When my daughter Echo was not even 3 years old and my son was still an infant, our nighttime ritual was a song before bed. As a longtime musician and songwriter, this was a joy. I began to sing her all the kids’ songs I knew and then some for adults too. Eventually, she made it very clear: every night it had to be a song she had never heard before.
My daughter has been shocking me with her musical prowess since she was old enough to speak in sentences. I know she’s the child of two professional musicians, but when your 2.5 year old starts to echo the pitch that elevator doors or household appliances make; or locate your harmony notes when you’re humming along with the radio then naturally return to the melody like she’s done nothing unusual, you know you have a responsibility on your hands. At 5, she sat down at a piano and picked out the notes to a song she knew without being told which keys to play. It freaks me out a little, I have to admit! Any natural talent is exciting but has to be fostered delicately.
Back then, all I knew was that her firebrand of a personality was already musically savvy enough to reject any songs I tried to repeat and, likewise, demanding enough to insist on something new. Eventually, I ran out of songs. That didn’t faze her.
“Make one up, Mommy!” she said, naturally. And as a professional songwriter, how could I deny this was the obvious next step?
So there I was, night after night, innovating a lyric and melody line about some random topic like cats in pink hats or rain tickling the windowpanes. If I could find a quick rhyme and fun rhythm, the song would click its heels and start dancing in that dark room much to her delight. I even recorded some of those songs on my most recent album Sticks & Stones (2017). I mean, it was a daily occurrence, so a handful was bound to be worth holding onto!
But one night, my little girl decided she should control the content. She outlined the characters, setting, plot:
“It’s about a dog and a monkey. They go to the park. They play with rocks and search for feathers…”
(On park visits, we often do scavenger hunts for natural items. So, she wanted a song she could relate to.)
“… and they have lots of fun. They dance and sing. They eat all the snacks their mommies bring…”
She’d even offered me a rhyme! The song took form immediately and she was singing along by the time it ended. That track is called “Dog & Monkey.” It’s definitely a “co-write”!
As they’ve gotten older, the tradition of introducing a new song every night has morphed into bedtime stories that I have to make up. Now aged 6 and 4, these stories are very important for reinforcing life lessons. But, sometimes I miss the forced songwriting at my progeny’s command!
Nevertheless, the whole bedtime songwriting phase taught her that good music could indeed be invented on the spot. Both children now regularly change the words to familiar melodies, creating their own lyrical stories. And, as they play quietly, I’ve also heard them innovating melodies, naturally, because such a creative act is just part of this household. When an activity is normalized, it goes unquestioned. And that is true for any art. I want music to be a free and joyful experience for my children rather than a strict and formulaic forced study. And, I have my daughter to thank for teaching me exactly how to begin this journey!
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She and her husband Guo Jian (国囝), who is also a musician, have a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a son called Topaz or “Paz” (国世龙).