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Strumming along

Bolton students learn the art of songwriting
by: Vern Uyetake, John Nilsen gives encouragement to Kaleah Helmke, right, and Yasmeen Gutierrez on becoming a musician during his residency at Bolton Primary School.

What do you get when you give 30 fifth-graders each a guitar and free reign? Not the headache one might expect, but instead some original pieces of music.

Thanks to funding from the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's nonprofit organization MAP (Music and Arts Partners), fourth- and fifth-graders at Bolton Primary School are receiving some songwriting instruction and guitar lessons from a seasoned professional.

Pianist, guitarist, songwriter and recording artist John Nilsen (who also happens to live in West Linn), conducted a residency at the school, working with the fourth and fifth grades to teach them about songwriting, structure and composition. By the time the residency ended on Monday, the students had each written an original guitar song.

Although Nilsen is a successful musician, having sold nearly 1 million albums, coming to the schools and inspiring a new generation of musicians has a special place in his heart.

Bolton music instructor Andrew Webster said he has worked with Nilsen at the high school level before doing a similar class, and they thought it could also work at an elementary level.

On June 4, the fifth-graders filed into the music room and started grabbing guitars. One girl approached Nilsen and told him she had a song they had been learning stuck in her head all weekend.

After a short warm-up and review of a song's structure, the students performed a ditty that included an introduction, a verse, a chorus and a big finish. Webster accompanied them on the piano and Nilsen added some flourish with his own guitar.

'We just made it up,' Nilsen told the students of what they were playing. 'That's how easy it is to write a song.'

The class then broke up to form groups to start writing their own songs. Students could work in bands with up to four members or choose to play solo.

'You can be really creative with this,' Webster told the class.

Fifth-grader Kyle Bezio chose to play by himself, practicing his chords. He said learning to play guitar has been fun for him.

Jordan Deitrich was also having a good time.

'I just like making songs,' she said, although, she added, "It's hard for me to change notes.'

Webster, who taught guitar at the high school level for 10 years, said teaching the younger students how to play instruments takes their level of thinking higher.

'These guys are really doing a good job,' he said.

Nilsen said his mother taught piano lessons from their home while he was growing up, and so the act of teaching children music has always been with him.

'It feels like a natural process,' Nilsen said. 'I think music opens up your mind in more ways than anybody could say.'

Nilsen said students learn about collaboration when they work as a band, along with the other skills that go along with learning an instrument such as counting, timing and the elements of music.

'The object is really songwriting … to show them how easy it is to write a song,' Nilsen said.

On the last day of Nilsen's residency, the students had the opportunity to perform in from of their class and get feedback.