Archive for the ‘performing for children’ Category

NARAS, the Grammy organization announced a couple of weeks ago that they were getting rid of a number of categories for the Grammy awards. One of them was Spoken Word for Children, which I have won twice and which I was nominated for this year. Spoken word recordings will now be included in the Best Children’s recording category. A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it, and I’ve been giving it some thought.

The short answer is I wasn’t surprised. There are a lot of categories, and there aren’t a lot of submissions for Children’s Spoken Word category. It is one of the reasons I ever had a chance to be nominated, let alone win. So, on one hand, it’s understandable, I kind of saw it coming, and I have been lucky to be there at all.

But it’s a very complicated issue and trying to separate all the elements of it is pretty difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about it. Let me try to identify a couple of strands of issues

The first thing is that children’s spoken word has been kind of a catch-all, and the people who make the decisions are probably aware of this. Historically, it’s dominantly been people reading books. In the past fifteen years, people like me who have called themselves storytellers, working with oral narrative, not necessarily with a written script, have gotten nominated. This is an apples and oranges thing, and I view my oral narrative as an art form, different from a reading of the written word. But that is a pretty subtle point to make for people who don’t pay attention. Also, there’s no doubt that it is also a category that people have entered because it seemed like a good place to get a Grammy – fewer nominees, and many of them (me, for instance) not household names. It’s an awkward thing, but I usually found myself up against a franchised character, or someone everyone knows who thought it would be great to make a children’s recording. The same thing happens in the Children’s Music category.

Along with this problem of what exactly a spoken word recording is (anything with people talking 51% of the time), there is the nature of the Grammy process. Anyone who’s a member can vote in the categories they want. A big list comes out in November, people vote where they want, and there are finalists. In each category, interested members can vote for one of five finalists. There is no proof that anyone listens to anything. NARAS asks that recordings be listened to and judged solely on their merit. But the truth is, it is often a beauty contest – you vote for who you know, and while lobbying and outright promotion is supposedly forbidden, everyone has their lists of people who vote. Big recording companies have more clout and access to voters than Round River Records in Seekonk, Massachussetts. So if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a storytelling album for children, you can kind of figure that he’s going to have another trophy on his wall. (Actually, I’d like to hear a Springsteen storytelling album for kids….)

And here, of course, I should point out, I have benefited in some weird way from the beauty contest aspect of it. Because I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, and was first nominated over ten years ago, there are a certain number of people who know me in the “industry”, and indeed, who have been my champions. In a small category, someone like me had a fighting chance. And I like to believe that my recordings were the best, but you could certainly reasonably argue that others were as good, and that the people voted in the category because they knew me. It’s inescapable, and I’d be disingenuous to think anything different.

That part has always troubled me, and continually adds to the imposter syndrome I have, as do most other artists. And I don’t like the competition aspect of it at all – I’ve been up against friends and it’s awkward, and can make one small. Me included.

Other awards, like Parent’s Choice and the Just Plain Folk award depend on a panel of experts who listen to all the stuff – as did the late great National Association of Independent Record Distributors – I’m very proud I won a “best of” award from them. But NARAS doesn’t work that way.

Still, I should say that the beauty contest aspect isn’t the only thing . Often, a recording is recognized by peers as just being superlative, or artists will win because there is a recognition that their body of work and who they are as an artist deserves recognition. A lot of times awards are saying “It’s about time.” This was true for Bonnie Raitt and her “Nick of Time” album and Carolos Santana’s multiple wins, and Herbie Hancock’s surprising award a couple of years ago. Sometimes the good guys win, and for the right reason.

But there were too many categories, it was said. Now, here the question is whether that was an artistic decision or a commercial decision, and I think you can say pretty clearly it was a commercial decision, based on numbers of entrants and economic clout. The recording industry is in deep trouble, and trying to shore itself up. Note I say industry, not recordings themselves. At the awards ceremony I watched the presenter Kathy Griffin (comedian, ha ha ha) openly denigrate the smaller categories as worthless. No one did anything to contradict her. It was a sad display, and a comment on the Academy’s priorities, even if they were her words.

