Writing a Song About Flying!

Photo on 9-4-16 at 12.01 PM #2 (1)Ever dream of flying? Not flying on an airplane, though I love that, too. I mean letting your body catch the wind as you rise up into the air, soaring and gliding and seeing the sights far below.

The classic Peter Pan fired children’s imaginations about flying. Just a little fairy dust, and off you can go, to a magical land beyond the horizon. A contemporary picture book about a flying adventure is Abuela, by Arthur Dorros, illustrated by Elisa Kleven.

I first read this book at part of an “Adventures” reading unit for kindergarteners; it’s a wonderful book for ages 4-7. An added bonus is that it includes many words and phrases in Spanish, as a young Latina, Rosalba, goes flying around the city with her grandmother, her abuela.

My song “Flying High,” from my new album Amazing is the perfect complement to this book, or to any book about flying. This song is available at my web page through CDBaby or Songs for Teaching.

CDThe chorus goes:

I wish I knew how to fly, like fairies, birds and Superman!

If I could fly, I’d go so high, and with magic, I think I can! I think I can!

Two of the song’s three verses pose open-ended questions about flying:

  • If we could fly, where would we go?
  • If we could fly, what would we see?

The song answers the questions, but of course, there are many other possible answers. Writing a new verse to the song could be a creative extension of the Abuela story for the class. It is also a way for students to learn and practice writing in the genre of poetry.

Students could start with a writing prompt, answering one of the questions in their own words, starting with prose rather than poetry. They would need to use their imagination to think about where they would go or what they would see when they’re flying! (By the way, there is also a song called “Imagination” on this same CD!)

Once everyone’s done with their writing, the teacher could review the papers and help students transform their prose-writing into poetry in order to construct a new verse to the song. The first line would be the question. Let’s say the question is, “If we could fly, what would we see?”

Here are some possible answers:

  • A plane flying through the sky
  • A bird swooping and gliding
  • A white, fluffy cloud
  • A kite with a long tail
  • The top of a skyscraper
  • People walking below, looking small
  • The arch of a bridge
  • A river looking like a snake
  • The moon rising
  • The sun shining bright
  • A dragon breathing fire! (why not, it’s already a magical story!)
  • A superhero flying by

Especially when working with grades pre-K through first, I’d recommend helping students write the verse as a group. First, let the students know the basic structure. Each verse has four lines. The first two and the second two are rhyming couplets, so the rhyme scheme of the verse is A-A-B-B. You already have your first line, “If we could fly, what would we see?” so the end word of the second line must rhyme with “see.” Brainstorm rhyming words with “see.” These could include me, tree, bee, be, free, sea, whee, glee, three, tea, knee. The original text uses the line, “An eagle soaring proud and free.” Here are some possible alternatives that keep close to the rhythm of the original:

  • The bright green tip-top of a tree
  • People walking far below me
  • A plane is gliding right near me
  • A gull that’s heading for the sea
  • A kite that catches wind so free
  • A bright red bird, what can it be?

The next two lines must rhyme with each other, so be sure that the end word of line 3 has some rhyming possibilities. You might come up with a great line, but then have to rule it out because of the lack of rhyming options.  Here are some possibilities:

Couplet 1:

A tall building scrapes the sky

How did it ever get so high?

Couplet 2:

A river winding through the city

Up here, clouds look so pretty!

Couplet 3:

A kite that’s bobbing in the wind

The blue sky never seems to end.

Couplet 4:

A river winding like a snake

Flows into a bright blue lake.

Writing rhyming lines can be tricky, so it’s good for the teacher to practice it ahead and have some possibilities in mind (plus be familiar with end-words that might not produce a great rhyme for the song).

Songwriting with students is one of my favorite teaching artist activities. With a little practice, teachers can also help students be the songwriters and poets!

New CD Features Friendly Dragon

CD cover art by Molly Knobloch, with graphic design by Mel Green.

