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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.

 

 

bach_portraitOver the past several months I have been playing piano almost every day. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is Bach’s A minor two part invention. I am a pretty sloppy piano player – more comfortable with blues progressions and playing “close-enough” to what should be happening. But Bach doesn’t really put up with that  – it’s precise and intricate and demands a steady tempo and attention to detail. Not my forte. As a result, to get it right, I’ve had to continually slow myself down and play some passages over and over again. Every passage really. I still haven’t played the whole piece through once perfectly – I probably never will.

All this piano practicing has gotten me thinking about the practice – or rehearsal – of stories. Rehearsing stories by one’s self is very, very difficult. When I do practice a story without an audience, my mind tends to wander and I’ll find myself standing there, staring into space, thinking about something, anything else.  A story really needs an audience – it won’t grow or make sense, or have meaning, until it has one.

But I need to practice a story, somehow, before I offer it up to an audience.

Musicians can find enjoyment in playing with no one else in the room – I’m not exactly sure why this difference is there. But I find myself interested in the notion that I could play the Bach piece over ten times and enjoy myself, while practicing a story by myself, over and over again, is just plain hard.

One thing that strikes me is that in both cases – the playing of an instrument and the telling of a story – we’re striving for an innate body knowledge. We have to practice enough for our mind to get out of the way. When the body knows what it’s supposed to do (and I mean even the mouth muscles), then we can open ourselves up to a better expression of the material we’re offering. We literally watch ourselves perform and guide the performance.

I think practicing a story requires more mental discipline than practicing an instrument and one mark of being an accomplished teller is that dedication in the early stages of developing a story. In particular, I’m interested in the notion that there are passages in a story, like in the Bach piece, that require repeating over and over again to get them right. In particular, we practice to clarify the order of things and the language used to express and describe.  Story is about ordering – giving form – and our first job is to get order right – the order of events, the order of speaking in a dialogue, the order in the way the narrator or character lists things. That order is essential and requires practice. Language is crucial through the whole story, but in particular there are some points in a story when we need to get the language just right – a well considered phrase or choice of particular noun or verb or adjective will make a clearer picture in the listener’s mind.

I have been wrestling with a story  for a long time now (a year and a half) that requires that kind attention to detail. Getting the sequence of the story has been particularly troublesome to me, because it’s assembled from a number of different experiences, and also involves a long passage in which I’m having an internal monologue. Although internal monologues tend to be jumpy and apparently non-linear, in the case of the told story, the sequence is very important. In the middle of the piece, I have an argument with myself – actually there are four different parts of myself – and I have to get all those parts just right. And at the climax of the story I’m bringing all the disparate elements that I’ve brought into the story together, and they have to be introduced in just the right way. This requires practice.  And it’s hard to do. Which is why I’m still working on it. When I’m not practicing Bach. Which is easier.

Like many storytellers, I regularly use performance as rehearsal. If the story’s bones are strong and I’m relaxed enough, I can get through the story in front of an audience and will find a lot out. I prefer to do that (I’m lazy). But I also know that I get to my best storytelling when I’ve worked on particular places to make sure the order, language and delivery is just right.

A story asks a question

I spent this past weekend at the Festival of Lights in Midland, Texas with a lot of storytelling friends and enjoyed hearing all their stories. On Saturday night, I heard Donald Davis honor the creator of the festival, Patty  Smith, by  telling  an old story of his about his typing teacher in high school. In the story, the ancient teacher insisted that nothing could stop the timed typing test given every Friday. Her insistence leads to some pretty hilarious consequences.

Afterwards I was talking with other tellers about how Donald structured the story, and suggested that the  story worked because it asked a question at the beginning of the story that had to be answered (Would anything stop the test?). My pal Willy Claflin suggested that Donald’s story was a good example of the scientific method – when confronted with a problem the protagonist  suggests a solution and then tests his theory. What happens if we do this? As soon as the audience hears the question, we know where the story is headed, though not the outcome.