It was industry, not art that was behind the decision. Let me be clear on this – spoken word is an art form, and the recording of spoken word is an art that has been practiced ever since Edison. Caedmon and Weston Woods pioneered spoken word recordings for children, and they cared passionately about what they did. I am, still, deeply influenced by Bill Cosby’s recordings I listened to growing up, and those of Stan Freberg, and Gene Shepherd, and Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg.

I think something is an art if practice and study makes one better at it, and the possibility of improving is open-ended. I am a better storyteller today than I was twenty years ago, and I take great care with my spoken word recordings. I have an approach to recording stories that has evolved over the years. The last recording I made, just under an hour in length, probably took 70 to 80 hours of work on my time – recording and re-recording, editing, listening, adjusting, rethinking, and mixing and mastering. And that was after the years spent developing the stories in the first place. If I were smarter, I could have done it faster, but sometimes it just takes time. Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books knows that a master is at work. And it is a significantly different art than music.

Because the recording industry is almost exclusively about music, I sometimes hear musicians dismiss the spoken word as something anyone could do.

And anyone can play a piano.

Also, it’s part and parcel of working with children to have your work discounted. A very typical experience for me is to have someone fawn all over me when they hear I’ve won a Grammy, and then suddenly lose interest when they find it was a storytelling recording for children. Suddenly, I’m just not very interesting. That’s more of a comment on them, but there it is. Is recording for children an art form or afterthought? Hmmm.

So, I’m saying if this was based on artistry, there was no reason for it to happen. But having been to the Grammys numerous times, I also know that it is mostly about the industry. That’s okay. There is still something exciting about it, and art continues to assert itself, even where Mammon rules. Us little guys get to hang on the fringe, and in some cases have some say. Here I should note Cathy Fink’s dogged determination to have the Grammys mean something to us, and for that I am deeply grateful. She is, really, amazing.

So, I’m sad but understanding of it all. I was very lucky to be there. Spoken word recordings will receive even less attention, and NARAS will have less to do with that one aspect of recording. It is an art, and a fine one, but there is not much money in it. And not a lot of people do it. And my guess is that we’ll never see another spoken word album for children win a Grammy.

Unless, of course, the Boss decides to make one.

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I’m working on the list of songs for a family folk song album I’ll be recording this summer and am thinking back to the songs I liked to sing when I was in elementary school. One that I loved was a version of “The Titanic” I learned from other kids on the school bus. They learned it at camp.

“Oh they built the ship Titanic
And when they were all through
They thought they had a ship
That the water wouldn’t go through
But the Lord’s almighty hand
Said the ship would never stand
It was sad when the great ship went down

It was sad (so sad)
It was sad (so sad)
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the…)
Husbands and wives
Little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down

And that’s just the start. It’s all downhill from there. There’s drinking (“the captain said, bring the whiskey from the hold!”) and class strife: “the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put ‘em down below, where they were sure to go”.

I loved this song – very singable (great descant on “husbands and wives” when it goes to the dominant chord). And the story was so compelling – completely fascinating for an eight or nine year old. The lesson of hubris taught in four or five verses – the horror of the headlines put to melody. When I read “A Night to Remember” a year or two later, I already knew the broad outlines of the story and got more out of the book.

But – does it go on the recording? I’d like to put it there – I know many kids would love it – and grown-ups too, for that matter. But is this family fare? It would be (and was) for my family. But lot of families probably don’t want death and destruction on a family album, and I understand that. The three year old is listening with the nine year old.

“Who died?” comes the little voice from the car seat in the back.

“No one you know,” says the dad. “It’s just a song.” Hoping that is enough.

“Why did the ship sink?” the voice continues.

“It hit an iceberg.”

“Are there icebergs here? How many people died? Did we know them?”

An insistent voice, because, well, death is compelling. Who wants to explain it all to a four year old? Especially when you’re tired at bedtime.

But I also know that putting these things in the context of a song presents them in a way that people can look at them. Children deal with mortality and hubris, loss and injustice all the time, and songs like “Titanic” give them a framework to begin to think those things through.

And who’s going to sing those songs if we don’t? Is it all rainbows and ponies?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I have to answer it in the next couple of weeks. At least for this recording.

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I gave a keynote this month at Sharing the Fire, the New England conference on storytelling sponsored by LANES about storytelling as a craft. In the talk, I outlined some areas of skill development and questions storytellers should ask themselves about their work. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. Below is the text of a hand-out that focuses on the questions. It’s an attempt to encourage the recognition of storytelling as a craft that aspires towards art.

