In March of 2014, Albany Public Library was awarded a YALSA Teen Tech Week grant, supporting a music production program we were excited to try.  We called it Build-A-Song, and the idea was to help teens create an original song from scratch, in just five days.  Thanks to the YALSA grant, and with additional assistance from our local Guitar Center, we put together a mobile recording setup that included a Mac Mini with GarageBand and ProTools Express, PreSonus USB Audio Interface, two microphones with a stand and vocal pop filter, studio monitor speakers, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard. We already owned several guitars that we used for free music instruction programs, as well as several percussion instruments; with these and the software instruments available, we had all the ingredients for a full band.  To actually build the song, we dedicated one day to each of the following: drums and bass, guitars and keyboards, electronic effects, vocals, and finally mixing and mastering.  We also put out lyric prompts and a submission jar, and invited teens to write anything from a word to a couplet or even full song.  These would provide material and inspiration when it came time to record vocals.  We decided to record in the middle of our busy youth services room, valuing participation over pristine recording conditions.

Buildasong buildjar

We started the first day by showing teens the basics of the recording software.  We decided to use GarageBand because of its easier learning curve and since we have several iPads for teen use that have it installed.  Teens chose a tempo, and then collectively selected a pre-recorded beat to work from — this was the only component of the final song not composed or played by teens.  Next, they used the MIDI keyboard to trigger various drum and percussion sounds and create their own beats.  The bassline came next, which was created by lowering the pitch of an electric guitar two octaves .  Though they were encouraged to do so, none of the teens wanted to try playing the guitar themselves, so one of the youth services librarians became their hands and played notes and ultimately a full bass riff dictated by teens.

girls singingThe next day found some teens willing to try playing guitar, despite having no previous experience doing so.  They especially enjoyed changing the effects and hearing themselves sound like rock stars, and were remarkably adept at finding notes and rhythms that complimented the parts of the song already recorded.  This remained true when we moved to the keyboard, which a large number of teens and children played.  Something surprising was that although it could be made to sound like any other instrument, most preferred more natural piano and organ sounds.  Another wonderful surprise was that teens began playing together, with one on keyboard and one on guitar.  It was moving and amazing to see two people who had only just met playing instruments they had never played before, improvising along with a song they were creating out of nothing and sounding GOOD.  A wonderful spirit of collaborative play arose, with others in the room joining in on maracas and xylophones, and one teen breaking out a clarinet she had brought from home – and rocking it!

The following day, we turned up the weird.  We used a Makey Makey to hook up fruits, vegetables and more to the computer, turning a banana and a hole punch into musical instruments.  Here, the sound effect choices were more inspired.  Teens turned a strawberry into a snare drum, a hammer into a trumpet, even connected the Makey Makey to themselves and high-fived each other to add cymbal crashes.  It was very cool to see the expressions of wonder as teens used and witnessed this wizardry in action!

boy singingThe next day we recorded vocals, and the song started taking shape.  To start, we took out the lyric prompts from the submission jar for people to read and record.  We also supplied more blank forms and plenty of pens and paper.  But the biggest draw was simply putting out a mic on a stand with headphones.  We had lots of freestyle
rs, several who read others’ lyrics or wrote their own, and one girl who sat down and wrote a complete original song!  Several teens chose to sing together in pairs or groups, and a few times small crowds arose with people clapping and singing together.  Hooks and choruses were spontaneously created and developed, which became key parts of the song.  The joy and excitement was contagious as burgeoning music producers got to see their parts come together in a real live song.

The final day was intended for mixing and mastering, but we ended up having so many teens wanting to add vocal and instrumental parts that we had little time for post-production.  Some mixing did get done, but most was completed later by a staff member.  Once the song was finalized, a slideshow was created which was then posted on the library’s YouTube page.

girl using softwareBuild-A-Song was a very successful program for us, and a good fit for our patrons and mission.  We have several other music and video production programs as well as hands-on creative programming for kids, teens, and adults.  We are about to launch our Albany Made Creative Lab, which will expand our ‘maker’ programming by adding 3D printing, vinyl cutting, and a range of multimedia tools including the Build-A-Song recording setup.  The Build-A-Song program was so popular that we have now run it twice, tweaking and improving it along the way.  Key lessons learned were to be flexible and let teens lead, incentivize participation, and edit continually rather than save it all for last.  The second time, we also invited teens to photograph and film the process, and with staff help they created a stop-motion music video for Build-A-Song 2.  Expanding the experience this way created wider interest and increased the ways for teens to participate.  It has also inspired continued creativity: we finished the second video a month ago, and still have kids and teens talking about it and asking to create music and videos.  It is wonderful being able to say yes to this!  After the initial purchase, running this program costs us nothing but our time – and pays endless dividends in teen learning, enjoyment, and sense of accomplishment.

To hear both Build-A-Songs and watch their videos, please visit Albany Public Library’s YouTube page:

Further reading

Here’s an interview with one of our teen participants for the Educator Innovator blog:

And here is an interview we conducted for the YALSA Teen Tech Week website:

Tor Loney is a Youth Services Librarian at Albany Public Library, concentrating on teen engagement.  He is especially interested in creative arts and emerging technologies, and is involved in filmmaking, music production, guitar instruction, and electronics programming for kids and teens.  He previously worked as an Information Literacy Librarian and Instructor at the University at Albany, where he received his Masters’ of Science in Information Science.

One Thought on “Build-A-Song at Albany Public Library

  1. This is inspiring and totally creative! The bottom line they’re doing positive way in collaboration performing song and making it good.

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