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Columns | Fall 2019
Graphic: Ah-Ha! Songs

Thoughts To Chew

Ah-ha! Songs

Peter: The theme for this issue is “Singing for Us All,” which has a different emphasis than “Singing With Us All.” That “with” part is so needed these days, because so many kids and families and friends sit together staring at our individual smartphones, unaware of our surroundings. I think we singers for kids and families do more sing-alongs with audiences than any other performers. It’s healthy for us to do communal activities with one another in actual, real, non-virtual groups! When we sing together, everyone gets to experience what it feels like being in a community larger than just ourselves or our family.

Stuart: And we get to see and know all the other people who participate in our community, the folks who actually show up here with us.

Peter: Right! I like the word for in the theme, because as a songwriter, I’m really interested in song content. Whenever I write or perform a song, I ask myself, What’s this song about? Who am I singing for? And why am I singing it for them right now? The answers I come up with most frequently are that I hope to communicate some of the lessons I’ve learned in my life to my audience. I hope that when the song is over, people will have some tools in their toolbox that weren’t there before. The song can be entertaining and humorous and deep and touching and beautiful, and at the same time, provide either some information or experience as a reminder for those who already know the lesson, or a new comprehension for those who have never really thought about it. And all of this helps me consider the bigger picture: the culture that surrounds the specific ideas in the song.

Stuart: I’ve been thinking about our conversations about songwriting, and I know we want to focus this column on the idea of “the Twist.” Not the Chubby Checker version, but the idea of having something unexpected at the end, where the chorus takes on a new meaning. It’s a common concept among songwriters, and it has particular meaning when we talk about songs for kids and families. My friend Peter Berryman, a fantastic lyricist, says that one-third of the work of a song can be coming up with a satisfying ending.

Peter: Absolutely! I love writing what I call “Ah-ha!” songs. I write about very specific kid activities in the early verses, and paint rich behaviors and experiences of kids in families or schools, and then by the third verse, plop those same insights into the land that parents and teachers and other adults inhabit.

Stuart: And that provides a larger context. For many years, songwriters have pursued final verses that open up the idea of the song. In pop music you have “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, where what the dad has been saying to his son comes back to him: “My boy was just like me.” Other songs include “Lola,” “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” and “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s as if the camera zooms out and you see the bigger picture.

Peter: Right, and it builds awareness. I try to make the choruses for this genre of song simple and singable. The payoff comes when we re-hear the chorus, which at first we thought applied only to the specific incidents for children in the first two verses, and then upon hearing the third verse, we see that it’s relevant to the adults in that kid’s life. The parents and teachers hear the chorus with a new perspective that includes them in the mix. That’s the Ah-ha! moment.

Stuart: I’ve written plenty of songs where the chorus gives the big idea, and then the verses are each examples of that idea. One good thing after another. But these songs with twist endings can be satisfying to listeners in a different way. I have a few songs that use the twist at the end. “Jenifer Montgomery,” which was recorded by Two of a Kind, would be one example. “Different Choice” would be another.

Peter: You wrote that back in 1993 right?

Stuart: Yep. It was actually inspired by hearing a very similar story from a friend. When your kids are young, you’re always trading parenting stories, for humor, for support, and for learning. This story comes from my friends Peter and Betsy.

Peter: That’s a great song. Let’s show them your lyrics!

Different Choice
words and music by Stuart Stotts
© 1993 Stuart Stotts

Ricky and Clare are my kids
I watch them most of the week
Rick’s five and Clare’s three. They like to test me.
So I’ve had to learn parenting techniques.

I’ve listened to talk show advice,
Read books, and spoken with friends
If I took what I’ve learned from wherever I’ve turned
This is how it would condense.

Show them you love them a lot
Speak in a moderate voice
Tell them specifically what you don’t like
And come up with a different choice

So if Ricky is pulling Clare’s hair
Or Clare steals a toy from Rick’s box
I ask them to quit, and together we sit
At the table to listen and talk.

I try to show them I love them a lot
I speak in a moderate voice
I tell them specifically what I don’t like
We come up with a different choice.

Some days we do that a lot
That’s my job as a dad
I wish we were perfect but we’re not
It usually works out not too bad.

Yesterday Rick broke a rule
Tried to stuff a balloon in his mouth
I yelled at him “Drop it, or I’m going to pop it
And every balloon in this house.”

Rick looked a little bit stunned.
He dropped that balloon right away
But later that night before I turned out the light
He said, “Dad, I’ve got something to say.”

“I know that you love me a lot
But I’m frightened when you raise your voice
It felt really bad when you yelled at me Dad
You could have made a different choice.”