Questions for Evaluating Storytelling Performance

Along with many others in the storytelling community, over the past several years I have been giving thought to what are hallmarks of good storytelling. While storytelling is in many ways still a folk art, and because of that, something that many kinds of people do, there’s a tendency to be lax in a discussion of what are measures of excellence. But if we are to encourage excellence in storytelling so that it is recognized as an art, we need to have a discussion about what we find in accomplished storytelling. This is not a question so much of what standards critics should use in evaluating performance (although they may do that), but a challenge to us as artists to search for some language to use in looking at our work.

In an effort to foster this discussion I’ve come up with a list of questions, or queries, a storyteller might ask of him/herself. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather a way of seeing. Not all the questions I offer here are useful in every situation, but I’ve tried to think about what I see in a good storyteller, and what I miss when I see a storyteller not succeeding.

For me, reading the list of questions makes me aware of my shortcomings and failures. But that’s okay. I think the important thing is to become conscious of what we’re doing and look carefully at our work. Nobody does all these things I’ve identified. Good storytellers may be so good in one area that we forgive their transgressions in other areas, or those areas simply become less important. But when something isn’t working, and we know it, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why it’s not working. These questions are a place to start.

Narrative form
Is the structure of the piece strong? does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?

Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page?

Voice and physical instrument
Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?

Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout?

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships?

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces?

Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say?

©2009 by Bill Harley

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This week in my day at Paul Cuffee School, I wrote and recorded a song with each second grade class. This may sound fairly impressive, but it’s really a pretty straightforward process if you remember to keep it simple. The songs will not make the hit parade, and in fact, unless they’re sung at an all school meeting, probably won’t be heard outside the classroom where they were created. But they have a real value within that classroom.

I told the kids that I wanted them to write a song about their class and the things they did in it. The first thing we did was brainstorm as many different things about their class as they could think of. They started with general things you could say about almost any class – we like our teacher (always a good thing to say!), we study math, we have recess. But I pushed them to come up with things that made their class different. Someone said, “We study the arctic!” Someone said, “The other classes study the arctic too!” Everyone nodded in agreement. Now they were thinking.

In Rob Pike’s class someone said, “We have worms and flies!” Then they explained that they were growing worms and turning garbage into soil by having the worms pooping. Interestingly enough, the word “pooping” didn’t send anyone into paroxysms of laughter – Mr Pike had discussed the virtues of worm poop enough that it seemed like an everyday thing. Which it is.

There was a discussion about popcorn parties. Mr. Pike uses some simple behavior mod in the class, adding shells to a jar when a good thing happens in the class. When the jar is full, there’s a popcorn party. That was different from other classes.

With those discussions things got more specific, and we had material to work with.

I saved a lot of time in the songwriting process by using the melody of a song everyone already knew. In Rob Pike’s class, I used “This Little Light of Mine”. In Donna Raymond’s, we used “Aiken Drum,” and in Sarah Rich’s, we used “This Land is Your Land.” Having a melody and song structure already set up made it a lot easier to get the kids thinking like songwriters. When they would come up with a line they wanted to use, we had to find a way to fit in the correct number of beats. This can be pretty challenging (even for people who call themselves songwriters), and the kids need some help on this – they began to learn if the rhythm was right or wrong and could identify the difference, but needed help in finding the right phrasing.

Everytime we found a phrase that worked we wrote it down on the flip chart and sang it – the kids got more excited as they saw the song take shape.

I should add here that songs like “Aiken Drum” or “This Little Light” are great ones for beginning songwriting, since all the kids need is one good line, which gets repeated three times, and a finishing line that is the name of the song. There’s not a need to worry about rhyming in this structure – the kids an focus on content and rhythm

We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
Playing and learning every day

After that general line, we moved on to truly unique ones like:

“We have slimy worms, pooping in our class”
“We have popcorn parties when the shell jar’s full”
and my favorite
“We’re all different colors, we don’t really care”

Like I said, not rocket science, but the kids began to understand how the process worked. I’m not completely happy with the last line (“Playing and learning every day”)– they were having trouble saying everything they wanted to say, and I suggested it in the interests of time– it’s pretty trite and it’s my fault. I really try to have the kids not settle for a line that is untrue or doesn’t quite fit in the rhythm of the line.