CD cover art by Molly Knobloch, with graphic design by Mel Green.

My new CD is here! It’s called “Amazing!” It has a happy, musical dragon on the cover, drawn by my talented artist daughter, Molly Knobloch. The dragon is featured in the song “No Fire, Dragon!” which I wrote 10 years ago while working in a preschool classroom of children aged 3 and 4, in Lexington, MA.

For a limited time, you can hear this song for free on my SoundCloud site. The recording features the excellent sax playing of Billy Novick, who’s brought his multiple musical talents to several of my CDs.

But back to the song’s origins. I was just starting to write songs based on the reflections of children in the classrooms where I taught. I brought in a dragon puppet and asked the children what kind of song I should write about my dragon. A little girl held up her hand and shouted, “No fire, dragon!”

With those words, a song was born. I worked from the comments of the children, who wanted a friendly dragon they could play with. In practical terms, they wanted to be sure that the dragon wouldn’t breathe fire, or eat them or their pets. They also liked the idea that the dragon could fly them around the sky, rather than playing its more traditional role of getting into duels with knights.

While I never recorded the dragon song up until now, it has served me well over the years. For ten summers, I produced original plays at the summer camp at the Arlington Center for the Arts, where I now serve on the board. These plays were freewheeling affairs where I would present a story, then let the cast decide their roles. We’d make up some songs and improvise scenes that would get written into the final script. We’d also sing some songs that I came up with in advance, both my original songs and a few from other sources.

One play that we produced twice was the story of The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, written in 1898. Grahame’s dragon seems to fit right in with the “No Fire” message; it prefers to hang out in its cave and write poetry rather than getting into duels.

Unfortunately, the nearby townspeople are locked into their preconceptions about dragons and hire St. George, the knight, to slay it. But good St. George gets to know the dragon, thanks to a sensible boy who’s become the dragon’s companion. They secretively work out a mock duel to satisfy the fearful town. In the end, the truth becomes apparent, and the townspeople accept the dragon for what he is!

The song “No Fire!” was a great addition to that play, as well as a play we did based on the myth of the Golden Fleece. The dragon in that story is not so friendly, making the message of “no fire” even more appropriate!

The dragon on the cover of my new CD represents the soul of the album, in a way. The songs are about the world of imagination – with its ties to magic – and wonder that’s part of childhood. Another song, also written with reflections from several classrooms, explores what it would be like if we could fly. The tag line of the song is “With magic, I think I can!”

It makes me smile, to know that children, the people I work with every day, are a subset of our population that believes magic is real. That’s the kind of wonder, optimism and excitement I want to channel into my own work and spirit.

Happy Accident Brings New Song to Life

Class brainstorming sheet with ideas about cheetahs.

Class brainstorming sheet with ideas about cheetahs.

A happy collision of ideas produced a great surprise for one of my classrooms of six- and seven-year-olds – a metaphor!

As I have done for several years in the spring, I am working with six classrooms of first grade students at the Condon School in South Boston to write class songs.

Each student submitted ideas for their class song. I asked people to consider topics in science or social studies. Most of the students chose topics from the world of science. In some classrooms, a number of people seemed to coalesce around the same idea. Many kids in one room favored ladybugs. Another class had many fans of Neil Armstrong and his walk on the moon. In another class, a particular student was such a fan of ancient Egypt that we felt compelled to choose his idea.

But in one classroom, the ideas were all over the map: tigers, cheetahs, dogs, the moon, stars, and a lone nomination of Sonic the Hedgehog (fictional characters were discouraged). Among several of the papers, I found a common thread: the students who liked creatures liked the ones who can go very fast.

Another paper surfaced in the same class on the topic of shooting stars. At the bottom, the student had written, “a cat.” I asked if she was trying to make a connection between a cat and a star. She said no, it was just a mistake.

Mistake? This is the creative process! There are no mistakes. We moved on to a discussion of metaphor, and the next thing I knew, we had a refrain for our song:

“They go fast, they go far, like a shooting star.”