A good story asks a question and then answers it. It needs to ask the question early on – after the stage is set and the main character’s world is established. And the question that is asked is the result of a problem that presents itself. And really, the  asking of questions may be the reason stories exist in the first place – they explain to people what happens when they take certain courses of actions – they’re about being predictive. Just like Einstein imagining traveling at the speed of light. The scientific method. What happens if you do this? Our ability to imagine what might happen is what makes us storytelling animals – we put events in a context to make sense of them.

I don’t think it’s necessary that the question always be directly stated, as it was in Donald’s story. (“We got to thinking, could anything stop the timed test?”) If you make it clear that the hero of the story really wants something, then the unstated question is “Will she get what she wants?” and “How is she going to get it?” Which is enough to hook the audience so they want to know the most important question in narrative – “What happens next?”

While some narrative artists can get away from this simple structure because of other skills they have, it’s dangerous to do so. How many times have you read a book, or gone to a movie or a play and after a while get this confused feeling that makes you ask, “Where is this going?” If that feeling lasts too long, the audience checks out. If the artist hasn’t asked that questions of herself, it can lead to a really flabby, confusing story. Not every narrative artist is so direct – some folks are more elliptical in their presentation. But by and large, I think storytellers are better off practicing the scientific method.

A Song About Testing

I had a busy and interesting week last week. I went to a workshop with Nick Rabkin, an arts educator who speaks eloquently about the importance of arts in the schools. You can check out one of his columns here. Then I presented at the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in Providence. I love what CES is doing, and it’s a comfort to me to know there are educators who are really thinking through what makes a good school.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind, nor of Race to the Top. I’ve been in schools a long time and seen a lot of things, and I don’t think these programs are much of an answer. They don’t really frame the question right. This of course, deserves a longer discussion, and I’ll post more. But for now, I want to post a song I wrote a year or so ago about testing. It’s not on any recording and I don’t know if it will be. And this is just me and guitar. I wrote it after listening to one teacher after another lament the effect of high stakes teaching on their work. LIke I said, Race to the Top doesn’t really shift the focus much from No Child Left Behind. Testing has its place, but it’s no answer. And like I say in the song, it sure isn’t teaching.

Here’s the song. Hope you like it:

Click here - The Ballad of Janice Miller

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

There’s a point of no returning

There’s a point where something breaks

There’s a point where someone’s taken as much as they can take

There’s a point comes when you know that what you’re doing’s wrong

That’s the point where you say no and refuse to go along

My name is Janice Miller, a teacher’s who I am

I’ve never made much trouble, I’ve done the best I can

There’s a million more like me out there, I can’t speak for the rest

But I’m sick of what we’re doing, so I won’t give this test

©2012 Bill Harley and Round River Music (BMI)

Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech

I just finished performing at the Forest Storytelling Festival in Port Angeles, WA, and had a great time. The other tellers were all very good (Lyn Ford, Robert Greygrass, Will Hornyak, and Alison Cox) and we complemented each other very well and had a great time. And while I was busy, I got out before the festival started and took a nice hike up Hurricane Ridge where I only got a little wet. The Northwest, you know. Picture above – it was really raining when I took the picture.

The stories were good, but I am thinking a lot about what happened in the workshop I gave before the festival started. I did a 2 ½ hour workshop on personal stories (anathema to all the European tellers, and those who are sick of hearing people talk about themselves). I talked a lot about trying to place a personal story in the context of myth so it would have resonance. That’s all good, but I also talked a lot about imaging – seeing the story in the mind’s eye – which I have considered essential to good storytelling. It’s how I work, and how I teach. But that’s where I ran into trouble.

One of the workshop participants, who has been telling stories for a long time, told me that he doesn’t see stories – he doesn’t have pictures in his head. I have run into this before, and usually have found a way around it. I have ways of tricking people into admitting they have pictures in their heads when they tell stories. It’s how I operate, and I suspect how most tellers, or writers (and certainly filmmakers) operate. I usually can get them to admit that they do.

But this one wasn’t budging. No, he insisted, he didn’t see anything, he just told the story.

