Resources for Renewal: Part II
One of the pleasures of being a part of the Children’s Music Network is the opportunity to participate in and benefit from the lively and freewheeling conversations that erupt between members, by accident or design, in person or via CMN’s e-mail list. These exchanges confirm that our members’ knowledge and life experiences are indeed our greatest treasure.
Part II in this ongoing series draws from CMN Board members and PIO! columnists. The premise: What one or two resources have made an enduring impact on you as a musician/teacher/thinker/communicator and continue(s) to inspire and sustain you? Resources are organized in the order they were received to preserve exchanges that sometimes occurred between contributors.
I hope to continue compiling and sharing responses from our membership, as renewal is integral to our spiritual and intellectual life.
One of my main resources for songs and inspiration is Mama Lisa’s World. The vast collection on this site almost never fails me. Even the more incomplete songs that are just a few stanzas long, without music, often inspire originals of my own, as do the short phrases, sayings, and poems that can be found.
As for the renewal part, many of my best songs have been written when I am running! I run a few times a week, often very early in the morning, and the quietness laced with morning breezes and bird calls in my neighborhood, coupled with the rhythm of my body as I run, creates the perfect environment for my mind to be free. New ideas also inspire me. A day at the observatory, a new book or a movie, even a good conversation, tends to nestle into my mind and spark something new.
Also, because so many wonderful books were mentioned in Part I, I can’t resist adding more, the first being Watership Down. It was one of my favorite books as a kid and still is to this day. The richness of the world and the respect paid to the main characters have stuck with me forever. The Anne of Green Gables novels were another series that shaped me, perhaps the most. I read them over and over and over again. I’ll revisit them even now when I need to spend time with old friends. Pomelo Begins to Grow is a more recent children’s book that I discovered last year. It’s made me cry more than once! It is beautiful and weird, quirky and sweet. I highly recommend it.
One of the most important resources in the last twenty years, in both the folk music and children’s music worlds, has the been the songbook Rise Up Singing. This unprecedented collection of songs offers so much to the amateur and professional: great songs grouped by subject, lyrics, alternative lyrics, chords, history, and composer credit. It has been my musical bible since long before the Internet informed my research. I still turn to it in my work, and it makes a great gift to teachers and musicians just beginning their careers.
I am renewed both by hearing live music and my teaching work. Accepting more preschool music classes came out of financial need in the late 2000s, but I have found that these daily interactions with children have fed and enriched my life and songwriting efforts, and also made me a better music workshop leader for teachers. In addition, any song or performance by Stevie Wonder is a tonic for me!
If we are talking just resources, well, the Internet! Almost everything is available there! And as mentioned by Alina, Mama Lisa’s site (Lisa Yannucci is a CMN member) always shows up in a song search. What an amazing collection she’s created!
For inspiration for new shows or musical topics, I rely on children’s books. My latest treasure is a book about creatures that filter water in the Chesapeake Bay called Olly the Oyster Cleans the Bay by Elaine Ann Allen, illustrated by Kelli Nash. It was given to me by a PhD biologist grandmother, Paula Kushlan, and inspired me to work on my new show entitled The Chesapeake Bay Cleaning Company. Barnacle Bob, Bristly Bristle Worm, Blue Blue Crab, Caring Cucumber, Jack Jelly, and more await their chance to sing!
And the best renewal of all? For me it is to turn off all the music, to do something totally non–music related, and rest my mind.
I can’t resist mentioning the early influences on my musicality. As a child, I was always transported by Bizet’s “March of the Toreadors” from the opera Carmen. At the age of seven, I would blast it on the old phonograph and march about the rug in our front hall. Jazz was the other major influence, whether performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, or my older brothers on bass and guitar. Oh, the freedom of expression permitted!
This is a very BIG question, but if I could choose only one or two, the first would be children! Even though I do not have my own, children have certainly had the most enduring impact on every facet of my musical career: songwriter, teaching artist, producer, and performer. Their energy, language use, conceptual development, and ideas have a profound effect on my work and are a constant source of inspiration. Every age group I have the great pleasure of working with, from babies through college students, sustains me on a continual basis.
