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Posts Tagged ‘singing’

bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 

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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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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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Sorry about the caesura, or hiatus, or whatever, in posts. You know… So here’s this.

I have an uneasy mind. It is restless, and wandering, and often ill-content. Those close to me know this. I would like to apologize to them. I am not easy to be around. As lucky as I am to have found something that gives me a lot of freedom, there’s a price paid for being in charge of myself. From afar, it seems pretty cool (and it is). Up close, well, it presents problems.

Every day, I wonder if I’m spending my time the way I’m supposed to be spending my time. What’s important? What matters? What can I get done? If someone graphed my psyche, or my emotional health, it would look like an oscillation between the Himalayas and the Marianas Trench off the coast of the Phillipines.

Every four hours.

Pretty ironic, considering how many people tell me they appreciate my work. Everyone should have the affirmation I receive. What a basket case I am!

But, then, that’s the way I am. It’s the brain chemistry, or the hand I’ve been dealt by nature, or nurture.

The release from all this comes in performance.

Before a show, regardless of the venue, I am VERY uneasy. Those around me know just to leave me alone. It could be a library show for fifty people, or some “performance venue” with a thousand paid audience members. It doesn’t make any difference. I want to do a good job. I wonder why I’m doing this. I always joke with the presenter – “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do this.” But part of me is serious – I hate this. All the focus on me. Who do I think I am, anyway? I bite my tongue so I don’t whine. I hate everything on the set list. I decide that I should really just try some song or story that I barely know, then decide to go with what’s safe, then say, no, better to fail miserably.

I rarely walk out on stage with a set list cast in stone. I see too many different kinds of audiences to do that. A month ago, I walked out onto a formal stage, a big venue, for a family show, assuming there were a good number of kids, only to discover there were only four children (in the front row, hoping for something wacky) and everyone else had gray hair or none at all. I had prepared a set list. It didn’t match the audience.

I threw away the set list. Wing, wing, wing….

And I am left, then, to depend on instinct and the moment. After doing this long enough, things come to me (or don’t) about what the next piece is. Unfortunately, this discussion goes on while I’m performing a piece, which can keep me from being present in the piece I am performing. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRESENT IN THE PIECE BEING PERFORMED. THAT’S HOW GREAT THINGS HAPPEN. There is nothing more blessed in human existence than knowing what you are supposed to do.

But sometimes you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. What then?

I try to get it right. There is very little I can count on. Anywhere. Anytime. But the truth is, the one place I have some semblance of control is when I’m on stage. All these people have come to see me. (What were they thinking?) They have placed their lives in my hands, if only for sixty or seventy minutes. It is up to me to take care of them.

It is an awesome task (in the true sense of the word “awesome”). And it is also not that big a deal. Because I’m better when I just play with them, if I can get to that point.

For me, performance is cathartic, which defined loosely, means “emotionally cleansing”. (Love those Greeks.) Often, in the middle of the show, or towards the end, or maybe even after it’s finished, I can feel everything in me relax. My ever present, relentless mind shuts up. After a show, there is a sense of attainment – of forgiveness, of release. Whether it’s in the car driving home, or in the hotel room a thousand miles from home, or (if I’m lucky) with some friends, the internal dialogue stops for a little while. I have done my job. I’ve done what I could by the sweat of my brow and by my instinct. For that short time – a couple of hours – my being is at peace and I can accept who I am, gratefully and joyfully.

We should all be so lucky.

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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’ve put a video of this boy up on my facebook page, but had to put this one here. He’s five years old now and has been playing ukulele for a year. He’s Japanese, so if you don’t understand the words to his original song, it’s okay. Check out his other videos, too! As I’ve said before, all children should be given ukuleles at birth.

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singers
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a half dozen reminders of the purpose and power of people singing together. Since I get paid to stand in front of people and sing by myself, I realize the inherent paradox. But, really, singing together is what people have always done. There’s less of it today – we leave it to the “professionals” (me?) and forget that we’re happier and healthier if we open up our mouths and belt it out with the people around us. This has nothing to do with virtuosity, or perfect pitch, or being a soprano or alto or whatever. It has to do with being human.

