Ryan Zwahlen, new chair of the Idyllwild Arts (IA) Music Department, is shaking things up a bit in the music curriculum. He has added a songwriting concentration for the first time this year. Seven students in the class taught by Zwahlen and Don Reed will debut some of their work from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 5 at Stephens Recital Hall.
The class is structured as a workshop, according to Reed, “The lion’s share of the work is hands-on, with the students collaborating in class on their songs,” he said. “We give instruction on music theory rudiments as they relate to songwriting, song structure and genres. We talk about chord forms, tricks in writing, where the ‘hook’ is in the song, but it is the process of doing, of writing, that perfects their talent.”
Reed noted that most of the students already have a great knowledge of and solid footing in songwriting. “A lot of what we do is nurture their process and get them to produce,” he said.
Reed said the students’ work is all interesting and very different, spanning the songwriting spectrum from punk to pop and R&B, and from Celtic rooted music to Broadway ballads, with some fusion of these genres.
Reed thought initiating a songwriting concentration this year may be related to IA alum Casey Abrams’ American Idol success last spring. He thinks the songwriting program is already paying off. “There’s just this buzz and excitement at the campus [about the program],” he noted.
Will Whitaker and Nicky Martin are two members of the class. Both are 16 and each raved about the collaborative atmosphere at IA, not just in this songwriting discipline, but campus-wide. Both are first year juniors — Nicky from San Francisco and Will from White Bear Lake, Minnesota — and each is affable, sophisticated, friendly and very talented.
Nicky calls Will a “minimalist” and Will notes that Nicky is the expansive one, already a mega producer. Nicky and his eight-member band “Romance of Thieves” is in a first place position in School Jam USA (www.schooljamusa.com), an online contest which leads to finals in Anaheim and award money which Nicky hopes to use to finance a music video shoot.
“He thinks massive,” said Will, who seems more contemplative than super-enthusiastic Nicky. However, each lauds the other’s talent. “His melodies on piano are just gorgeous,” said Nicky of his collaboration with Will. Asked if he writes lyrics or music first (both write both), Will said it’s different for every song. Both also play a number of instruments, compose, and sing. Will said it’s important to continue to perfect your playing, noting that he is not primarily a pianist but that he has to stretch on that instrument. “Otherwise you write only within your playing range,” he said.
Their enthusiasm for their craft was evident in their preview of a song on which they collaborated. Will was on piano and Nicky sang. “Juveniles,” their collaboration, had piano licks reminiscent of Elton John, a favorite of Will, and featured Nicky’s smooth and searing vocal.
For both Nicky and Will, this program, and being at IA has been transformative. “I went from being uncomfortable in my own skin to loving what I’m doing,” said Nicky. “I owe it all to Ryan [Zwahlen]. This program and school has allowed me to meet my needs and my passion [for writing music and lyrics and for arranging and composing].”
Will lauds the small class size and individual attention that this program is providing. “If it’s not individual, it’s not worth it,” he said. “I also love the many opportunities to collaborate across disciplines.” He’s beginning to work with a writer in another department on a musical.
Their enthusiasm is contagious, and they plan to bring that enthusiasm, and passion and expertise to their Dec. 5 performance. The recital is free to the public.