Mike Finn: Teaching Students to Record the Songs They Write

Mike Lawson • Modern Band • December 5, 2019

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Over the past 16 years, Michael Finn has created a unique and special songwriting course that he teaches at a high school in Los Angeles.

This one-of-a-kind program puts students in a creative space throughout the entire year through creative compositions. “A recorded product is to a songwriting class what a graded essay is to an English class,” says Finn. Initially the class was focused strictly on songwriting without any recording involved. The students loved the process and would perform the song after a few weeks of writing. He then adds that, as great as this format was, the songs would then disappear into thin air, only to be forgotten over time, leading to the need for recording and documentation.

Finn nostalgically remembers when he purchased his first stand-alone recording console, which had 8 input channels and a CD burner, which he would record the students on and then take the entire console home for the weekend to mix the recordings. He then would return on Monday with a CD copy of the songs for all the students to listen to. Finn recalls how it was such a mind-blowing experience for his students to hear themselves and their original compositions. Nowadays, Finn records on digital audio workstations such as Soundtrap and posts the songs on Soundcloud for his students to reference.

The development of the songwriting class occurred rather naturally over time. His class started with one songwriting assignment that gradually began to expand into more assignments over the course of a few years. Initially, it began with electric instruments but over time would only utilize acoustic instruments for the purpose of practicality in the classroom, allowing the class more time to focus on songwriting and less on instrument maintenance and troubleshooting issues. For the first assignment they would select a song such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Born to Run” and really dig into it to understand the various components. After some critical listening, the students would then break up into groups and work out their own versions of the song.

Through this undertaking, students begin to look at themselves as recording artists and creators. After a few go arounds with songwriting and recording, the students begin to trust in the entire process, and this is when the expressiveness really starts to surface. Finn describes songwriting as “creating magic” in the classroom. In the beginning of the school year, he provides some basic instrumental instruction to get his students prepared to write songs. His students come in with a varied set of music education experiences and Finn mixes them all up when they form bands, leaving students the responsibility of figuring out roles for each other. Use of multitracking is an essential part of the recording and production process. Vocals are primarily overdubbed but he also records instrumental parts individually when needed.

Another great aspect of the songwriting course is the ways it can impact students with exceptionalities. He vividly remembers a particular student who had cerebral palsy who would play a baritone ukulele with just two strings. “The kid lit up the first time he heard his part recorded,” Finn recalls. This story is one of countless others that demonstrate the power of songwriting and production for students with exceptionalities.


• Overdub: to record additional sounds on an existing recording.

• Panning: to spread audio to the left, center and right of the stereo spectrum.

• Reverb: an artificial way of producing echo on recorded audio.

• Delay: the producing of a repeated sound in seconds or milliseconds.

• Equalization: enables you to increase or decrease the volume of specific frequencies for the purpose of enhancing the recorded sound.

• Digital Audio Workstation: electronic equipment or software used to record, edit, and mix audio recordings.

For the purpose of self-analysis, Finn also uses a reflection sheet, which encourages his students to think critically about their creations, helping them think about how they would change the performance of their song along with any of the components within it.

It also focuses on how they would change the postproduction and mix. Elements such as panning, reverb, delay and equalization are all discussed. Beyond this, they are also asked to consider the lyrics, chord structure, melody and form in order to give them a basis to provide constructive feedback. In the beginning of the school year, he’ll do listening activities with his students, where they open up a recorded song file and begin to isolate a track and experiment with panning, reverb, and EQ. This helps students build a frame of reference so they can provide feedback after receiving mixes from him throughout the year.

Finn also emphasizes that the type of composition he teaches is more in the singer-songwriter style. He acknowledges that there are new and evolving ways to compose music digitally and always considers the possibility of expanding his concept of the class as technology continues to advance. This openness to continually evolving has been a staple of his program and is a great example of the power of music composition in the classroom, demonstrating how students can exercise their creative expression through songwriting.

Finn is passionate about unlocking students’ creativity and adamantly promotes the idea that students should engage in songwriting in classrooms at all age levels.

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