Okay, technically that’s a simile. I didn’t get into the finer points.

I beefed up the content by sharing a bit of Internet research on the fastest creatures on land, in the air and in water.  We soon found that a peregrine falcon, who can move fastest of any creature, can dive for prey at over 200 miles per hour. Yowzah! Many students were fans of the cheetah, the fastest land animal. The black marlin is the fastest sea creature.

We brainstormed about these creatures, with me jotting down all the students’ ideas and helping to turn them into rhyming lines. Soon, a new song was born. I hope to post a good recording soon.

Here is a link to my previous posts on writing songs with children. http://www.antelopedance.com/uncategorized/from-brainstorming-to-creating-a-new-song/

What Three Little Pigs Can Teach About Reading & Writing

Three Little Pigs and One Wolf by Cosmococo.

Three Little Pigs and One Wolf by Cosmococo.

In my songwriting life, I’ve become a little obsessed with characters in threes. My initial “Three Piggy Opera” was so much fun that on my next album, Once Upon a Tune, I included my own songs about the Three Bears, Three Billy Goats Gruff and Three Little Kittens. You can find all these songs on CDBaby or at my Songs for Teaching Page.

What’s with all the threes? Plus there are all the variations and parodies of the above stories: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Los Tres Cerditos. Search for The Three Little Tamales on Amazon and you can find quite the variety. The three-character theme is a staple of many a kindergarten curriculum.

Why three? This is probably all explained similarly elsewhere, but here’s my take. The three somebodies are a perfect way to teach about the elements of the typical linear story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Stories have a protagonist who wants something. Stories have an antagonist who thwarts what the protagonist wants. Protagonist figures out in the end how to overcome antagonist.

Hey, that’s just what they taught us when I got my MFA in fiction writing (though of course there are the feminist variations that just go in circles). What makes a good story all comes down to … The Three Little Pigs!

So at my most recent kindergarten concert, I lined up three children holding their three cut-out houses, of straw, sticks and bricks. I said, “Just like these three pigs, stories have three parts: a beginning, middle and end.” The first pig is the beginning of the story, the second pig is the middle, and the third pig finally figures out how to solve the problem. You can see how kids can have fun acting out my Three Pigs song in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yUs7qJanOE

The Three Billy Goats Gruff unfolds in exactly the same way. The Three Bears gets more complicated, because Goldilocks isn’t your classic bad-wolf antagonist, she’s just a bit confused about what to do upon encountering a strange house in the woods. But in a slightly more advanced way, the story’s scenes develop with essentially the same three-part structure.

It also occurred to me that The Three Little Pigs is a perfect way to lay the groundwork for writing a simple, cohesive essay. You know: state your premise, develop your ideas in three tidy segments, and tie it all together in a conclusion.

Now, I wouldn’t go telling kindergarteners to write essays based on the three pigs structure (though in this current weird world of ‘kindergarten is the new high school’ somebody might be trying to do that). But I do think that learning the structure of the ‘story of three’ provides an effective overlay for the logical analysis, organization and presentation of ideas.

Again, I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. But for me, it was an aha moment.

Do kids get the connection? Do they better understand literature and write more cohesive essays after carefully studying The Three Little Pigs? I don’t know. I’d love to hear from teachers on this topic.

I do firmly believe that giving students a chance to embody the story through singing, moving and acting deepens their understanding and might even make them better writers. Plus they’re having a lot of fun – we can still do that in education, right?

I love the illustration of the three pigs, above. Here’s the link to the artist’s page: http://cosmococo.deviantart.com/

Sequence Songs – Write Your Own!

IMG_1792As a follow-up to last week’s post, I’d like to suggest further possibilities with songs that involve sequences. The songs in this post are all drawn from older songs, but have new words. Call it the “folk process.” Call it opportunity. Call it taking a song and making it your own.

