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Columns | Spring 2016

Thoughts To Chew

How We Do What We Do

A Facebook friend recently posted part of a speech by Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at Boston Conservatory: “If we were a med school, and you were here in medical school practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2:00 a.m. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8:00 p.m. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”

This excerpt sums up why I do what I do with my music. Actually, I think it applies to many of us, though in our case, it’s more like 8:00 a.m. and our audience is a school “cafetorium” full of munchkin students on foldout lunch benches with distracted teachers riding herd on Kevin or Maria or Tyrone. Or maybe it’s Saturday afternoon in a park or a library, with family units chattering together in clumps waiting for us to finish the sound check and begin our concert. Our audiences run the full range from confused and overwhelmed to weary and hyperactive. We have a bouncing two-year-old with overwhelmed parents trying to figure out how to set boundaries; a withdrawn six-year-old who doesn’t talk about his brother who died a year ago from an overdose; a distracted principal who can’t understand how she got into this job with all the paperwork; a foster grandma who wants to do a better job of parenting her granddaughter than she did with her incarcerated daughter. There’s also a forty-year-old custodian hiding a broken heart, and an eight-year-old afraid to walk home after school because someone might beat him up. What’s that you say? You didn’t receive the memo saying that a part of the family entertainer job description is to heal the tired, poor, huddled masses of family members yearning to make things work a little easier? Is that really our job? Why DO we do what we do?

Going through the process of thinking about why do I do this? is worth the effort and helps us get better at what we do. In my case, I perform for families because I have skills for coping with some of the difficult things families face. I want to pass these strategies on to others so they can manage their lives a bit better, and so they don’t have to struggle like I did. I love playing music with kids. I also want grown-ups to laugh and know it’s okay to be silly. I want an audience to leave my concert with tools in their toolbox that they didn’t have when they came in. Knowing why we do what we do helps us make some of the difficult choices we inevitably face along our way.

As Mr. Paulnack said, it’s about how well (we) do our craft, so figuring out how we do what we do requires identifying the steps needed to move toward our goals.

CMN Reader (from out of the blue): So what do you suggest?

Peter: Wha…who are you? Where did you come from?

I’m reading your “Thoughts to Chew” column. You throw out interesting ideas and we chew on them. It’s interactive, right?

Well…yeah, sorta. I suppose.

You’ve been writing songs that help families for a long time, so tell me how to do it!

I don’t tell people what to do. Only you can figure out what works for you. I’m happy to share techniques that work or don’t work for me, and then you can take what you want and leave the rest, like a smorgasbord.

I try to be aware of perfection traps that lead us to believe there’s only one way to do something! Systems that teach us to do things the right way usually mean the way someone else wants them to be done. So my first suggestion is to keep an open mind. There’s always a different way to work out a roadblock problem.

Take a step! Take a step!
Who knows, it might be fun!
Take a step! Take a step!
When you gotta get something done!
If you got to clean your room today
and you’d rather go outside and play,
Just take that mess and use your head…
hide it under the bed!
—from “Take a Step

So what do you mean by “roadblock”?

It’s any obstruction or resistance we get that keeps us from getting something done, like our own fears, or someone else telling us we will never accomplish what we’re trying to do.

So when we hit a roadblock, how do we cope with it? Change direction?

Depends on the roadblock. Maybe we get help. I usually don’t change direction, because I know I’m headed where I want to go. I’ve already given it some thought. Sometimes it seems impossible to get something done, but if we keep pluggin’ away at it, a solution usually appears. As Ray Bradbury said, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

Seems stressful!

That’s how my heroes do it: Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King, Kermit the Frog, Bernie Sanders, Bill Harley. They keep pluggin’ away!

Pluggin’ away, pluggin’ away,
People who keep pluggin’ away
They’re the ones who get things done,
‘Cause they keep pluggin’ away,
They keep pluggin’ away!
— from “Pluggin’ Away

The next how is to examine the roadblock to see if we created it from our old fears or habits.

How can we tell?

Most of us recognize our family baggage. Roadblocks like fear can get handed down from generation to generation. If my roadblock seems familiar, I look at it and see if I’m ready to let it go. Maybe it looked big when I was a kid, but now it’s just a pothole in the road, and I can step over it.

