No such thing as a non-musician

Justin Brake
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The annual February RPM Challenge is underway and, by March, the province will have produced more than 100 new albums

Elling Lien is editor of The Scope magazine. — Photo by Justin Brake/Special to The Telegram

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The woods would be very silent if only the birds that sang were those that sang best.”

Of course, like our feathered friends, most of us can sing and make music. But unlike them, so many of us don’t.

And so, in 2006, with the acknowledged potential for music to inspire creativity and community-building, The Wire, an alternative newsweekly in Portsmouth, N.H., challenged everyone, regardless of age, gender or any other possible perceived differences, to record an album in the month of February.

At the same time, St. John’s independent arts magazine The Scope was just getting up and running, and the publication’s editor, Elling Lien, took notice of what The Wire was calling its RPM Challenge.

By 2008 the idea had spread to other communities around North America, including St. John’s thanks to The Scope, and around the world. Since then it has grown exponentially as more and more communities embrace the challenge.

So what does the RPM entail?

It’s simple, says Lien, seated in the upstairs of his colourful downtown apartment. Just record 10 songs or 35 minutes of original material in the month of February. That’s it, that’s all.

“It’s non-competitive (and) there’s no performance element beyond the recording,” he explains. “So the CD is something you have at the end. You don’t have to do anymore work.”

At the end of the month, Lien and his team gather all the submissions, give them a listen, stream them on The Scope’s website, and plan an early March listening party at a downtown venue or two, or three, depending on how many albums they receive.

Last year they accumulated 103 submissions from individuals and bands around the province, and this year they’re expecting even more.

“The crux of it is that it’s a deadline,” Lien says. “And people can do with it whatever they want: a professional project, something that they’ll eventually try to sell as a CD, or they can take it as a songwriting exercise … just as a sketchpad for songs.

“There’s no real limit to what you can do,” he continues. “It can be a half-hour jam with friends sharing a moment, getting together and beating on a drum and doing something kind of ridiculous together. It could be anything, from that up to the studio album that you’re working on.”

Lien says they’ve received submissions from children, storytellers, poets, musicians and non-musicians alike, with musical genres ranging from improv kitchen jams to rap and hip-hop to pop, rock and metal.

“If you can put something on CD you can submit it as an RPM album, like sketch comedy or yourself mumbling, talking,” he explains. “This interview could be an RPM,” he laughs. (Maybe it will be, Elling. Just maybe).

But again, unlike the birds, there is a widely held perception that we’re not all musically inclined.

To address that and other perceived hindrances, this year The Scope broadened its series of free workshops throughout the month to include, among other things, a session for those who consider themselves “non-musicians.”

The “Play Everything All of the Time” event accentuated the “musical possibilities all around us,” explains non-musician extraordinaire Chad Griffiths, who hosted the Feb. 12 event.

“It’s (about) training our eyes and our brains to look for those opportunities all around,” he says. “Just being comfortable enough to clap or hum or make up a nonsensical verse, or harmonizing. These are things we all have a capacity for — it just takes a little bit of confidence and the slightest bit of know-how, if that at all.”

The Scope also held workshops on songwriting and home recording, and it will host another called “Mixing it Up” Friday, which will demonstrate the art of mixing an album.

To address what Lien estimated to be a 5:1 male-to-female gender imbalance among participants, they’ve also been opening their newsroom on Bate’s Hill a couple evenings a week for women who don’t have the means to record at home.

“Every year we’d hear about the projects that didn’t come out with a CD, and we were like, what are the barriers here? What can we help people with?” Lien recalls.

“Because the deadline, for some people, that’s all it takes. But for a lot of people, the songwriting is complicated, the technical aspects are complicated, the fear of just letting go is also complicated. So we tried to hit on those things.”

As more and more engage the challenge with each passing year, some pleasant surprises have inevitably materialized.

Last year, for example, indie-rock newcomers East of Empire submitted their first album “Into The Elephant” at the deadline. In the fall, that same home recording earned three MusicNL award nominations.

In 2009, Memorial University music student Megan Warren decided to get a couple friends together and take a stab at writing and recording some songs for the challenge. They didn’t get an album recorded in time, but set the wheels in motion for what would become one of St. John’s most popular indie pop-rock bands, Repartee.

“I found the idea of songwriting really overwhelming and intimidating,” says Warren. “So with something like the RPM being presented where there was no judgment, I really liked the idea and premise of it, where it seems to be for yourself.

“I feel like maybe people are a lot more accepting of all different kinds of musicians with different levels of experience now because there are so many people participating in this,” she continues. “Maybe people feel a lot more connected and are a lot more willing and able to open themselves up to musicians who maybe weren’t so experienced in the past.”

Griffiths echoes the sentiment.

“One thing you’ll see with the RPM here in the province is the move toward inclusivity,” he explains. “The idea of the RPM Challenge, I think, embodies that. Why make an album? Just because you can. I think that sort of gives people a little more breathing room. It’s only a month, so just go for it — it doesn’t need to be perfect.

“It’s no secret that St. John’s has a vibrant musical culture and community, and there are people from that community who do get involved in the RPM Challenge, be it just to get an album out or maybe go in a different direction,” he continues.

“But I think the RPM Challenge adds to it by making it a more inclusive musical community by giving people motivation and opportunity to become involved in the music-making process.”

For more information on the local RPM Challenge, visit

Organizations: RPM, The Scope, Time

Geographic location: Portsmouth, N.H., North America

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