I was confronted with a problem. I didn’t get it. As a workshop leader, I am supposed to know everything. He was messing up my workshop. And he wasn’t going along with my tricks. I was trying to get on to the next point, but here I was, with an embarrassing moment.

So I said (essentially), “Wow, I don’t get this. I believe you but I don’t get this. You see, or do things differently from me, and I don’t get it, and I don’t know what to say.”

I was confronted with a way of being that I did not understand, and I gave up and admitted it. “Seeing” the story is essential to my work, and I considered it universal, but here was someone saying there was another way to do it.

Rather than tell him he was wrong, I just said, “Okay with me – I need to understand it.”

After the workshop, he thanked me for affirming that his way of doing things was valid – he said it was the first time a workshop leader had done so. All I had said was “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, but what do I know?” Who knows everything?  Another workshop participant, a psychologist, came up to me and said that there’s a number of ways to experience things – it could be visual, but it could also be auditory, or it could be affectively –  the emotions in the experience might give you the path towards finding the words. And afterwards, I thought about how smell or touch could do it, too. Diane Ackerman’s sensational (ha ha ha) book A Natural History of the Senses talks about this and suggests that smell is the strongest sense when it comes to dwelling in memory.  Could you tell a story about your grandmother baking bread without having any images in your head?Well, evidently, even though I don’t know how.

Over the weekend, I had several conversations with my non-visual storyteller. At one point, he said he tried to feel what was going on in the story, and operated from that perspective. I understood that. My stories often start with a feeling that I would like to elicit – one I’ve had and want to evoke. And then, a day later, he told me that he was working on a new story and that morning he had tried to picture it and for a few fleeting seconds, he could see it happening in a way he hadn’t before. It was a small breakthrough. I think if I had just told him he was wrong, he would not have done that.

It got me thinking about what a visual culture we are – we are addicted to images, often at the expense of the other senses, which might provide a deeper experience.

This process is all very interesting to me. I take away at least two things from the experience.

First – I’m a better teacher when I admit that I don’t know everything. Teachers spend so much time trying to have all the answers, it’s very difficult to admit when they don’t. But when they do (or in my case, are forced to), something else happens. We can go deeper into the experience of learning – it’s a wide open space with no easy answers, and kind of uncomfortable. But it’s also very liberating.

Second, I was forced to recognize that there are ways of being that I do not really understand. This is a very humbling experience, especially for someone who professes to be an expert. I am a moderately synaesthetic person – music has colors to me, words evoke feelings, visual things may evoke smells – but there is still a lot that I just don’t get. It’s a big world, and I only understand a little part of it. I should shut up and pay more attention.

I said to my non-seeing workshop participant that I suspected the more we could draw on all of our senses, the better off we would be in our work. He may, in the long run, gain from his attempts to “see” stories in a way he never has before. It will probably make him a better storyteller. And I should probably be more willing to admit that someone understands the world differently than I. It will make me a better workshop leader, and maybe more than that.

What drives your creativity?  Something else than image?

Last month I was out at a dinner with a presenter. The Russian rock group Pussy Riot came up in conversation. You probably know this is the group of young women who went into a church and recorded a video of their song protesting the Putin government’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. You also probably know that they got sentenced to two years in jail for the escapade. You also probably know that there was an international firestorm of support for them, and that many people across the Western world had a hard time saying the words “Pussy Riot” – especially news anchormen.

I said to her, “What a great thing to write a song about – their name is so great!”

The presenter, who runs a great family series, looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare sing a song about Pussy Riot at my concert.”

I understood, but I got an idea. It got me thinking about words – what you can and can’t say. Corruption is okay, but the name of a rock group presents problems.  So I wrote this song, which I probably could sing anywhere (except in Russia). Since they’re a punk band, I plugged in the electric guitar and pushed the distort pedal. It needs a caffeinated drummer. And if ANYONE wants to make a video of it, capturing pictures from the internet of the band and the ensuing madness, let me know.

Here’s the song -

If you like the song, you can download it here: billharley.bandcamp.com/track/puddy-wiot

Here’s to Puddy Wiot. Cwazy guwls.

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