“This Land is Your Land” is more challenging, because rhyming is necessary, and to be strict with the rhyme, you have to find three words that rhyme, and that can leave you with some lines not quite perfect
In our class, we have a sail (on the wall as a backdrop)
We study fish, we study whales
We work so hard, we never fail
This class was made for you and me

Here, I wasn’t so happy with the “never fail” line, but a kid suggested it and everyone liked it – of course they fail sometimes, we all fail, but… And it was pretty interesting brainstorm words that rhyme with “class”. I stopped that discussion.

So, in twenty minutes we had come up with a bunch of lines that scanned. We sang it through a couple of times. And then, the beauty of software. I set my laptop up on the chair I’d been sitting on, turned on Garage Band, sat on the floor with the kids and we all sang the song together. The microphone built into my computer was completely adequate for what we were doing. My voice is too present, but with such a short period of time, I figured the kids needed my voice as a guide and prompt. A couple more run throughs and they could have sung it on their own. And probably are. We recorded a couple of takes, I listened back at lunchtime, chose one, and burned it to a cd. The kids were excited and wanted to sing it for the whole school.

The benefits of this kind of thing include the sense of accomplishment the class feels in doing something together, the growing awareness of who they are as a group of people, and a tool for them to use in the weeks and months ahead – a song they can sing.

And, like I said, this is not rocket science – it’s something a teacher could do, even without a guitar. if you’re worried about your voice, listen to mine on the recording. Muffin Man, Skip to My Lou, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – any familiar melody with a simple lyric structure works. With more time, classes are capable of more complex subjects, structures, and language. But this is a good place to start. Here’s the song I wrote with Mr. Pike’s class:

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I’m supposed to be making a set list for the show I’m doing tonight at Providence’s Bright Night (like First Night, but without the official name and licensing). Bright Night’s survival is hanging by a thread, having lost its funding from the city and some other sources, and because the weather last year killed the attendance and thereby the revenues. The local artists and the intrepid organizer, Adma Gertsacov, are plowing ahead in the belief that it’s a worthwhile venture, hoping that people will turn up.

So if you’re in the Providence area, please show up – we need you. Not to mention that it will be a good time. (http://www.brightnight.org/)

But getting ready for the show has me thinking of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with many performers – we all are experiencing the continued erosion of attendance at public arts events. For many years, and particularly over the past two or three, I’ve seen a noticeable drop-off in audience size. While some of this can be blamed on the economy and the current concerns about the flu, I think even if/when things get straightened out there, we’re seeing a significant shift in people’s behavior.

People don’t go out.

Every performer I talk to is concerned about it. Major presenters are guessing and gambling on what will draw an audience in. Local musicians find themselves being paid less at clubs than they were ten years ago (if they can find a club that has music). Artists are scrambling, juggling more and making less. And a good percentage of a younger generation thinks art should be free, anyway.

No surprise to any of us, I know. Putting the economy aside, everyone knows that digital entertainment has changed the the way we relate to art and content – the local paper, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, had a front page article about Bright Night, and right below it made suggestions for what movies to curl up with at home tonight. Inertia will win for many, and they’ll curl up and watch something at home. And tomorrow, Bright Night will be gone, but the movie suggestions won’t (if people bother to read the paper for suggestions). The digital media is relentless, and live performance is not so persistent. We don’t have the access or funding.

There are at least two things that are really troubling to me about this.

The first is pretty selfish – in spite of all the things I do (including this blog) I am at heart a live performer. It’s my bread and butter, and I need it to live. So, I need people to show up. Recognizing that things are a little bleak in the performing world, I’m making adjustments. I can survive. Like I joke with my friends – why not brain surgery? I think people still get paid for doing brain surgery.

But the other issue is deeper – What does it say that people do not spend time watching live performance in a room with other people? What’s being lost? We are, in the end, a communal animal (my friend Bob Stromberg says we want to be eagles, but we’re really geese) – not just in the sharing of minds, but in the sharing of warmth and physical presence. And the experience of sharing something communally – some artistic experience – is something we’ve done since we stood up and walked. Are we better off isolated in our houses and cubicles with headphones on, listening to our personal soundtracks?