The first song that jumps to mind is Pam Donkin’s “Water Cycle Song.” Pam, a family music performer and teacher in Northern California, is one of the lifelong friends whom I met through The Children’s Music Network. Pam sent me a link to her song when I requested song ideas for my recent gig at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum in Chestnut Hill, MA.

Pam’s song, which is on her album for young children, A Hop, a Skip and a Jump, is a simple song based on an old spiritual. It teaches in a very simple way about the different stages of the water cycle.

That got me thinking about how I might rewrite another sequence song, a traditional song that my grandfather used to sing, “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” You can find the original version on my first album, Make It a Song, Song, Song.

In no time at all, I thought of a water cycle version of this song:

IMG_0724There’s a cloud in the middle of the sky

There is vapor in the cloud in the middle of the sky

Then comes rain from the vapor in the cloud in the middle of the sky

On the flowers falls the rain from the vapor in the cloud in the middle of the sky.

If you want to hear the tune, I’ve posted it on Sound Cloud. I soon tried it out in a kindergarten classroom, dividing the kids into groups of four. The first person in the group was the cloud, waving a white or pink scarf; the second person was the vapor, with a blue scarf; the third person was rain, with a rain stick; and the fourth was the flower, with the scarf color of their choice. They seemed to like it, and asked to do it again! We followed that with the “Once I Was a Seed” song discussed in the previous post.

All of this led me to think of another sequence song I rewrote, mostly because I felt I had to. The beloved “Peanut Butter” Song had to be shelved for some performances due to peanut allergy issues. Hence, my rewrite: “The Apple Pie and Ice Cream” song! You can find that one in this earlier post. (The “Peanut Butter” song is also on Make It a Song, Song, Song – I love this version!)

It’s not that hard to rewrite these kinds of songs. I’m not just saying this because I’m a songwriter. Give it a shot and see if you can get creative with just about any old song, from Old MacDonald to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.

From Brainstorming to Creating a New Song

In my last blog piece, I talked about getting the creative process going with children through brainstorming – essentially making lists of ideas.  Brainstorming is the time for broad-brushing and “all over the map” thinking.  But how do all those the brainstorm ideas become a song?

The short answer is not all of them do.  Your big list gets narrowed down; you and the students choose what’s most compelling and interesting.  Some ideas get left behind, but that’s not a bad thing.

My own process varies from classroom to classroom.  Sometimes, a list of ideas may turn into the chorus or verse of the song.  This happened in one of my first-grade classes at the Condon School in South Boston, where the students were working on a song about animals that live in the local area.  Here’s the first verse:

Pigeons, butterflies and frogs

Rabbits, skunks, raccoons and dogs

Seagulls, hawks, mice and rats

Caterpillars, bees and cats.

Pretty simple – a list! I got the “list” idea from Jessica Anne Baron, founder and executive director of Guitars in the Classroom.  This program provides basic instruction in guitar for classroom teachers, so they can use it in their teaching practice. Great teaching technique: write songs with students!

Jessica says that making lists can be a wonderful basis for a class-created song that delivers information students need to learn. The teacher doesn’t even need to make up the tune – just use one from the public domain, such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” These are both two-chord songs, very easy to play on guitar, ukulele or autoharp. Imagine a list of mammals to the tune of “Whole World.”  Or vegetables, or amphibians.  Modes of transportation can be put to “Wheels on the Bus.”

I almost always write original tunes with my classes, although often they sound a lot like other tunes. But that’s true generally – many songs sound a little bit or even a lot like something else; it’s happened throughout the history of music.

A songwriting teacher can use various processes for making up tunes. You can ask a brave student to stand up and sing the lyrics you’ve just written, and hope the tune will stick.  You can bring a recording device and record all the ideas, then put together the best ones.

