Saturday, September 24, 2011

Historical Overview

Welcome to The Science Songbook, the blog where I feature songs I've written about science, and perhaps a few other subjects. I presume I'll add a bit of philosophy in as well, as music and education are both central to my life, and I have much to say about each and their intersection.

I make my living as a classical singer and university professor. I teach private voice lessons and a class in ear training (which involves learning to look at notated music and hear it in your head, as well as the reverse: hearing music and being able to write it down.)

However, before I discovered my vocal talents, I was very interested in songwriting. I wrote my first song when I was 7 years old, and by the time I had applied for college, I had written about 50 songs. Sadly, they ranged in quality from utterly atrocious to mildly palatable. I continued to write in college, but eventually got fully sucked away into the world of opera and oratorio.

I started writing songs again after I got married, perhaps inspired by the fact that my wife's parents had been rock musicians in the 60's and 70's with a gold record to their credit. Years spent performing and teaching music had honed my skills to a much higher degree, and I found I was writing much better material. Most of it was still centered on the typical subjects of love and anguish.

When my kids were small, my wife and I became strong advocates for early childhood education, and we began performing occasional shows for the preschool crowd, mostly featuring folk songs that get kids moving. As we were affiliated early on with a mobile literacy program called the Gus Bus, we called ourselves the "book bus band." ("Gus bus band" was already taken.) I began writing songs for the preschool crowd to supplement our sets, and we were featured on a local telethon singing two of our originals, including one written specifically for that show.

Last year, my eldest daughter asked me to help her review some material for a test on Soil. As I looked at the study sheet, I thought "Hey, I bet I could write some of this material into a song." I sat down for a half hour with the guitar, and came up with the first song in what I contemplated calling "dirty songs for kids" but later decided would be better represented as "the soil cycle." I recorded it that evening in approximately one take, directly into the microphone of my macbook. I added a little extra vocal harmony, and it was satisfactorily saved for posterity. My daughter loved it, but I thought I should share it a bit more widely. Perhaps other people would find it useful.

The question was, how to share it? I had several websites I maintained, but none were really appropriate for this sort of music. But I recalled recently seeing some songs posted to YouTube with lyrics. That, I thought, I could probably do. So I did a little experimentation with iMovie, and discovered it was rather easy to produce a video of the song with just the lyrics. This had the dual benefit of being quick and easy to produce, and of making it easier to sing along.

I posted it to YouTube on the old "bookbusband" account I had reserved. (I now regret not choosing a new name at that point!) And then I posted a link to FaceBook. And about 42 of my friends went and listened. And a lot of them liked it!

I was so jazzed that they liked it that I wrote another song the next day, and again recorded it in one evening and had a video out that night. The next day, I actually had a day off, and spent the better part of the day writing and recording the third song in the cycle. And I wrote and recorded a fourth song the next day.

At which point I burnt out completely. I turned my attention to other things, including recording a local Christmas CD, for which I also wrote or arranged several pieces, and focusing on my professional duties as a singer and teacher.

By the Spring of 2011, my videos were getting a little more attention, and someone took my suggestion to make a request. (I love a challenge.) This quickly resulted in a new song, and I produced another four videos in rapid succession. By now, I knew more people were paying attention, so I put a little more care into the recording of the songs. I pulled some very long nights getting these songs finished.

Again, I burnt out for awhile. (It's hard to do all this while working full time!)

My interest was again piqued this summer when I was contacted by Greg Crowther, a scientist and songwriter, to see if I could help record a song he wrote for a contest. I was away for the summer, and had no instruments or equipment with me, so naturally, it was a challenge I couldn't refuse! I decided that I would have to make an acapella arrangement of the song. I added an intro and a bridge, and built up a somewhat elaborate arrangement using only my macbook (using garageband) and the built in microphone. (I did rerecord most of the parts using a better mic when I got home.)

I've slowed down my pace a bit now, which perhaps means I won't burn out so quickly. I've also realized that this is something I care passionately about, and therefore something I need to make room for in my life. (A story better saved for another post.) So I am starting this blog, and beginning a journey of taking these songs and my involvement with them seriously.

I will be posting songs individually here, with some commentary. If you'd just like to skip ahead and listen to most of what I've produced at one go, you'll find them on this YouTube channel:

I hope you enjoy!