I knew that Ricky was right
I wondered just what to do
Whatever your parenting’s like
It’s bound to come back to you

I show them I love them a lot
I speak in a moderate voice
I tell them specifically what I don’t like
We come up with a different choice.

I try to show them I love them a lot
I speak in a moderate voice
If I forget and get really upset
They might help me make a different choice.

Listen to “Different Choice” on YouTube.

Peter: That is so excellent! All parents can relate to feeling frustrations while being responsible for kids. We have to figure out how to mitigate our own upset feelings when we’re in a position of power and we want our kids to learn how to navigate the world in healthy, effective, and balanced ways. You shared the dad’s openness and concern and also modeled how adults can learn from our kids, if we only take the time to listen to them. Great!

Stuart: Thanks. One of the most difficult things about writing that song was getting to the ending so it felt natural and yet surprising. Lots of work in that. And I know you’ve written a bunch of Ah-ha! songs yourself. Let’s show them one of yours.

Peter: Okay. Let’s look at “Uh-Oh!” It’s the title cut from an album I did for preschoolers, with Bill Harley and Mar Harman, but as you’ll see, I want to include parents and grandparents too. Here it is:

words and music by Peter Alsop
©2002 Moose School Music (BMI)

Uh-Oh! I made a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! I made a mess, but that’s what people do!

Uh-Oh! I spilled my juice, dropped it on the floor!
Uh-Oh! My Grandma says, “That’s what floors are for!”

Uh-Oh! I made a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! I made a mess, but that’s what people do!

Uh-Oh! I tripped and fell, got an “owie” on my knee
Uh-Oh! I think there’s blood! Hey look! You wanna see?

Uh-Oh! My leg’s a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! My leg’s a mess, but that’s what people do

(garbage can clatter)

Uh-Oh! Wow! What was that? Did you hear that crash?
Uh-Oh! It was Daddy’s car. He ran into our trash!

Uh-Oh! He made a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! He made a mess, but that’s what people do

Uh-Oh! I lost my shoe. It’s in this pile somewhere
Uh-Oh! Under my shirts and socks and underwear!

Uh-Oh! My room’s a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! My room’s a mess, but that’s what people do

Uh-Oh! It’s the TV news, my Dad looks sad tonight
Uh-Oh! Mom gets upset, when she sees grownups fight!

Uh-Oh! The world’s a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true
Uh-Oh! The world’s a mess, but that’s what people do

Mom says “Let’s clean it up!” M’Dad says “Tears will dry”
I say “If there’s a mess, we can fix it if we try!”

Uh-Oh! I made a mess. Uh-Oh! It’s true,
Uh-Oh! I made a mess, ’cause I’m human just like you!

Uh-Oh! I made a mess, ’cause that’s what people do!
Uh-Oh! We made a mess, so let’s see what we can do!

Listen to “Uh-Oh!” on YouTube.

Stuart: One thing I know about performing these kinds of songs is that they require a certain focus from the audience. In many noisy energetic family concerts, there isn’t enough attention to follow the thread of a story and recognize the payoff.

Peter: You’re right about some settings being inappropriate for teaching songs, but all Ah-ha! songs are not necessarily teaching songs. Over the years, I’ve found that if I really want to play a particular song for a particular audience, I might first try to play some up-tempo songs that are more engaging and conceptually available for the kids—faster, louder, sillier—but then I can let them know I’d like to do a quiet one, and get some buy-in from them for a song that I think might really help the adults in the room cope with something going on in the community.

Stuart: That skill set is in the performing realm, and would require another column to just scratch the surface of the many techniques that we kid performers have in our toolboxes to keep children’s attention.

Peter: The only other thing I’d like to bring up about Ah-ha! songs is my concern about “what are we leaving our children?” I don’t mean just our physical things, but what stories do our songs offer them? Have we modeled skill sets that will help them deal with the future quality of our food, air, and water? The best way to help them navigate our changing climate and our cultures of racism, violence, unkindness, war, and fear would be to pass on stories that will help guide them and their parents. And sometimes we aren’t even aware of the powerful stories that we pass on inadvertently—stories that we’ve inherited unconsciously from our own cultures and families of origin.

Stuart: So our work is to be vigilant and aware of the stories we hold inside ourselves, and to carefully check them out to see if we want to pass them on to the next generation.

Peter: That’s where a lot of my Ah-ha! songs come from—that Ah-ha! moment when we bust ourselves because we just recognized something we did that needs to change.

Stuart: Great. So we can address the performance techniques maybe—

Stuart and Peter: Next time!

Got other thoughts for Stuart and Peter to chew? Contact them at and