played to their strengths: the more musically inclined students hashed out the song’s structure, while those who didn’t play instruments were active in suggesting and editing the lyrics. It was neat to see that each student had a part of the song that they could be proud of.
Each group member offered something unique
As the afternoon came to a close, each group of students came together and took turns previewing their songs. Again, I was really impressed with how much each group had accomplished in only a matter of time, and Sam offered each group solid advice on how they could take their song to the next level.
Each group previewed their song
After wrapping up our time on England’s west coast, we boarded a train and headed to Oxford. The focus of our two days here were to give the students a taste of life in one of the world’s most famous college towns, but time was also slotted in for each group to continue refining their song through the aid of Sam at a local recording studio. By this point our students had been continuously exploring the United Kingdom for three weeks, so Oxford’s idyllic small town feel provided a welcome respite and chance to relax. And after spending a few days here, it’s easy to see how Oxford came to be the inspiration for J.R.R Tolkien’s The Shire. As we sauntered down the same tree-lined paths that Tolkien did during his time teaching at Oxford University, it was easy to imagine the manicured fields strewn with hobbit holes, and like Bilbo or Frodo, I felt little desire to leave this picturesque setting. Eventually we did though, and our train to London contained more than a few TGS students sporting freshly-purchased Oxford University sweatshirts — a memento that might go on to mean bigger things in a few years.
Oxford University, Oxford
After arriving and getting settled in London, our students headed down to the West End for a final afternoon of inspiration before their scheduled studio time the next day: a performance of The Commitments at The Palace Theatre. Having only seen a handful of other musicals myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but The Commitments is a straight-up blast, and the 20 soul renditions performed live by the talented musicians and actors had our students and the rest of the audience on their feet. If you ever have the chance to see it performed live, we highly recommend it.
"If there's one thing I've learned this week, it's that writing music is very difficult. Even if you can hear something that sounds wrong, it's very difficult to make it sound right. When ever we listen to music, we don't really think about the time and effort it took to create it."
The following day, with The Commitments still fresh in their minds, our students headed into the studio to record. The recording process took place at the legendary Bush Studios, where everyone from Billy Ocean to Beyonce have laid down tracks over the years. After being introduced to the studio’s sound technicians, each group was given the opportunity to practice one last time before heading into the studio with Sam, who offered final bits of advice on how to get the most out of their instruments. Each recording was subsequently mastered by Bush Studios’ technicians before being passed back to THINK Global School.
Sam offers some final tips before recording
Thanks again to Sam for taking the time to put this week-long multidisciplinary experience together. If you’d like to see more projects put together by Sam, I recommend starting with his students’ exploration of the Mediterranean Diet.