Eric Booth, in his great book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible says the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment reaffirms what the audience believes whereas art takes the audience outside of themselves. We need both (and it could be from the same song, or play, or book, or movie, or painting), but certainly being at a live performance, in the company of other people, is one good way to take a step a little bit outside one’s self.

So come on out. Now, I have to go make that set list.

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A little while ago I was doing school visits in a city in California – four or five schools in a week. It’s part of the itinerant traveling whatever-I-am that I never know what to expect when I show up at a school or library or theater.

That week I got it all.

One of the schools had kids’ drawings of my books, stories and songs hanging from the rafters and plastered on the walls. That’s enough to give anyone an overhealthy sense of themselves. Because they’d been listening and reading, I had something to offer – shows, workshop, even a stop in the teacher’s lounge for some high-end coffee.
What’s not to like?

Then I got to the last school of the week. It was just a reminder that I’m not the center of the universe. And that some people don’t get what I do. To them, I am just a distraction in an otherwise very well-ordered and planned educational project.

It was a large elementary school in a well-off part of town. When I got there, I found that despite the advance work, nothing was arranged as I had asked. One microphone on the cafeteria stage ( I need two, one for my guitar). The lunch tables were set up, which meant some kids were in the far corners of the cafeteria, seemingly miles from me, with kindergartner’s legs dangling down – an uncomfortable position for forty five minutes. I like them up close on the floor. The shows were scheduled by the office to mix fifth graders with kindergartners and pre-schoolers. That arrangement doesn’t recognize the difference in language, social, and cognitive skills. (Note: The difference between a four year old and a ten year old is greater that the difference between a twenty-five year old an a forty year old) I can do it, but I don’t like to. After twenty-five years, I know what works.

And I knew I was about to meet a principal that just didn’t care if I was there or not.

I hate to present someone so stereotypical, but I guess stereotypes are based on something. It’s enough to give m the hives, but there he was. Good looking, early forties, suit and tie; he had the smell of a future superintendent about him. I asked for things to be rearranged according to the information I’d sent in advance.

“This is the way I like to do things,” he informed me. “It works better. The schedule doesn’t allow the changes you suggested.”

Oh, I thought. This school is different from the other two thousand I’ve been in.

The shows were flat – the kids were far away. The teachers graded papers. The principal watched at one of the tables for ten minutes, and didn’t seem all that impressed. I didn’t feel impressive – this was in marked contrast to how I’d been feeling all week. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I thought. And the unspoken answer was, “Well, no, and we don’t care!”

Oh well.

Believe me, I tried. It’s my job to entertain people, and I try to do that. If someone doesn’t smile a little in my performance, either their life is in crisis, or I’ve failed, or both.

Finished with the shows, I only wanted to escape, but I didn’t have a ride, so I was there until the last bus left. Boy, the school day is pretty long, and I’m not five years old. And then the principal, who I had studiously avoided, gave me a ride back to my favorite Hampton Inn.

On the way back, my curiosity got the better of me and I started asking him questions about the school. I mean – I spend so much time in schools, I’m actually interested in them. And I found myself sitting in a car with someone who I guessed looked at me like I was inconsequential. I was interested.

So I asked about the continuing move towards standards and testing.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. ‘I like to know where everyone is, and the testing helps us get an angle on that.”

I let this pass. I was gathering information. And by the way, I know testing has a place. But I suspected my understanding of its function was different from his.

So I pushed a little deeper. “Given we all want kids to learn a certain body of knowledge and particular processes,” I asked, “do you think there should be a wide range of methods used, according to the teacher’s approach and the kid’s needs?”

“No,” he said, “I think we’re better off if everyone is using the same approach. I don’t like people experimenting.” He paused, then went on. “I want to know what my teachers are doing. Oh, I know…some of the older teachers grumble about this, but we’re all better off being on the same page. We ought to use the same methods throughout the school, throughout the district. The school is for instruction. Between a puppet show and a language lesson, we should have another language lesson.”

I looked at him as he drove.

Holy cow, I thought. This is my enemy!

He didn’t really look like my enemy – he didn’t have three heads or anything. But he was – or I was his nightmare.

