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Archive for the ‘performing for children’ Category

I’m back from almost a month in New Zealand – first performing and then wandering around with Debbie. We had a great time.

When we reached Wellington, we had a nice dinner with a bunch of interesting people, organized by storyteller Judith Jones and her husband Tony. Among the great people we met that night was Anna Bailey, a puppeteer.

The next morning, at the farmer’s market on the Wellington waterfront, we sat on a bench and watched Anna give one of her shows, standing in front of an electrical junction box to shield her small stage from the gusts of wind swirling around the harbor. Children, mostly under seven or eight, sat on the pavement in front of her, with adults in a wider circle. Shoppers walked through her performance area, seemingly oblivious to the drama being acted out before them of a fisherman who catches a mermaid, then goes on a dance through the sea with her. The piece was about ten minutes long – no words, with recorded music providing backdrop. The piece, as many marionette shows are, was very lyrical and dream-like. There was a distinct narrative line, but it was up to the audience’s imagination to define that line – with no language, it was not explicit but implicit. At one point, she did roam the audience with her puppet, interacting with individual audience members, but mostly, Anna’s focus was inward, trusting the audience to come into her world, and not feeling compelled to go out and capture them, . She let the work speak for itself. Those of us who have done street performing know that there’s a choice you make about how you draw an audience to your performance – Anna, as seems to fit her personality, doesn’t seek an audience, she lets it come to her. I would say there were about fifteen of us who stayed through the whole piece. She had a little hat at the edge of the velvet blanket that served as the definition of the stage –  people dropped coins in. I’d guess she made about $30 for her work.

anna bailey puppeteer

Watching the show, looking at the venue, and thinking about the economics of the whole thing, got me thinking about the vagaries of being an artist. Anna’s work (String Bean Puppets) is not a get-rich-quick scheme. She is not very commercial – and my sense is that at this point in her work, she’s not interested in being commercial.  Her work is small, not in the sense of importance, but in the scale that it works on – how many people it will reach, how much she earns, and how well known she would become doing it.

But really, most art is small. A good number of artists will, consciously or unconsciously, make sure it stays that way for them, either through eschewing commercial success, or happily shooting themselves in the foot if it gets near. (Believe me, I know…)And while some art deserves a bigger stage than it has, there is a lot of art that is about intimacy and the people in front of you at that moment Even the ones wandering by with a bag of leeks. Anna’s puppets are not large, and if the audience were more than a hundred people, something would be lost. Keeping it small is one way to insure a connection. Using a Jumbotron so that the people in the back of the stadium could see the mermaid dance would make it a vicarious experience.  I suppose that television has the paradoxical opportunity to make it intimate – it’s just one person watching something shot in close-up. But the live performance is at the heart of it, and that, it seems to me, is destined to remain small.

So why do artists do it? The short answer is because they have to. They can’t help themselves. It gives their lives meaning. This causes havoc when you depend on it for your daily bread. As Lewis Hyde points out in his great book, The Gift, artists have a hard time living in a commodity culture in which you have to determine your worth and drive a bargain. Most artists first want to do their work, and will do it even if they aren’t getting paid well.

I’m thinking these things as both of my sons, Noah and Dylan, are trying to find where music fits in their lives, and have an ambivalence about the role of the market place in their art. Well, I still wrestle with that, too. I’ve often thought that some things I do for love, and some for money, and I’m just trying to get them to be a little bit closer to each other.

But like I said, a lot of really good art is small, and it helps to know that and still see its value; it’s still worth doing.

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I gave a talk at the Grammy luncheon for children’s artists on February 9, in which I asked children’s artists to speak out for gun control. I’ve put the text of it here below. I’ve shot a video and am trying to figure out what to do with it – when I get home from running around the country, I’ll get to work. Until then, here’s some food for thought.

I have been, I am guessing, in over 2000 schools in my time performing and working with children. I have, I am guessing, seen several million children – I don’t even know how to begin to figure those numbers. When I first started performing for kids in school, seven year old girls were in love with Michael Jackson, then the New Kids on the Block, then N Sync, then Brittany, then – well whatever, I guess it’s Justin Bieber and One Direction now – my lps, then my cassettes, then my cds, now my mp3s have lived on the shelves and ipods alongside all those other folks. Their songs said – hurry and grow up – mine said – hey, you’re a kid and that’s okay.