I’ve also used a melody-shape method suggested by composer Nick Page in his book Music as a Way of Knowing. Page writes, “You have to know that all melodies have shapes. Some are ascending lines, some are descending … When students understand the concept, begin creating shapes.” I tried this once with some kindergarteners in writing my song “Nihao, Jambo, Hola.” The students drew wavy lines that went up or down at the end and we sang them. The song ends on a high note because that’s how a student drew the line!

There’s no one right or wrong way to do any of these things. You can do it one way, then change it for a different age group or a different class dynamic. Do what’s most comfortable. It might fall apart; that’s okay. If the song’s a total mess at the end of class, take it home and do repair work. The end product will still reflect the students’ ideas, and they’ll still have fun singing it – 99 percent guaranteed.

This piece first appeared in a slightly different version on the blog of The Children’s Music Network. 

Student Songwriting: Brainstorm to Exercise the Brain!

This article first appeared on The Children’s Music Network blog as part of an ongoing series about songwriting with students.

There’s a blank white board in front of you.  Name your idea – any idea is great.  Let’s see how many we can assemble!

What a tantalizing invitation, a welcome alternative in test-frenzied classrooms where there often can be only one right answer.  Students are invited into an open-ended discussion that spurs their creativity and curiosity about the shape that the final product might take.

Brainstorming is the best way I know to spark ideas for class-created songs.

Occasionally discussion ventures toward the absurd or unacceptable – classes may need to be warned against references to overt violence or toilet humor. But mostly students with a range of abilities thrive in the excitement of brainstorming, especially if instruments and singing are involved.

With my first graders at the Condon School in Boston, we choose our song topics from ideas the students submit.  Part of the submission exercise is to offer descriptive details about the song topic.

For instance, one class chose to write a song about Alexander Graham Bell.  On the idea sheet, a student quoted Bell, who said, “Whenever one door closes, another opens.” The students thought this was a great saying, and I decided we definitely needed to include it in the song.

I asked students for other verbs – I usually call them “action words” – associated with being an inventor such as Bell. Students suggested learn, study, research, question, experiment, create, think, test, and brainstorm.  These words ended up forming the basis of our chorus, with the following first line: “Learn and question, think, create.”

I then asked students to brainstorm some rhyming words for “create” – with the emphasis on the “ate” syllable. The students were used to thinking about rhyming lines because we’d talked about them in our Word Families exercise.   The class thus helped write a second rhyming line:  “I might invent something truly great.”

The next two lines grew out of continuing the class’s suggestions of verbs:  “Brainstorm, test, always be bold/And a whole new world just might unfold.”  The final line was my idea, but the rest of the chorus came directly from the students’ input.

Classes seem to love this give and take.  And if they start to seem antsy after ten minutes, it’s time to get them up and move!  Consider an idea developed by my colleague Katherine Dines of Hunk-ta-Bunk-ta:

I developed a “A Shake Break.”  Every 10-15 minutes in a session, or whenever the process needs a shift, I get children to jump to their feet and shake.  I do it in a way that it’s still rhythmic, rhymes and is “musical” – which keeps them on track.

“I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break. Taking a shake break NOW

I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break.  Taking a shake break HOW?

I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break. Turning my brain around. (or any other rhyme you come up with—the more bizarre and spontaneous, the better)

I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break and…sitting back down on the ground. (You would rhyme this with the line above).

ALL children love this and it’s remarkable what happens to their BRAINS after they have had this “break.”

This is just an example of one of the many movement/stimulation activities that can be part of a brainstorming exercise – or any other classroom routine. Good teachers know to get students up out of their chairs on a regular basis. It’s exercise for the brain!

Songs that Inspire Us to Write More!

Students get excited about songwriting with Liz!

Students get excited about songwriting with Liz!

During my ten-week songwriting residency with first graders, I start by introducing students to songs to engage them with different musical styles and subject matter. In the first week this year, we sang songs celebrating nature, including my song “If I Were a Butterfly.”

