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Album cover for Living in the Moment. Group photo of Midview High School songwriting students under the outdoor chandelier in Cleveland's Playhouse Square

Student-Composed Songs Sing Success of Teaching Artist Residency

When Bella, a junior at Midview High School, saw that a new songwriting class was being offered this year in the music department, she knew she had to take it.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve loved making music, so once I heard about this class, I was so excited for the opportunities to come,” she said.

Emily, a senior, said she was also drawn to the course, which is taught by Justin Caithaml, choir director at Midview Local Schools.

“I was initially interested (in) this class because I had written my first song about two months prior,” she said. “I was very excited to learn more about writing songs and to write more of them.”

Approaching the end of a successful inaugural year, the songwriting class teaches students the theory and practice behind writing and recording original compositions. Caithaml, who is in his third year of teaching at his alma mater, said he was inspired to develop the course after seeing the passion students had for music.The back cover of the Midview High School songwriting class' student-produced CD,

“I noticed that students were writing songs on their own after school and coming in and playing the piano at their lunchtime … kids were in my room playing piano or they were sitting in the hallway playing guitar,” he said. “I organically noticed these things happening, so I pitched the idea of us putting it into the format of a class.”

There are currently 20 students from grades ranging from sophomores to seniors enrolled, and they have spent months writing songs and performing them both for class critique and for audiences throughout the Cleveland area.

So far this year, the students have performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and at a school board meeting, Caithaml said.

The students’ exposure to the inner workings of the music industry is further enhanced by the mentorship of Brent Kirby, a songwriter from Cleveland who has been working with Caithaml and his students through an Ohio Arts Council TeachArtsOhio (TAO) grant.

The TAO program pairs schools and community organizations with teaching artists to offer customizable artist residencies for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students in Ohio’s schools.

Caithaml said including a teaching artist in the course curriculum was a natural fit.

“If I am going to teach a songwriting class, I want kids to have a real-world application for what they are doing right away,” he said. “When Brent is here, he is looking at it from a very realistic, artistic perspective. I am able to present a musical concept or frame something based on the students’ previous work. He is able to frame it within the context of ‘what makes a song work on the radio?’ or ‘what makes a song work when you go record it?’ The kids immediately are able to get a greater depth of experience because of his additional insight.”

The class has been working with Kirby to produce “Living in the Moment,” a CD featuring six songs written entirely by the students.

“One of best moments I’ve had so far with the kids is taking the songs that they have written to the studio, producing them with session musicians, and seeing the faces on the kids when they heard their songs become fully orchestrated for the first time,” Kirby said. “I hope that the students come away from this project knowing how to write a song and being able to carry that through life with whatever they do. Using their creative thinking skills, understanding how music and words put together make you feel something bigger, and how it creates connection between all of us.”

Caithaml said students were invited to submit recordings of songs to be considered for the CD, with the final selection made by a committee of faculty members.

“It is really turning into a project involving most of the school at this point,” he said. “I sort of take it as my responsibility every single day to … empower the students to figure out what the arts mean to them and then how to communicate that to the broader community.”

The students will soon have the chance to share their music with the broader Ohio community because “Living in the Moment” will be played during the 2018 Arts Day and Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio luncheon and awards ceremony on May 16. Plans are underway to feature the music in the Ohio House of Representatives Student Art Exhibition hallway, where artwork by high school students from each of the 99 districts in the House of Representatives is featured.

Students from the Midview High School songwriting class at Playhouse Square in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of Justin CaithamlMidview High School Principal Tom Faska said the CD project has had a positive impact on all who have become involved.

“These types of residencies and in-the-field experiences lend themselves to the well-rounded education that we want and expect for our students. Without these types of programs, many of our students may never have this opportunity again,” he said. “It is and was very exciting to not only have the opportunity for this program, but to see it blossom along the way, which is a tribute to the instructors and to our students.”

Keagen, a senior whose song is included on the CD, said he is excited to see how listeners react to its message.

“There are so many great songs on this record, but I’m most excited for people to hear the song that I wrote with my friend Tyler. It’s about growing up and how it can make you feel scared and alone,” he said. “I feel like it’s a song that people my age can easily relate to.”

For Maddie, a sophomore, the most exciting part about the project has been seeing how the group’s compositions have changed since the beginning of the year.

“We all have learned and improved so much and our knowledge of songwriting is far more vast,” she said. “This class really does help those who are passionate find a unique sound and way of writing.”

As both a teacher and as a musician himself, Caithaml is looking forward to sharing his students’ talents with the world.

“The TeachArtsOhio program really empowers us as teachers to realize that new ideas are possible, and that they don’t have to stay ideas. That’s what I love,” he said. “I am blown away by their talent, but I am also blown away by their originality and their creativity and how much this class means to them this year. I am impressed every single day when I walk into this class with them.”

To learn more about the TAO program and other grant opportunities, visit

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist

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