I was singing in a school when the Challenger went down. I sang and told stories all day long in a school in North Carolina on 9/11. But I think the hardest day I’ve ever faced performing was on Monday, December 17, 2012, three days after the shooting in Newtown Connecticut. My pal, Keith Munslow was working in the school down the street from Sandy Hook that day. One of my dearest friends, Len Cabral, was scheduled to perform at Sandy Hook later this spring, and I am having conversations with folks in the Newton area about a series of school appearances later this year. And as many of you know, one of our own, children’s performer Francine Wheeler lost her six year son old Ben in the shooting. All of us who work with and for children feel a particular connection to what happened.

I want to talk about what the tragedy at Sandy Hook has made me think about, and what I wonder if we, as a community can do about it. But let me backtrack a little , or at least put this concern in the context of what our work is.

The work of artists performing for children is unique in the arts world. And I realize that I’m talking mostly to musicians here (reminding you that recordings aren’t just about music…) so I’ll couch it in those terms. Our work is different from most other genres in this sense – our work is about and for not just who the people we perform for are, but also about who they will become. While I believe you keep growing until you die, by and large, art for adult is not about becoming, it’s about being. With art directed at children and the people around them, we’re trying to balance being and becoming. As performers for children, we are also teachers. I actually believe that all musicians are better if they also teach, but that charge is especially true, and obvious, with those who work for children.

This makes our work an interesting mix. Because our work is not just about the way the world is, but about the way it will become.  I don’t believe you can work in children’s music without wanting to make the world a better place, in whatever way you define that. Now, most artists would say that’s what they want to do, too, but I think that in working with children, our work is particularly about growth, and about community. There is a social aspect to it that might be absent in the work of a virtuoso that performs in classical concert halls, or a punk band in the ratskellar of a pub, or the alto saxophonist performing tonight at the Blue Note. They may be about beauty, and passion and rage and hope in the moment. We are about all those things, but we are also about tomorrow.

Our first charge as artists who perform for children and families is to be absolutely the best artists we can be. We need to develop our skills to the utmost of our abilities and challenge ourselves to get better. All of us who work and perform for children have to face the bugaboo thrown up against us that performing for children is somehow less worthy, or somehow indicates a lesser talent. In my weaker moments, I believe this about myself. But this is a lie, and in our heart of hearts we know it.  We need to challenge ourselves in terms of form, and style and content – to seek new ways to reach our audience, bringing the gifts we have to our work. The people we perform for deserve nothing less, and we shortchange ourselves if we don’t be the best musicians we can be, in the context of our work. Our context will be different from others – we won’t be (very often) in major concert halls, and we won’t have reviews (very often) in major media outlets. But if we’re committed to our work, we can’t concern ourselves with that. We have to be as good as we can be.

Second, we have to respect our audience. And never has an audience been more maligned, patronized, or shortchanged than children and families. I am often approached by people who talk about writing books for children, or singing for children as something they are thinking about doing, with the subtext that it isn’t all that hard. But they’re wrong.  It’s hard to do well, though, and specifically, I think it is hard to get the emotional tone right – to speak to children in a way that they can hear, that they know you understand them, and in a way that they know that they are not being patronized. The truth is, being a kid can be a pretty difficult experience. Adults forget. One of the things that adults do most is forget. In my work, I often ask myself if I am respecting children and honoring their emotional lives. Many years ago, I met a great children’s bookstore owner who said that the question he asks about every book that came into his store was, “Does this honor children?” It’s a good question. As far as that goes, I would ask all of us to work towards being more descriptive and less prescriptive in our work – identifying situations that are part of being human, and affirming that that children’s experiences are valid. In doing this, I think we show a trust in their ability to find their own course in life, rather than telling them what the course should be. For I believe that people will find their own way if they have a safe place to take chances – and taking chances is how we learn.

Which brings me to our last charge, and the purpose of this talk – as adults who work and care for children, we not only have a responsibility for the content that we offer but the context in which we offer it. A safe environment for children to make mistakes and grow. Here, our work is less about what we say to children and families, but more how we can speak for them. While it may not be apparent on the face of it, the most influential ideas in my life’s work are based on non-violence, and the thought and work of Gandhi and King. One of the reasons I work with children is that I wanted to give a voice to the least. And so, while we speak and listen to children, I think that we need to, with care, speak for them, since they are too often voiceless. And we need to be careful, since every legislator and politician and adult thinks they know what children need. We must be better than that, and true to our audience.