The next week, I told the students that sometimes people write songs to inspire change, especially when something makes them sad or angry. I taught them “If I Had a Hammer” and talked about Pete Seeger and the role of music in the American Civil Rights Movement. We also sang “Bling Blang,” a more playful hammer song by Woody Guthrie. As we tapped rhythm sticks for a hammer effect, I encouraged the students to think about the different meanings of the hammer in each song.

A student proposes a song about Alexander Graham Bell.

A student proposes a song about Alexander Graham Bell.

We next turned to songs that inspire us, and considered contemporary folk songs such as Jonathan Sprout and Dave Kinnoin’s upbeat tune about Thomas Edison, “The Light Went On.” This song has become a favorite with some of the children – one year it inspired a classroom to write their own similar song about Alexander Graham Bell.

In the fourth and fifth weeks, I turned to world music and African American musical forms. We sang the traditional “John the Rabbit” (which I normally sing as “Peter Rabbit” – John and Peter are rather similar bunnies) and “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. We talked about reggae and call and response songs. I also included a perennial favorite, “Señor Don Gato,” a humorous ballad thought to have Mexican origins.

I also asked each classroom to participate in a quick songwriting exercise, to create a verse for my “Word Family” song, an activity I also do with kindergarten classes. The word families for kindergarten are pretty simple, including rhymes for top, tap, pit, pan, pot and dad.

You can hear and purchase the kindergarten version of “Word Families” at Songs for Teaching.

I assigned my first graders slightly harder word families for their verses: rhymes for words such as sight, down, found, hatch and team. I told them that since rhyming words are an important element in many songIMG_2205s, it is very important to be able to think of word families to help us make rhyming lines.

It’s always fun to see the students’ enthusiasm as they sing me their class verses. Plus it’s a way to involve classroom teachers in a simple songwriting exercise. Once they start tipping their toes in the water, they might jump in!

Writing Songs with Kids: Get Inspired!

Parts of this piece were originally published on The Children’s Music Network Blog.

One of my early inspirations for songwriting with kids was hearing about a residency that Steve Roslonek (SteveSongs) did at an elementary school years ago. After spending a week gathering ideas and brainstorming with the students, he wrote a whole musical called “The King, the Mice and the Cheese.” He got some professional musicians to come join him when the students performed the musical at their school.

Not everyone can write music like SteveSongs, but I wanted to give it a try. I started offering collaborative songwriting in several classes where I worked, and the results were really fun! Several songs on my CD, “Singing All the Way Home,” were inspired by class songwriting projects, including “The Three Piggy Opera,” my take on the Three Little Pigs story, which a Pre-K class was studying at the time and helped me compose.

The children in that Pre-K class – at Boston’s Gardner Pilot Academy – also helped me come up with a movement activity for the song, which has been hugely popular ever since. You can see a video of some older kids acting out this song here.

 I’ve just finished my third year of songwriting residencies with first-grade students at the Condon School in South Boston. This work was also inspired by two teaching artists whose work I admire.  Victor Cockburn of Troubadour, Inc., has been working for more than 30 years on integrating music and songwriting into the English Language Arts curriculum in the greater Boston area.  By visiting schools with Victor, I saw how he teaches children about rhyming couplets, ballad form, and using expressive language, among many topics.

I also got some valuable tools from the work of Paul Reisler, who runs a Virginia-based organization called Kid Pan Alley.  Paul does songwriting residencies in schools, and often asks well-known musicians to record the final products.  In a workshop with Paul at the Rocky Mountain Song School, I learned about brainstorming techniques that can produce imaginative song topics and well-developed musical products.

I am very excited that Paul will be a workshop leader at The Children’s Music Network Conference this fall on September 19-21, 2014 in Leesburg, VA. This conference is going to be awesome for people who already write songs for kids, or want to learn more about becoming songwriters. These conferences are great for teachers and librarians who love music, as well as for professional musicians who work with kids. CMN will have four different workshops on songwriting this fall!

Over the next few weeks, I hope to post more reflections on my songwriting work with students.