Sometimes, you want to say something and you’re not sure exactly how. Sometimes, there’s a song or a poem that you think is better than anything you could ever write—or, maybe, there’s a song or a poem that you could do better.
That’s the jumping-off point for Word Karaoke, a way of getting students inspired when they say they’re not. Karaoke is the ancient Japanese art of singing along with prerecorded background music. Singing along with the radio is karaoke. Singing in the shower can be karaoke. When hip-hop MCs rap over a beat—well, don’t tell them, but that’s karaoke too.
We start by asking the students, “What’s your favorite line from a song?” Get some suggestions. Write them on the board. Offer some of your own. Encourage more generalized, ambiguous responses; “Oops! I did it again” works much better than “My name is Shaa-dy”—although, for the purpose of this exercise, any suggestion is useful.
Writing, and especially music writing, is about using the listener’s expectation and then turning it on its head. Using samples is a way to do this. When Eminem sings, “Stop—pajama time,” he’s borrowing from the briefly popular eighties rapper M. C. Hammer when he sang, “Stop—Hammer time.” Sometimes, too, songs can use samples to express an idea. When dealing with the death of a friend, P. Diddy chose to use the feeling of the old song “I’ll Be Watching You.” He changed one word in the chorus, and ended up with a moving tribute called “I’ll Be Missing You.”
Once we’ve got their brains grinding (they will probably start out slowly, then, as they realize what’s going on, produce a maelstrom of suggestions), call for a halt—a temporary halt—and separate the class into pairs. Make sure each student has a pencil and paper. Then, ask every pair to write a short poem or song (one side of a page is plenty) using one of the lines on the board, or their own idea. Suggest that they use their original line in another context—“Oops, I spilled the paint again,” or “My name is mud.” Get them to understand the idea behind karaoke: that, given a line of a song, they can create or change the meaning to whatever they want. They can start their verse with the “sample,” or alternate that line with their own lines, going back and forth like a call-and-response.
Afterward, as time allows, students can perform their verses together. Encourage creative methods of presentation—one person can recite the sample line, and the other can recite the rest of the verse, or one can recite while the other performs an interpretive dance (be careful when offering this option to certain classes).
As an additional exercise, or for homework, students can write a new piece, either using the same verse from class with a different idea, or coming up with their own, new piece. For a real twist, get students to listen to one of their parents’ songs and rewrite it from their own viewpoint!