Keith Urban at Hillwood

Keith Urban Talks About Finding Joy in Music with Hillwood Students
Posted on 12/01/2021
Keith Urban at Hillwood High School
Music students looking to unlock and enjoy their creativity should remember that “play” is at the heart of everything musicians do, country music superstar Keith Urban told an inquisitive and energetic group of students at Hillwood High School on Tuesday. Keith Urban with students and Dr. Battle

Urban surprised about 30 orchestra, band, rock band, and music theory students when he arrived a little before 9 a.m. He answered questions from Hillwood’s choir and orchestra director, Tyler Merideth, before opening the floor up to the students, many of whom are songwriters.

Students asked about writer’s block, sounding original, anxiety about performing, struggles making each song sound unique, and how much to listen to other people’s opinions.

“You guys are hitting things I still work through,” Urban said. “It’s easy to sit and wax philosophical and say all this stuff, but it’s really hard to do. It just is. We need at least some bits of guidance, little tidbits, little things that can break us out of it.”

He encouraged the students to relax and not worry so much about what other people might be thinking of them and their songs.

“When you’re doing something, get out of your way,” he said. “People aren’t as consumed with you as you are. That’s a liberating thing.” 

Urban, who said he’s never studied music theory and can’t read music, started playing guitar at age 6 and began writing words that he would put to music in fourth or fifth grade as a child in Australia. Now he writes songs on guitar, piano, bass, and even a six-string banjo backed by a drum machine.Keith Urban with Hillwood students
Sometimes he writes on his own, which has its advantages, but sometimes he collaborates with other songwriters, which can give him a solid backstop if he’s about to let a good idea drift away.

“There are no rules,” he said of the songwriting craft. “It’s artistic expression.”

Ultimately, he said, musicians shouldn’t treat what they’re doing like it’s “life or death.”

“It’s just music,” Urban said. “We can place way too much pressure on ourselves. I always say to my band, just remember that the first word in everything we do is ‘play.’ We play music. We play guitar. We play drums. We play a show. ‘Hey, wanna come see us play?’ ‘We played a show last night.’

“It’s play. Of course, we want to get better at our instrument so we can have more fun with it, because it’s frustrating at the beginning. But somewhere in there, it’s imperative to not lose that word ‘play.’ It’s there for a reason. There’s work involved, but playfulness has to be in there.”

Urban also got to hear some of the students play. A string ensemble conducted by Merideth and consisting of Katy Shaffer, Reina Yamada, Cade Selby, Lili Wrenne, Andrew Rybiski, and Aedan Marcum performed Urban’s own “Wasted Time” to kick off the event.

After the question-and-answer session, rock band members Gabriela Richter, Seth Bernard, Spencer Bernard, Andrew Johnson, and Andrew Rybiski played Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” before Evan Cullers, Jerome Donnell, London Hunt, and Lilly Smith joined Johnson and Rybiski for Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” The Hillwood rock band is led by teacher Dylan Schuman.

Urban’s visit was arranged by the CMA Foundation, an important MNPS partner whose executive director, Tiffany Kerns, joined Urban and Merideth for the Q and A. Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and several other MNPS leaders – including student Board of Education member Angelie Quimbo, a Hillwood senior – attended the event.

“We are so grateful to Keith Urban and to the entire team at the CMA Foundation, led by Tiffany Kerns, for their generous support of music education in our schools,” Dr. Battle said.

“Students are inspired by opportunities like this, and I'm sure Keith’s engaging and insightful conversations with them had many of these excellent young musicians returning to their instruments as soon as possible to write new songs or work on older ones. The students’ questions were just as good as their performances, which says a lot about the education they’re getting every day. We’re extremely fortunate to be able to tap into the amazing resources of Music City to layer additional lessons onto what our outstanding music teachers are already doing.”
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