The next resource would have to be librarians and libraries. I always discover something at the library that just can’t be found on the Internet. Librarians seem to know exactly where to help direct my focus when I’m creating a song or concept for an album. It might be books in the children’s department, periodicals, or even a rare book behind glass. One of the songs on my third album was in a 200-year-old book I would never have had access to without the librarian. She even provided white gloves so my body oils wouldn’t harm the paper as I thumbed through the pages.
Besides CMN, other resources that I carry close to my heart and ears are wonderful books like The Giving Tree and anything else by Shel Silverstein; also anything by Dr. Seuss.
Favorite music/songwriting/performance/audio production: American Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax, Smithsonian Folkways field recordings, Joni Mitchell, Burl Ives, Dean Jones, They Might Be Giants, Trout Fishing in America, Jennifer Gasoi, Dave Kinnoin, James Coffey, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, and of course many other peers in our industry.
Katherine Dines mentioned children in her response. I agree. My ideas are often generated as a direct result of watching what children do and how they interact with each other and their environments. This is true whether I’m writing a new story or song, preparing a lesson for class, or revising my work on the fly. I value the ability to perform for and teach in what I call “authentic practice arenas.” Here are some examples:
I have taught weekly music classes at the same preschool for eleven years. Because the school knows and trusts what I do, it’s easy to experiment with new songs, try out new verses, and play with the children in new and interesting ways. When I write a new song, I try it out with each of the different classes. It is often revealing to see how a class of two- to three-year-old children interact with and respond to a song that was written with early elementary school children in mind.
In my early years as a performer, I got permission to use the lobby of a local performance hall to run weekly drop-in music classes. I charged five dollars per family to come listen to me sing. My regular audience members were new mothers, a few fathers, a few grandparents, and a handful of nannies, with children ranging from a few months to four years old. There were padded benches around the room and only two points of entry and exit. I brought a few buckets of toys (Schleich animals, Duplo Blocks, and train sets) and watched the children sing while I played my songs. I billed this performance space as a place where I would practice songs and get “feedback” from the children. Over time, it was clear what songs worked well, what songs needed a new approach, and what songs needed to be retired.
As a sixth grade science teacher, I often design open-ended projects. During the first year I do a project, the structure and guidelines are purposefully ambiguous. We brainstorm topics, we ask good questions, we try out ideas and each student submits an interpretation of the project. Nothing is “wrong” but some interpretations are better than others. Grades for these new projects are based on process rather than final results. I learn as much, if not more, than the students from the successes and failures they encounter in this first year. Each subsequent year, I am able to provide more structure and be more deliberate with my grading. The drawback to providing the structure is that students become more grade focused and less creative.
Today on the athletic field, I was the only adult in charge of thirty or so eleven-year-old athletes on a rainy day. We played capture the flag. The most important rule was that if a disagreement arose, it must be solved by the persons involved. I made myself available to assist in a mediated discussion if help was needed. No one opted for this approach, leaving me plenty of time to observe the dynamics of the game. Over the course of the hour I was able to provide strategic feedback to the athletes. The game likewise gave me lots of insight into other teachable moments that I’ll save in my back pocket for later.
The common theme in the above examples is that observing children doing what children do has made me better at interacting with children when I choose to step in and join the fun. What a great resource they are. Glad to be in this line of work.
The biggest influence on me as a musician, teacher, thinker, and communicator are the children that I share my music with each week. They inspire me to write new songs, create new activities, and to keep doing what I do. Their smiles, knee hugs, and energy always give me the opportunity to have a wonderful day, no matter what. Their creative minds encourage and challenge me to find new ways to reach each and every one of them as they begin their musical journey. Whether they ask me to create a song about a fairy princess rabbit or come up with a song because they have a wiggly tooth, every child inspires and delights. The children offer such joy that it sustains me each and every day. I could not do what I do if it wasn’t for their creative and inspiring energy.