Clean out the attic, let in the light.
The skeletons there will go dancing all night.
The ghosts that we hear are the ancestors cheering,
‘Cause our kids won’t inherit their woes,
So clean out the attic, some things need to go!
—from “Clean Out The Attic

I’m more about the music than the content, so if I create a fun, musical time for families to enjoy together, is that so bad?

No! It’s great! When a family has a great time singing together, it can be transformational for them. It might be the only time it ever happens! And I’m a big fan of fun. One of the most creative parts of our craft, for me, is to figure out how to give useful content AND make it musical and fun.

How do you do that?

Let your audience make the music with you. Encourage them to make sounds or sing along. Ask them to clap or call out the rhyme word at the end of each stanza. That’s how we include and connect them. It feels fun and safe and makes them want to hear more of what we have to say. I encourage family performers and kindie artists to keep doing what we do, but to keep pushing our boundaries. Explore ways to include content that helps families address tough issues. Model how to talk safely about all the unspoken things in families that are scary or sad or that push anger buttons. If you don’t have songs, make up an intro about a kid who used her head to avoid a fight in the playground. Say, “I felt so great when I saw her do that, I did a little dance!” then play one of your dance songs. Get the kids dancing in their seats. The intros don’t have to exactly match the song for you to slip in some useful information or to make something fun.

How will I know if it works for them?

First you’ll loose kids’ attention, then the grown-ups’. Don’t worry, you’ll know! Or you could ask them.

Ask my audience?

Sure. Ask them from the stage or after the show, or even drop them a note on social media! Ask what they remember from your show. They’ll tell you!

Ask away! Ask away!
Don't wait to ask a question when you need to know right now!
Ask away! Ask away!
Find out who-what-where-when-why and how?!
—from “Ask Away

It’s scary to speak up about these issues, because some people won’t agree with me. They might not buy my music or like me anymore. And I’m not sure kids will understand what I’m talking about, or whether I might make them more afraid.

So find a way to make it kid friendly. That’s our craft! Pick one little life lesson you use and pass it on! Be entertaining! Test drive the songs with peers. Find something in a kid’s life that has a similar theme they understand and approach the topic from there, or maybe put some animals in it.

Amy, the giraffe, stuck her neck up so high,
She saw hungry lions hiding in a bush nearby.
But Amy didn’t tell her friends. She turned and ran away,
Now she feels awful ’cause she acted that way.
So Amy made a promise to speak up for little guys,
Even if it’s scary for someone her size.
So when Amy spots a carnivore, she does her thing.
She sticks her neck out, and starts to sing!

Gotta stick my neck out, before it's too late!
Gotta stick my neck out, co-co-co-communicate!
Gotta stick my neck out when my friends are in a bind! 
Gotta stick my neck out, and say what's on my mind!
—from “Stick My Neck Out

I’d like to model sticking my neck out. I’m upset about gun violence and global warming and child abuse, but I don’t have any answers. How should I bring these things up in my kid show?

There’s no should, just a challenging idea to chew on. All these loaded issues have the same roadblock: fear. And it’s very real. Parents, teachers, and principals don’t know what to do to stop these things either. We try to prevent them. We want to protect children, but it can feel more scary to kids when grownups won’t talk about something! Kids see pictures of abducted children on the milk cartons, or someone’s grandma dies, and grownups say nothing. When I’m stuck, I try to see what feelings are driving people’s behaviors to see specifically who is afraid of what, and why. I examine how I soothe myself when I feel scared about this stuff. I look for an idea that could empower a child to feel safe when they’re scared. Then I work on a song until I have something singable that kids can hold in their heads and their hearts. The opposite of caring and love is not hate; it’s fear. So I look inside and remember, “I can’t teach what I don’t know.”

My body’s nobody’s body but mine!
You run your own body, let me run mine!
Sometimes it’s hard to say “No!” and be strong
When those “No!” feelings come, then I know something’s wrong.
‘Cause my body’s mine from my head to my toe
Please leave it alone when you hear me say “No!”
—from “My Body

Thanks. Those are great points. I’m gonna think about how to help families more.

Ya gotta chew it to do it!

Glad you took THAT line!