Because I, of course, am the puppet show he would rather not have – foisted upon his fiefdom by a school district or PTO mom.. I’m a frill. In his mind, I have nothing to do with language development or test scores. My approach, global in nature (and by that I mean all encompassing, holistic, and not delineated into separate tasks), is that if people develop a love of language – of words, and story, and naming things in the world – they will want to develop the skills to help them interact with the world and understand themselves.

That is, by the way, the approach that has been used by the human race for most of its existence.

The use of story and music in a learning environment is about the structure of language and the world (something he wants to teach, I believe) AND the content of the story and song, and the feelings that arrive in their expression. I assume this principal would acknowledge that those things are nice, but they are not what we’re here for.

Kill the puppet. Teach the lesson. I hate puppicide.

No wonder I’ve come to view my work as a guerilla attack on some schools. I hope they tell my stories in class, and in the lunchroom when no one is watching. I hope someone sings my songs walking down the hall. I want to write a song good enough that even my nemesis finds himself singing it . I want to tell a story that makes him think about something that happened in his own life – or even better, in the lives of the people he touches.

I want to be outside the curriculum and inside his life.

This will be my final revenge.

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When you’re sitting in class, There’s a tickle in your nose
Then you let out a sneeze and it finally explodes
You look down at your hand, It’s all covered with that goo,
Don’t wipe it anywhere, You know what to do!

You gotta wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos).

I wrote this song several years ago for the Paul Cuffee School, and have just recorded it for the upcoming flu season. NPR’s All Things Considered played it on Monday with an accompanying story on the swine flu.

You can have it for free! Go here to listen and download.

We decided to not worry about money ( What, me worry?) and do what we could do to get the song out there before the H1N1 virus comes back with a vengeance. The Massachusetts Department of Health is distributing it to schools, and we’re happy to give permission to other schools, organizations and agencies if they wish to do so. Contact our office (michele@billharley.com) or call 508-336-9703.

And please spread the word to friends and families that we’re making this offer. If you need a physical CD for your local radio station let us know – our WONDERFUL CD duplicators, Oasis, have generously donated the manufacture of a number of CD’s for us to distribute.

It seems ridiculous to repeat this, but one of the greatest deterrents to the spread of communicable diseases is handwashing.
In order of importance (I know this now, since I seem to be involved with various Departments of Health!)
1) Get vaccinated
2) Cover your cough
3) Wash your hands
4) Stay home when you’re sick

If you need me to write you an excuse from work, let me know.

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Honoring Failure

A couple of years ago I was doing a show for a primary grade audience at an elementary school. After an introductory song, I took a good look at the audience, decided on a particular story and launched into the telling.

A minute and a half into the story, I realized I had miscalculated – it was the wrong story, it was not going to work, and it was long – another fifteen to eighteen minutes. It was going to be a tough slog. I pushed on for another minute – I could feel attention wavering.

Then I stopped.

The students were suddenly alert. This was not expected. The guy up there was just supposed to keep blabbing about something they didn’t care about. What was he doing?

I paused. Something was now clearly wrong. This was even more interesting.

I looked at the teachers, sitting in chairs on the side of the audience – even they were now paying attention – even the ones grading papers! I addressed the teachers.

“Have you ever spent a lot of time on a lesson plan, and realized as soon as you started it, it wasn’t going to work?”

A couple of teachers nodded. The kids were looking at their teachers. I went on.

“So, then you have two choices – you can just push right ahead and teach that lesson no matter what, or give up and try something else.”

I paused again. A few nods. Kids looking at me.

“I’m giving up,” I said. Then I said to the kids, “I don’t like that story. I’m telling another.”

The teachers laughed and applauded. They knew exactly how I felt, and were relieved to see me readjust. I started another story, a better one for that moment. The kids listened and liked it.

Messing up, admitting it, and adjusting is one of the great challenges of being human, and I wish it were easier to do. (Okay, the messing up part is surprisingly easy – it’s the whole process that presents difficulty). But when someone can admit failure and move on, it’s a blessing for everyone around them.

I was reminded of all of this when my friend and fellow storyteller, Syd Lieberman, told me about a recent school visit. The head of the school had challenged all the teachers to bring a story about a mistake they had made in the classroom to the next staff meeting. They sat around and told their stories, and there was a prize for the best story. The head of the school told a story, too. Syd said the feeling of community and support in the school was exceptional – unlike any he had ever seen.