In terms of printed materials, my two most dog-eared books are Rise Up Singing, the group singing songbook conceived, developed, and edited by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, and The Singing Sack: 28 Song Stories From Around the World, compiled by Helen East at the National Folktale Centre.
Rise Up Singing is a great collection of songs in lyrics/chords format, and I turn to it often to find songs on a certain theme or to be reminded of the words or chords to a song I used to know better. It isn’t specifically geared to children’s and family audiences, but it does include lots of great material for (and many songs by) CMNers.
The Singing Sack is a multicultural collection of stories. Each contains some type of musical element—a short song, chants, rhythmic ideas, etc. The stories come from African, Asian, Caribbean, European, Native American, Russian, and South American sources. A few of my favorites are The Raja’s Secret from India; The Boy Who Lived with the Bears, an Iroquois tale; and Nyangara the Python, a Shona story from Zimbabwe. I have used all of these as material for children to act out in a theatrical production, and they love them! When I got this book years ago, there was a companion cassette (what’s that?!?), which was great because it used appropriate instruments and was formatted for use with each story. A CD is now available.
The resource that has been by far the most significant to me, however, is the membership in CMN itself! The informal conversations that I have had with people at CMN conferences over the years have often blown my mind and literally changed my life. I particularly remember this happening with Bob Blue, Joanne Hammil, Bill Harley, Tom Hunter, Bruce O’Brien, Sarah Pirtle, Ruth Pelham, Bob Reid, Nancy Schimmel, Stuart Stotts, and Barb Tilsen, among others. There are so many inspiring people within CMN! And then, of course, there are the workshops and other conference programs, the interactions on the forum, the articles in Pass It On!, and the phone conversations—I could go on and on! It really is the wonderful people who make up CMN that have given me the most and have recharged my batteries again and again.
One of my greatest inspirations comes from observing my fellow CMNers sing, play, interact with one another, with children, and with other adult learners, and seeing how they manage the ebb and flow of performances to make them meaningful for the broad range of audience members. I have observed many round-robins, concerts, and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) workshops, and read countless thoughtfully written and insightful Forum posts that make the many kinds of work we do seem effortless (which I realize it is not!). The range of experiences and expertise in our organization is immeasurable. I often seek the input and feedback of fellow members on various projects. (I still have to pinch myself when I realize how many of my musical heroes I have met since I joined CMN!)
As my work also incorporates literature and an emphasis on literacy, one of my favorite go-to books is A to Zoo by Rebecca L. Thomas and Carolyn W. Lima. It is usually a reference book at the local library, though I keep a copy in my office for my own convenience. It is an annotated bibliography of the best children’s books from around 1975 to the present (depending on the edition). All the books are arranged and cross-referenced thematically, which is an invaluable resource for me. Of course, there are many similar online resources, but none are as complete.
Two smaller, less comprehensive, but wonderful resources that I recommend to teachers are the American Library Association publications Something Musical Happened at the Library: Adding Song and Dance to Children’s Story Programs, and its predecessor, Children’s Jukebox, both by Rob Reid and usually found in the reference department. These books provide an annotated listing of high-quality recorded children’s songs and demonstrate how they might be paired with children’s picture books. The Something Musical book categorizes songs by theme, call and response, cumulative songs, and rounds, and includes a section on children’s books about music (not song picture books). Although these books are outdated, I am always delighted to see so many CMN artists represented in
One non-obvious songwriting resource I’ve tapped into lately with great success is passionate people. The songs I’ve written in response to interviews with local scientists about their research are some of my most interesting, vibrant, and unique songs. In fact, the interview-based song is such a great approach for me, my thoughts on this have evolved into this issue’s Pro Song column about how to conduct such an interview. A follow-up, which will focus more on the nuts and bolts of actually writing the song, is planned for the next issue, so stay tuned.