A couple of Mondays ago I got together with a half dozen songleaders in Providence for unisong, organized by Jodi Glass. People worked with the songleaders of their choice for twenty minutes, then we all met for the “performance” – for no one but us. It was a blast. I led two songs I don’t generally sing – “Run Come See, Jerusalem”, which I had learned from my pal Derek Burrows, and “Wild Mountain Thyme” – the perfect beginning of summer song.

After that experience I got a hold of a recording I’ve been meaning to get for years – the Folkways recording of Pete Seeger’s Singalong Concert at Sanders Theater in 1980. It’s Pete at the height of his powers as a song leader, and a textbook for people interested in leading songs. What I’ve learned from Pete is that teaching the song is part of the performance, and also more than half the fun. When you hear a thousand people singing together, it’s pretty impressive.

Last Monday, I sang at the last town meeting for Paul Cuffee School – we sang a bunch of songs we all knew. The fifth graders even sang, knowing it was the last time they were going to get a chance to do it. I’ve sung the same songs with them for six years, and that day, with everyone singing, it felt good and right.

Last, I was lucky enough to be a performer at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY last weekend, and sat in the “audience” for sessions on shape note singing (a form of choral singing popular in nineteenth century America) and gospel. You get goosebumps all over being part of it, and it’s not about having a “professional voice”. In a large group, individual voices can be heard, but questions of pitch, vocal quality, and even singing the right words become less important – it all gets mixed up together. What I’m most struck by in these experiences is that people are a group animal, and singing is an expression and fostering of community.

All of this was in my mind many years ago when I managed to talk a bunch of singers and activists to make a recording of Freedom Songs from the Civil Rights Movement, I’m Gonna Let it Shine. We were in a retreat center for three days and recorded, a capella, twenty songs. There, in that cold barn in April, voices joined together into something that was almost holy.

Here’s a song from that session, “Get On Board” with Chuck Neblett, one of the original Freedom Singers, leading. Click 01 Get On Board, Children.

All this reinforces my resolve to get audiences to sing more. It’s a better show when everyone is part of it.

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Earlier this spring I was performing at Northville Elementary School in New Milford, CT. Kids filed into the gym (great acoustics – ask any gym teacher!) and by the time the 250 students all arrived, it was fairly noisy. The principal, Susan Murray, walked to the front of the group and sang,
“Ha ha ha ha”
“Ha ha ha ha” some kids sang back.
“Waaaay – oh!” she sang.
“Waaaay-oh” more responded.
“Gooba gooba gooba gooba” she continued.
“Gooba gooba gooba gooba” everyone sang.

My mouth dropped open. I really hadn’t expected to hear a principal (recently from Boise, Idaho) sing a New Orleans classic “Don’tcha Just Know It” to settle an audience down. But it worked like a charm. A few more “ha ha ha’s “ and “gooba goobas’” and the audience was ready to listen to me. No lectures. No yelling. And I suspect Susan Murray was not hired for her coloratura soprano voice.

One of the challenges of working in schools is managing large groups of children – it’s a problem presented by the institutionalization of learning. Large groups of people make noise – they’re hard to control. How do you do it?

Clapping in rhythm, having the group respond, works pretty well. So does holding a hand up, if people understand the rules.

In the same situation, I’ve seen some principals stand in the front and demand total silence as students walk in. “Show our guest what good students you are by how quiet you’re being,” one principal said, confusing silence with academic achievement.

Singing is a painless way to organize a group. Throughout the history of the human race, music’s major function has been to express community. It gets everybody doing something together. It’s fun. And it also focuses the group so they can move on to the next task. Singing, by the way, teaches rhythm and pitch, central to language development.

A number of years ago, in Tucson, Arizona, I watched Bob Wortman, one of the best principals I’ve ever met, walk in front of his whole school and start to sing “I Can Sing a Rainbow”. Soon the whole school was singing. I choked up. The school WAS a rainbow. And again, Bob was in no danger of getting a recording contract. You don’t have to be a professional to use song – kids don’t care.

A teacher at Paul Cuffee School in Providence, RI, where I work regularly, asked me to come up with song to help her kindergartners get to morning circle. Here’s what I came up with – a couple weeks later, and I heard the kids singing it as they ran to the rug. It’s called “Sit on the Rug” . Click on this link.sit-on-the-rug1

sit-on-the-rug
I forget all the time how a simple song eases the way through the day – and I do it for a living!

Note: I’ll post a blog every Friday. I promise. And I’m pretty good at promises.

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