What a great exercise.

I should note here that a story of failure is different from a war story, or what musicians call “gigs from hell”, in which everything happens to you. Those are fun to tell, and comforting, to a point. But this story, where people admit failings, is a different bird.

Two things happen when a trusted friend or respected colleague admits mistakes. First, there is a lesson more easily learned. When an accomplished teacher or craftsman of any kind shows where he went wrong, others learn quickly from that mistake. It’s always hard to learn from someone else’s errors, but you’re more likely to when someone you respect shows where they went wrong. That kind of mistake sticks in your mind.

Second, and most important, it has a leveling effect and helps others relax. “She’s just like me,” is a wonderful insight. When you realize that mistakes are part of the process, you’re much more likely to stretch for new approaches and make yourself vulnerable to the moment. People in positions of authority who can admit mistakes don’t have to hold up the façade of a role that doesn’t quite fit them. Real loss of authority comes when everyone can see the leader has made a mistake but won’t admit it.

My friend, Curtis Buchanan, chairmaker extraordinaire, told me of a class he was teaching in which he had forgotten to perform a basic function before the class – sharpening his chisels. He kept trying to perform one procedure and failing, with a dozen people watching. Then he realized the problem, stopped and showed his error. In the evaluations, one of the students said, “The most liberating thing about your class was to see you make a mistake and admit your error. It gave me permission to try things I wouldn’t have tried, for fear of failing.”

Failure? It’s a great thing. When you can admit it.

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I’ve never been very good at explaining myself when asked what I do. On airplanes, or at arts receptions, or standing in line at the checkout counter. “What do you do?” they ask. I’m a storyteller, I say. (Pretty weird!) Or a songwriter. Or an author. But not exactly any of those things. Whatever I answer, there’s usually some interest, and then they ask “Who do you perform/write/sing for?”

Then I take a breath.

“I work with kids,” I say.

Their response to my answer is a litmus test, of sorts. A noticeable few become excited, But often, when I say that, I get a polite nod and a general lessening of interest on the part of my conversational partner.

“That’s nice,” they say, “You must like children.”

I nod. I do, generally, like children

Then they go back to their magazine, or sauvignon blanc, or swiss chard. Sometimes it’s like I have the plague.

When that happens I often feel what many people who work with children, either as teachers, or day care providers, or maybe even pediatricians.

Nice work, but not very, um substantial, or weighty. Or important. I couldn’t find anything else to do.

While lip service is paid to “our future”, most work with children is devalued. It’s not serious enough – it’s what you do if you can’t cut it with adults. If you do it, you’re not as intellectually agile as someone who’s writing books, or songs for adults or teaching grad students. And your work is less important, too.

Oh well.

I usually enjoy saying, “I work with kids.” I’m proud of it. But honestly, the most dangerous, cutting voice of all the ones who deliver this subtle message is the one in my own head. Regardless of where I first heard it, I carry the message in myself, wondering if I’m doing this because I couldn’t succeed in some other world.

Thinking this way is a loser’s game, and I know it. Most of the people I know doing good work for children and families – as teachers, as writers, as counselors, as doctors – are continually challenging themselves to do the best work they can do. And many of them are working with children because they’ve consciously chosen to throw their lot in with the least, and in their hope for the future.

The adult world is, often, eminently disappointing. It’s in working with kids that we find a freedom of expression and immediacy we don’t experience with the older set. One of the things that has always struck me about those who work with young people is that they are offering their lives to the future – it’ not about them, it’s about the person they’re serving. And they probably won’t see the results of their work.

That’s a pretty mature approach to life, it seems to me. Pretty weighty, too. More weighty than, say, the approach of a derivative trader. Although those guys do wear ties.

The voice inside me questioning my work sometimes wins out, but I remember making my decision consciously about working with younger people and the ones around them. I could have traded bonds if I wanted, I guess. Well, maybe not.

Okay, sometimes when people ask, I don’t confess. I have a lot of different answers. Because I do work with all kinds of people – adults included.

But I may be at my best when I look whoever asks me square in the eye (even if it’s looking in the bathroom mirror) and say it.

“I work with kids.”

Whatever they think about my answer is their problem.

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