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Columns | Spring 2019
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Thoughts To Chew

Cultivate Our Humanness

Stuart: Hi Peter. I was listening to your song “Dancing at the Revolution” one day. It came up through random selection of my music library. I hadn’t heard the song in many years, and I was hooked, both on the memory of often listening to it a long time ago and on the catchy music and arrangement. I immediately thought about the relationship between the art form of what we do—music—and the intentions we bring about connecting kids to feelings and issues and helping make things better.

Some musicians who play for kids don’t necessarily have a sense of larger purpose; they simply want to entertain and have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that. But CMN has always been distinguished by people who love making music and who also have a vision and purpose. Maybe it’s about fostering communication or emotional understanding. Maybe it’s about loving and saving the environment or dealing with difficult family dynamics. Most likely it’s a combination of those and other issues, but in CMN, we are about healing and helping and teaching and reflecting in some form or other.

But what about the music? And what about the skills required: the skills of creating and arranging songs that work musically?

One thing I have always admired about your music, as well as that of many other children’s musicians, is the variety of genres and styles. Folk, rock ’n’ roll, reggae, Latin, and many other musical idioms influence our musicality. The questions for this Thoughts To Chew are: What is our responsibility, or what advantage does it bring, to cultivate our musical abilities? How do we become accomplished musicians, writers, and performers? And how important is that?

Peter: Thanks for your kind words and the questions, Stuart! Yes, it was a joyous relief to be able to put any style of music on my albums for kids. When I released my first adult album in 1975, one of the many lessons I learned was that the record bins in music stores were organized by musical genres. Distributors and store owners wanted to know which bin my album should go in. I had rock ‘n’ roll, folk, reggae, Irish, blues, theatrical, and humorous songs, and I couldn’t choose. Mostly my albums got plopped into the “folk” bin. I worried that someone would miss one of my songs they might really like, because my albums were only in the folk bin! However, when I put out my first children/family album there was no problem, because the “kids’ music” bin can contain any of the other genres!

That lesson alerted me to pay attention to the physical considerations of marketing when I designed my album jacket. Back when there were vinyl records, customers in stores searched for music by flipping through the albums that stood in each bin alphabetically. I discovered how important it was to have my name at the top of the album jacket, so people could find me as flipped through the bins. I also knew that folks liked my lyrics. I printed them on the back cover so a prospective customer could read them and hopefully be amused enough to purchase the album. I think that to successfully release an album we need to have these levels of awareness, like “How will it be distributed?” “To whom and in what form and venues?” Finding out these details helped me a lot with my planning.

To do this profession full bore, we have to know how to produce, market, educate, think philo­sophically, analyze social systems, have finesse about how we say things, be poetic, advocate for children, tactfully help parents and educators, lay out our artwork or take pictures, or work with layout artists and photographers.

As far as cultivating our musical abilities, I don’t think that’s about our audience as much as it is about ourselves. Of course, we want to entertain folks, but people who don’t work in this profession usually have no idea how arduous and demanding this craft of performing for children and families can be! Because we have such fun with their kids, it’s difficult for them to see the level of commitment and the incredible range of skills we need to obtain in order to do our jobs well. It’s quite rigorous! And for those of us who attempt to do this, even part time, it’s important to be aware of the strengths we have and to be honest about which skills we don’t yet have in our “toolbox.” We can always hire a mandolin player or an alpine horn blower or background singers who will do it much better than we can (for now), and we can choose to learn from them when we have more time (or not!).

There are many areas where I still need help. To do this profession full bore, we have to know how to produce, market, educate, think philosophically, analyze social systems, have finesse about how we say things, be poetic, advocate for children, tactfully help parents and educators, lay out our artwork or take pictures, or work with layout artists and photographers. We need to make sure we’ve got extra strings in our back pocket for when one breaks, and have a joke or story to tell while we change it, so we don’t bore our audience. We need to know how to get kids and grown-ups singing along without being overbearing. We need to know how to get those kids fooling around in the back row to refocus on what we’re doing on stage by being firm and maybe funny, but not authoritarian or angry or hurt or demanding. We manage or fulfill the roles of graphic artists, copywriters, editors, assistant principals, publicity managers, sales people, troubadours, roadies, entrepreneurs, travel agents, instrument security, and on and on.