With my audience of children and families, my content is not about the national political scene – if my work is political, it is so in an intimate, personal and immediate way. I don’t need to talk about gun violence with an eight year old – that is best left to those around the child that knows her – whom she trusts. My work with my audiences is immediate – about how we treat each other and what is fair – in the faith that a grounding in those experiences will influence who they become and how they see the world as they grow up.

But on another stage – in the adult world – I believe that people who work with children have a responsibility, too. It’s not just the songs we sing. If we don’t speak up about the world that children are growing up in, I think we’re failing as artists.

It is very hard to face the fact that we live in a violent society, but we do. Somehow, we have allowed guns and violence to become warp and woof of American culture. You’ve seen the endless statistics, and we could spend half an hour doing that. But, just as an example – in one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 people in Australia, 39 people in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in the United States.  Or – since Newtown, not even two months ago,  over 1600 Americans have been killed by guns. Everywhere we turn, we see the glorification of guns – in our movies, in our literature, in our video games, in our foreign policy. Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that the ever-continuing arming of a population makes it safer – when in fact, it makes us less secure. If Newtown doesn’t prove that to us, then we are as blind as bats.

I say we have convinced ourselves we need guns, when of course most people in this room don’t believe that. Most of us are saying , “That’s not who we are.” But we are at a point now, especially with the slim opportunity offered to us because of the tragedy of Newton, where it is not enough for us to think this isn’t who we are – it’s time for us to say it, and say it in a way that other people will hear us. I think because of the nature of our work, it is part of who we are to speak out for the banning of semi-automatic weapons and large magazines, and demand background checks for all gun purchases. These are common-sense things, no-brainers,  but they won’t happen unless people speak out.

We are insane, and someone needs to speak out. Shall it be us?

I’m planning on shooting a short video in the next two weeks in which I’ll say some of the things I’ve said here, and will put it up on youtube. I wonder if we, as a community, can find some kind of common response to this. I know we’re all busy. And honestly, I know that we would just as soon that someone else could do this – someone who could do it better, and could better handle any fallout. I don’t really like speaking out – I don’t like people to be mad at me. There are people who like my work who will not like me saying this. People I know.  I wish someone else would do it so I didn’t have to. But then, all I have is me. All you have is you. And all we have is us.

The Monday after the Newtown shootings I was met at the door of a school by teachers and administrators who said “We’re so glad you’re here. We know you’re going to help us through this.” All of us were wounded, but we had work to do.

These are my people. I have spent a large part of my life standing in front of elementary school children like the ones who were shot, watching them listen and laugh and sing with me.  As I stood in front of those three hundred kids that Monday morning, their faces lifted up, smiling and singing, their teachers breathing sighs of relief, for at least a little while, I realized that I had a bigger job to do. I don’t want one more kid to die because we won’t do something about this pointless violence.

In that moment, standing in front of those kids – our future, and my reason for being – I promised myself I would speak out and say enough is enough – that we’re better than this.  As a musician and a storyteller and children’s author, as a person who has spent his life helping children grow up to realize their dreams, I also know it’s my job to make sure they grow up at all.

Which is why I’m speaking out for gun control. Enough is enough.

What is our job? A number of years ago, I reread Catcher in the Rye, and there I found a description of who I wanted to be, and who I think we all want to be in our work. I’ll leave you with this.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Can we, as a community, be a whole group of catchers in the rye? I would like to think we could, and I would like to think we could start that right now.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Well, it’s taken years – way too long – but I finally have a professional video of one of my song (Not destined to be the video star, I suspect). Along with Rhode Island Public Broadcasting we’ve produced a video of my song “Wash Your Hands”. Working with Maria and Scott Saracen and kids from Henry Barnard School and Paul Cuffee School, we took the song I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s now being played on Rhode Island public television, and hopefully will go to others around the country. The RI Department of Health is promoting it and getting the word out to other state health departments.

If you go to my website, you can download the song for free, and also free posters here.

Making the video, and working with so many talented people, has reminded me of what my work is. I want to make good music, and good art. But I also want to say something. I have never been one for lecturing in my work – I would rather be descriptive of a kid’s experience rather than prescriptive of how they should behave. But in some instances, particularly ones of public health, it just makes sense to tell it like it is simply and directly. This is one of those.

A number of years ago I served on an advisory group for the Harvard Center for Children’s Health. I would go up to Cambridge and sit in a boardroom every couple of months and listen to public health professionals and researchers talk about their findings and then try to figure out how to let people know what they had learned. There tends to be a separation between the academic world and folks on the street and we were trying to bridge that gap. One of the things I learned about public health is that no one ever sees the plague that didn’t happen, and public health programs are concerned with stopping the plague before it happens.

If art (however you want to define that…) helps, so much the better.

This is nowhere more true than washing hands. It seems so ridiculously simple and stupid you almost don’t want to say it. But it has to be said. Over and over again.

As an aside here, I might say, at the risk of grossing out a number of people, I am always amazed at the large number of people (adults, males) in airports who do not bother to wash their hands in the restrooms. Astounding. Eeek. Ewwwwww. ‘Nuff said.

So we can spend billions of dollars on expensive procedures, but health is mostly preserved through simple things. Like washing hands. The problem is no one makes money at it. That’s the problem with our health care system – it wants to make money, not preserve health.

So here’s my offering. I wrote it as simply as a I could. It is not high art. In fact, I purposely used the melody of the typical children’s taunt for the hook in the chorus (na na na na naaa!). That minor third is the children’s interval.It will drive you crazy if you let it. And if it keeps some kid from getting sick (or the adults, too), then I don’t mind at all.

Hope you like the video.

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Just one of those moments that reminds you of what you’re doing and why.

Last week I was at Israel Loring School in Sudbury Massachusetts, in my customary position, standing in front of a microphone, underneath the backboard in the gym in front of three hundred kindergarten, first and second graders sitting on the floor.

I was telling my own twisted version of Sody Salleratus, “Big Bert”, which I have told WAAAAAY too many times, but still love to tell. As I’ve said in other posts, when you know a story really well, something else happens when you tell it.

It sure did.

I got to the point where the girl in the family is going over the bridge to the store. I use the word “sashay” to describe her movement (“She sashayed out the door. She sashayed down the road. She sashayed over the bridge.”) (I think I owe a nod here to Roadside Theater and their version – “Fat Man”.)

I stopped.

The audience looked at me, wondering what I was up to.

“Sashay,” I said. “What does that mean anyway. Anybody know?”

Usually, nobody does. So I tell them it’s a little dance step and go on with the story. Vocabulary lesson accomplished, and I’ve engaged the audience.

But that day, a kindergartener on the far end of the front row raised her hand.

I stop and look at her.

“Do you know what it means?”

She nods. She’s sure.

Well, this is just great, I think. I love this.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a ballet step,” she says.

Now I am surprised. (Would that be chasse? I didn’t know that term until I went searching today…) No ballet expert myself – I learned how to sashay in fourth grade gym class with a scratchy record, Mr. Keller the gym teacher, and Janice Kahn, who I kind of liked. It was a nice move for a fourth grade boy, because no one touched.
Now I’ve stopped telling the story. This is interesting.

“I didn’t know it was a ballet step,” I said. “Thank you.”

I take a breath to go back into the story, but the lexicographer in the kindergarten class is not done. She has her hand raised again, and she is very self-assured.

I pause, “Yes?” I ask

“I know how do it,” she says.

Well,” I say, “that’s fantastic. Would you like to show us?”

She nods and stands up. Completely fearless. She is a dancer by trade! If only her teacher were here to see!

“Go ahead!” I say.

She raises her arms to her sides, faces the audiences, side-skips from one side of the gym to the other, keeping her arms perpendicular to the ground, her feet crossing ever-so-slightly at each step, then back again across the floor, and sits down. There is a spontaneous round of applause.

It is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I am struck near speechless.

“Thank you,” I said. “Now we all know what sashay means.”

I go on telling the story, knowing the picture in three hundred heads is different than it was before.

Actually, make that three-hundred and one.

Mine, too.

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My pal Keith Munslow and I have foisted ourselves upon Mindy Thomas at Sirius/XM’s Kids Place Live with a song title contest. I’ve done this before myself (which is where “Barbie’s Head is Missing” came from) and it should be even more fun with Keith and Mindy involved.

Keith and I will be on Kids Place Live today at 4 pm (EST) if you’re a Sirius/XM subscriber. We’ll be talking about songwriting, sing some new songs (including something from my soon to be released “High Dive”. And we’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll post some thoughts on songwriting as we go along.

The truth is, it’s usually easier to write when there’s something specific to write about. The teacher’s directions to “write about anything you want” is always enough to give a student brain freeze. So having someone else come up with a title is actually a help, as long as exactly what the song should be about is not prescribed. It’s like the first rule of improv, which is to take what’s offered and work from there. We’ll see.

You can enter the contest if you want on my page. And here’s a video of Keith and me kind of explaining ourselves.

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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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