In order to actively cultivate my own musical/performing/writing abilities, I learned to continually seek out and add all sorts of wonderful, useful tools to my toolbox, and these tools are not just musical. One of the most delicious things about the arts is that one can never do something perfectly. Even if my show seemed perfect to my audience, before I’m offstage, I’m already thinking of new embellishments or nuances that would add one more level of richness. And that’s wonderful because if I feel that something I’m doing is not working well, I have an incredibly wide range of options on my palate. I can pick what I want to work on—other colors to use alone or mix together until I find just the right hue—something that’s unique, something that works better for all of us!

And when more expertise is needed, we often have to learn on the job. That’s difficult enough by itself, but on top of that, we won’t even know what other skills we need until we’re face to face with a dilemma we must address. Experience is key!

People would ask Woody Guthrie, “Hey Woody, can you teach me how to play the guitar?” and he would answer, “Yep. Just git yourself a guitar, plank yer butt up against a wall and start fiddlin’ with the strings . . . and when you’ve got a crowd around you big enough to take up a collection . . . you know how t’play the guitar!”

One of the more difficult areas for me when I started out was having to be the studio engineer while recording myself. There I was in my apartment in New York City, with my TEAC 3340 4-channel 10-inch tape recorder. I’d hit Record to start a take, then I’d quietly slide into my chair in front of the mike, smoothly put on my guitar and headset, and before I’d begin, I’d accidentally bump the mike stand with the guitar, and I’d have to get up and start over again. Or an ambulance would drive by blaring its siren, or the neighbors upstairs would start arguing, or the laughter from the kids playing stickball in the street below would drift up through the window, right at the end of a perfect take!

It didn’t take too long for me to see the wisdom of coughing up the dough to pay a real recording engineer with their own studio. Once I bit the bullet and decided it had to be done, I felt much better! I’d go to the studio and ask the engineer a thousand questions during the session.

I remember the engineer on my first few albums, Michael Hamilton, graciously pointing out, “You know Peter, we’d could get through this process much faster if you didn’t ask so many questions.”

To which I replied, “Right! But in the future, I might not have such a wonderfully educated engineer as you! I know you can help me understand what you’re doing to get such great sounds, like how much reverb to put on my voice and when, and what kinds of different reverb choices do we have, and what do the different frequencies on the equalizer actually sound like by themselves, and then, once I’ve learned that, I won’t be at the mercy of someone else less experienced than you to help me in the future! You don’t want to leave me at the mercy of those less experienced engineers, do you?! And besides, I’m paying you by the hour!”

Here are a couple of quick tips that I picked up working with Michael and many, many kids in the studio.

  1. When one kid can’t keep a tune, have them sing with another kid who can. Then we don’t create a situation where the first kid feels like they can’t do it well enough. We don’t ever want them to stop trying.
  2. Get a bunch of little kids to sing the chorus for their energy, but later bring in some nine- to eleven-year-old kids who can sing on pitch. Mix both tracks together. Play with the volumes to keep the young energy and mix in enough tunefulness so the experience sounds fun and raw, but not painful.
  3. If you can only corral four of the neighborhood kids to sing, and you want to make it sound like more kids, just have them record the same thing over three times, and you’ve got three tracks with four kid voices each (twelve kids altogether!), and you can put them left, right, and center. Nice!
  4. Don’t save every take. Listen closely. Make notes if you need to, and trust yourself enough to decide if you like a take enough to keep it. If not, delete it and try again. I save maybe three takes. Saving ten takes will waste your time and money and take you forever to decide which pieces to use on the final mix. True, you will have to listen to this finished product for the rest of your life, so don’t settle for something you don’t like. But rather than getting stuck and unable to make a decision, remember that if you are happy with your final mix right now, that’s as good as it gets. When you listen to it ten years later, you’ll remember that at that point in your life . . . you were happy with your final mix. That’s why we call it a record—it’s a record of where you’ve been in the past. Naturally we all change and grow as we do more recording.

So, the goal of all this, for me, is to cultivate our humanness. And to do that, I want to fill my toolbox with all the technical, artistic, musical, intellectual, and caring-about-others tools I can find. I want to take each useful thing I’ve learned and “Pass It On” to empower others. I see it as my responsibility to widen my own circle of caring, to raise my consciousness to care about all the other people in the world along with myself and my loved ones and my audience. I realize that it is also important to care about the picky details of my craft that need attention each day: to commit to growing and communicating the ideas in my songs with as much clarity as possible; to continue to puzzle about how to do all these things effectively, with caring and heart; and to keep my art on track with how I want to spend my life in song and laughter and beauty. For me, these are thoughts worth chewing!

Please contact the authors with comments, questions or other ideas.

Peter Alsop:

Stuart Stotts: