After moving from New York to Charlottesville, VA, I got acquainted with Paul Reisler and his team. Kids learn songwriting in the classroom – and everyone has a blast. Virginia Educational Leadership asked for more details, for its annual Journal.
“He taught us how to write lyrics that went together with others. He taught us how to form an effective chorus and how to form verses. He told us that a chorus is what we wanted everyone to remember out of our song.”
Charged with sketching a portrait of Kid Pan Alley, an interdisciplinary songwriting residency program for schools, the author conducted extensive telephone interviews with three people: the program’s founder, Paul Reisler (“R,” below); its Education Director, Sally dhruva’ Stephenson, EdD (“S”), and Terri Allard (“A”), an experienced assistant to Reisler in Kid Pan Alley school residencies.
Reisler is a well-known songwriter, teacher, and guitarist, leading the groups Trapezoid and A Thousand Questions. Stephenson, Assistant Professor, Department of Education Professions, at Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD, is a singer-songwriter who has taught songwriting to young children. Allard is a Charlottesville-based singer-songwriter recording artist, songwriting teacher, and community activist, whose son attends the Albemarle schools.
Feedback was also sought via email from a young woman (“P”) who was a schoolchild in Reisler’s first songwriting residency in 1999, from a pianist and composer (“D”) now training to become a Kid Pan Alley artist in residence, and from the Assistant Principal (“W”) of an elementary school in Charlottesville where a weeklong residency took place in April of 2007.
A Kid Pan Alley residency typically involves one classroom of students at a time. Two accomplished songwriters, one assisting the other, work with schoolchildren, while their teachers and any guests observe quietly from the back of the room. First the leader elicits ideas for lyrics from the class. After the class votes for its favorite idea, the songwriting begins. Using brainstorming and clustering techniques while instructing the class on song form, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor and language usage, jointly, with classrooms of 15-20 children, the visitors co-write complete songs, with original words and music. Completed songs take on a wide range of styles, from country to classical, from folk and blues to hip-hop. A field recording is made on the spot, and the instructor and assistant document the song immediately after class. Families and school personnel receive a privately manufactured CD of all songs at the end of every residency, recorded in class and/or at the school assembly or evening concert. Schools may also purchase these CD’s in bulk for fundraising.
Under the terms of a legal agreement – each parent must sign a release – the songwriter’s share of a composition’s future royalties, if any, is divided evenly, half to the class as a whole and half to the Kid Pan Alley instructor. The students’ half is earmarked for more arts enrichment programs for children. Schools are cautioned, however, not to expect a windfall for local programs: royalty streams for children’s music tend to be minuscule; alternatively, however, schools can benefit from direct sales of the privately made CD’s.
A residency can last one day or a week or more. Typically a song takes 90 minutes to write – in two 45-minute periods or one 90-minute session. Kid Pan Alley instructors can teach as many as three 90-minute classes per day or five or six 45-minute ones. At the end of the residency, an assembly usually shares all the resulting songs with the entire school. Schools can also opt for an evening concert for the community at the conclusion of the residency.
Following is a composite of the three primary interviews, with additional input as noted.
Q: Why the name, Kid Pan Alley?
R: It’s the obvious name, but I must have come up with a hundred different names first. It’s an evocative name even if you don’t know the history of Tin Pan Alley. And after all it was the place for the great songs, for decades in this country. If your job was writing songs, you worked on Tin Pan Alley. You went into the office in the morning and you wrote your songs. For me, I’m going into the office which happens to be a schoolroom and we’re writing our ten songs a week. It gives me a feeling of what it must have been like for people at Tin Pan Alley. Just look at the great history, the great wealth of songs that came out of there – Irving Berlin – Carole King. What an incredible buildup of creative energy happens in that place – and of course that inspires you – it’s palpable and it affects you.
It is continuing the art form, the tradition, of songwriters. In the larger picture it is inspiring people to be creative. Knowing that what’s needed in the world now is creative people, not people that can stuff hamburgers into bags. We’re very much in a creative economy now but the creative aspects of our life are generally not broached in school or encouraged. My job is to encourage people to realize that they can do creative work. They can use their brain and use their imagination to think of things that no one has ever come up with before. Like these songs. And not just any old song – “Oh, well, that’s good for a third grader,” – but these amazing songs that people on Tin Pan Alley would have been proud to have written.
Q: Describe its beginnings.
R: [In 1999] One of our best friends was putting together a residency program in [the Rappahannock County, VA, schools] – three weeks each for three different artistic disciplines – songwriting, visual art, and choreography and dance. Since it was our best friend, and since it was my own community, I agreed to do it. That’s really how it started. I didn’t have this idea, “Oh, I’m going to start songwriting residencies for children” – that was the furthest thing from my mind. What was evident to me was how great the songs were, how much fun it was, and how transformative it was for the children. It took a while to develop the vision of how it would all work. It rattled inside my brain for about six months.
People kept asking me for copies of the songs. I considered making an album but I didn’t want to do it myself. Then I got this idea of getting all the different performing artists from the community – and we have a lot – to do a song each in their own style, and compile them on a CD. That was very appealing both as an opportunity to work with these artists, and to build community. People started hearing about that, and once the CD came out we really had something – a representation of what we’d been doing.
Q: How did you get involved with Kid Pan Alley?
S: Ironically, Kid Pan Alley didn’t exist when I was looking for research subjects. I was working on my doctorate and during that time met Paul and started attending his [songwriting] workshops. I had been trying to find a research topic that I was interested enough in to make it my dissertation. Being a songwriter myself, and an educator, and believing in the arts and education myself, I thought, “Why don’t I do a project on songwriting in education?” but I had to find it. So one of my first steps was to announce at one of Paul’s workshops that I was trying to find some people doing songwriting in the classroom. Nobody was doing it. Paul wasn’t doing it. Then afterwards he told me he’d been asked to go into the local [Rappahannock] schools, and I asked to come observe him. So the sessions that are documented in my dissertation are from the very first residency and some of those songs are on that Rappahannock County album. I recorded and took notes and made two different trips there, and observed 15 or so classes. Eventually, little by little it grew and took off and it’s a pretty big thing at this point in time.
A: I’ve known Paul for a very long time, through musicians we both know. I got involved in Kid Pan Alley when he was teaching a residency out at Tye River Elementary school in Nelson County a couple of years ago. He called me one night. His assistant came down with laryngitis and so he was looking for an assistant songwriter and singer. I really had never had an opportunity to see what he did with Kid Pan Alley, although I heard about it a lot, and read about it, and was intrigued. So I thought, sure, this could be great fun. It was a whole new world for me. I just fell in love with the program immediately. Then he called again one day the next year, and he happened to be at Tye River again. His assistant had had a death in the family and had to leave for the whole week. I had such a good time working with him the first time that I rearranged my schedule so that I could work the whole week with him. It was a great school and a great group of kids, so I was excited to go back and do it start to finish.
The kids remembered Paul, they remembered me, they remembered the beautiful song they wrote about Virginia. I run into children all the time we’ve worked with. That’s the thing I love about this program and having an opportunity to be a part of it. When you’re in the middle of it you know you’re making a difference. There is no doubt in my mind what this is doing for the children. And then that’s icing on the cake when you run into them at the grocery store.
Q: What does Kid Pan Alley hope to accomplish?
R: To teach children to become creators, not consumers. Perhaps writing a song makes them realize they can create worthwhile stuff, and they become a visual artist, or a book writer or they may become a composer. It’s inspiring them to look deep in their imaginations and see what they can express, what they can do, and realize that what they can do is a lot more than they ever thought. And just think, if you’re an eight-year-old, and what you wrote gets recorded by Amy Grant. It changes the way you value your own creative output in a way that is unfathomable. I can’t even imagine for myself how different my life would have been had I had that kind of success early on instead of much later as I did.
Long-term I’d really like to see things like Kid Pan Alley reinvigorate creativity as a core value in American education.
A: My favorite part is the sense of ownership that the children gain, which I think is one of the most important things that you can learn – a sense of self: “I did this. I can do this.” If somebody has that, they can do those math problems, and they can write that essay that seemed so hard before. And that’s also something you need in the big world. Elementary school and middle school and school in general can’t just be about figures, can’t just be about test scores; it also has to be about how you learn to function in the real world. As far as the subjects go, we deal with English, science, math, we deal with social studies, definitely with history, health – there really is not a subject that hasn’t come up in a Kid Pan Alley song.
P: [Reisler] taught us new ways to brainstorm details and to choose a theme for our song based on those. I remember him having us name things that were funny to us and things that we wanted to write a song about. Then we voted on one, and started to choose details. He taught us that words didn’t have to sound exactly the same to rhyme. He taught us how to write lyrics that went together with others. He taught us how to form an effective chorus and how to form verses. He told us that a chorus is what we wanted everyone to remember out of our song.
A: I think it’s a songwriting class in disguise. It has so many layers. They do learn about songwriting, the importance of the chorus and the verse, why the first line of the song is so important. They do learn to come up with their own melodies – all of that is true. And even though we are singing and performing, it teaches children about diversity. They may also learn about metamorphosis. They may also learn about Alzheimer’s. They definitely learn about compassion. They learn to work together as a group. There are so many things that it helps children to learn. You can say, “Today we learned about science, because we talked about this, this, this, this, and this in a Kid Pan Alley song. We sang it to a melody, which means it stuck in our head.” It’s a great way to remember something. I think it covers every subject that you could possibly learn in school.
They are so involved in this. And what’s really wonderful is there usually is a child in each class that tends to be the leader – someone who maybe is artistic and creative anyway, or just a leader – casual and comfortable with people, or a couple that are pretty verbal. In that first class, they tend to make the most suggestions, even though we go to everybody. But the next day when we come back and they finish their songs, it’s the quiet child in the class that is the leader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that happen. It’s a natural progression. The leader steps back. There’s no conflict. It’s as if the leader gave the quieter one the courage to move forward, and the quieter one had time to adjust and get comfortable with the whole thing and mull over what he or she had to say. It happens over and over. I think it’s fantastic.
Q: So the classroom children provide the lyrics and some melodic ideas while the songwriter writes and arranges the music?
S: Yes. I’d say the kids’ contribution is 80 or more % lyrics – they may contribute some melodic ideas but basically the songwriter writes the music.
A: I love the back and forth with them. One of my jobs is to make sure to sing their melody. I love that one-on-one contact that I have with the child singing. They sing it, and then I say, “OK, now, let me sing it back to you and you tell me if this is right,” and they correct me if it’s wrong. I love that because they’re teaching me something and I think that’s so important.
Q: One song from the Johnson Elementary School demo CD was ‘I’d rather have a whole lot of friends than a whole lot of money.’ Where did that melody come from?
A: Ephraim – it came from Ephraim – he just stood up. He gets up, and stands up, and his hips are in it too. . . . We just had such an incredible leader. That was completely his melody.
Q: Do you feel Kid Pan Alley made a difference to how you understood songwriting and creative writing in general?
P: I do. [Reisler] showed us all that it was worth learning more about. He showed us how much fun writing could actually be.
Q: Are there quantitative data demonstrating that Kid Pan Alley engenders lasting benefits to children?
R: Our Education Director, Dhruva Stephenson, developed an instrument that we’ll be passing out at the schools [for] the teachers to fill out.
The schools and the teachers [tell us] the kids came back to class and they were so much more creative than they have ever been and they have new ideas, are really excited about learning – so [we have] observational data.
A: It’s not a study, but another way I know it’s working is that the schools always have Kid Pan Alley back. Teachers, principal, and parents feels that it is working – they feel that it’s a good thing – and they feel that it’s worth their money and time. To me, though there isn’t a study, boy, that says a lot.
Q: If one can’t because of the nature of the program make meaningful in-depth quantitative studies, would anecdotes help an elementary school principal or a superintendent wanting to promote Kid Pan Alley kinds of direct experience for schoolchildren?
S: Oh, I think so. Anecdotal data is of a qualitative nature. Just because they all think that quantitative data drives the machine right now, to me that doesn’t invalidate some qualitative data. My dissertation was a specific type of qualitative research called portraiture. In one section I describe the process, then I reflect on it later, and in the last section I draw some conclusions as to what I felt these children were getting out of it: Authentic learning experiences. Cooperation, collaboration, and an opportunity to be heard. Those are all really important, significant things.
I think it’s important that we don’t throw everything in this one box and let everything else that we know about education go. I feel really strongly we want to be able to demonstrate that our children can do well on tests, but that’s not all there is to teaching and learning. If you talk to most educators, on most levels, I think you would hear a lot of voices speaking up saying, “Sure, we don’t want to lose sight of everything else we’ve learned about education over the years we’ve been doing it.” Just because it can’t be quantified doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Q: Why would a school want a Kid Pan Alley residency?
A: It’s a wonderful program, especially with everything that’s going on with testing in the schools. It means a lot to be able to be a part of that. What the schools are doing, and their music programs, are fabulous – it supplements what’s already there and good, and comes from another angle.
W: The students were so happy! This was a new experience for them. Self-esteem improved, creativity was harnessed. [The parents and teachers] loved it! [Reisler and Allard] managed the classes so well that we did not experience one single discipline issue. They immediately brought out the creativity and genius that our kids have inside.
Q: How does one communicate the strengths of outside enrichment programs like Kid Pan Alley to a skeptical world looking at quantitative survey data?
A: Basically all I have to do is sing the songs that the children wrote. . . . I describe this program and the residency from start to finish, and include examples of the songs and how they came about – it’s very easy to transfer that to other people. The children’s energy – the enthusiasm behind the songs – the fact that the children remember the process – how even people who are shy are called upon, and you try to get something from them on their own terms.
When Paul was in Nashville working, there was a child who had his hand up and when they got to him he couldn’t remember. He said, “I can’t remember. I forgot.” It [became] the song about Alzheimer’s [on the Nashville CD]. So one of the main things that child and the entire class were able to learn from that experience was that you can take the teeniest little thing in your head and you can turn it into something big. Anything. This child really thought he had nothing to say…when it turns out he had everything to say, and it’s what everybody wrote about.
Not only are they able to see this type of possibility, but they’re actually having a lesson because … [on the board] we cluster everything they have to say. [We ask,] “what do you have to say about ‘can’t remember I forgot’? What does that make you think of?” Someone is saying, “Well, my grandfather, he can’t remember at all. He has Alzheimer’s.” Then the children are learning about health and science, they are learning about the brain, they are learning about compassion, they are learning about people and changes – on the board before you’ve even written your song is an entire lesson. No matter what you’re writing about, there is a lesson before you’re even half an hour into the day.
Q: Can schools prepare students before a residency?
R: Teachers receive a Kid Pan Alley Study Guide in advance. Suggested preparation includes listening to recordings of a variety of styles of music, including songs from the Kid Pan Alley Nashville CD; warming up the students’ voices with songs they know and enjoy; reading poetry to the class and exploring the poem’s rhythm and rhyme, and other possible rhymes; using clustering, the non-linear idea-collection method, so students are comfortable with free-form creativity.
Q: How can classroom teachers build on Kid Pan Alley initiatives after the residency?
R: We have a 60-page curriculum guide that gives them ideas for ways to continue the process. These include: writing extra verses for pre-existing songs, writing new words for songs they know, creating melodies for lyrical phrases and much more. This guide includes a CD of backing tracks so that the classroom teacher can lead the students on writing their own lyrics and melody to the backing tracks. These tracks are from the first Kid Pan Alley album.
After the residency, the teachers also receive the CD of the demos recorded by the students at the end of the songwriting session. If a concert or CD project is part of the residency, they receive those performances on CD as well. Listening to their CD, students can draw illustrations of their song. Or they can each write their own song lyrics and read them aloud to a beat, in the style of hip-hop or spoken-word performances. Perhaps a teacher or musician from the community will volunteer to provide music for the new lyrics.
Q: What about SOLs [State-established and tested Standards of Learning in the school system]? Can an outside arts enrichment program like Kid Pan Alley have an effect?
W: Kid Pan Alley addresses a lot of SOLs because the students write songs about them. Last year the songs/processes covered a lot of English SOLs grades 2-4. Math, history, and science also found their ways into the process. You should check out the titles of our songs that the kids came up with – Example: “You Blew my Cerebral Cortex” (Science).
Q: During the 2007-8 school year, you’ll be doing six more residencies in the Charlottesville and Albemarle schools. Any special plans for them?
R: In Charlottesville we’re tying into the Virginia Film Festival. Donald Sosin, who is one of the people I’m training to be a Kid Pan Alley teacher, is a great composer, conductor, and pianist, and he does a lot of music for silent film. He’s playing for the silent film, Peter Pan at the film festival in Charlottesville this year. The week before that, the kids are going to watch the silent film, and then write a couple of songs about it. Those will be part of the film festival and [Sosin] will have the kids come down and perform those songs during Peter Pan.
I’m always looking for those kinds of things that make it unique to the community, that bring it in to situations that it might not otherwise be in, and, I think, that benefit everybody. Here the film festival has all these kids and their parents coming to see this – they get some original songs – the kids get an opportunity for what they wrote to get out in a broader way. It makes such a great mix energetically. That’s what we’re always looking for – how can we go into a community and complement what’s already there, and help build that community even stronger.
D: I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for us all to collaborate on a film that is delightful for all ages. With the Charlottesville kids we will substitute new songs that they write for the places in the film that seem most appropriate for songs. Many films of the period incorporated songs, although this is seldom done today . . . .The students will watch selected scenes from the movie during their workshop, and under Paul’s, and possibly my guidance, create new songs that fit the mood and action of the scene, as well as the amount of screen time.
Q: Any last words?
S: So far we still do have the arts in the school curriculum. Even though they are under-emphasized, they haven’t been thrown out. And I think that because they are less emphasized, it’s all the more important to bring in special programs. Because schools’ time is being constricted, . . . how all the more important it is to bring in professional artists in all the domains, not only music, and involve them. If every school did what it should be doing in music and the arts, we wouldn’t need Kid Pan Alley.
D: I think that one of the most valuable things a child can learn in school is that his/her creativity is unbounded, that ideas for songs (or art or dance or stories) are inside and all around them, and that they can learn to draw from their own experience in life and share it with others, and in the process be validated as artists and humans. Kids see the world in a fresher, different way than many jaded grownups do, and if we are going to bequeath it to them, we need to learn to respect their ideas, teach them how to shape them into art, and give them a place to stand so that they can move the earth into a new bright future that belongs to them.
P: I absolutely loved it [the experience in our class]. I was really sad when it was over because we all enjoyed it so much. For one thing, it was like NOTHING we had ever done in school before, so it was a nice change. [Reisler] was so nice and patient with us. He explained everything in a level of language that we could understand. Kid Pan Alley was my first taste of what I love to do now. Songwriting is my passion. I use it to express my emotions and to make my feelings known. And I’ll always have Paul to thank for showing me how great it is.
All in all, it was a great experience, and I think it’s a great thing for every school to consider doing for their kids. I know I’ll never forget it.
Allard, T. (2007, August 23). Personal communication.
Kid Pan Alley. (2001). Tidal Wave of Song [various artists]. [CD]. Washington, VA: Kid Pan Alley.
Kid Pan Alley. (2004). Kid Pan Alley Study Guide. Washington, VA: Kid Pan Alley.
Kid Pan Alley (2006). Kid Pan Alley Presented by Nashville Chamber Orchestra
[various artists]. [CD]. Nashville, TN: Compass Records.
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Pratt, B. (2007, August 29). Personal communication.
Reisler, P. (2007, August 7). Personal communication.
Reisler, P. (2007, August 31). Personal communication.
Sosin, D. (2007, August 31). Personal communication.
Stephenson, S.D. (2007, August 23). Personal communication.
(Stephenson, S.D. (2001). Portraits of the Songwriting Process in Elementary Classrooms, Dissertation, West Virginia University. Retrieved August 19, 2007, from https://eidr.wvu.edu/eidr/documentdata.eIDR?documentid=1967).
Weed, T. (2007, August 31). Personal communication.
Anne M Carley speaks and writes, for online and print publication, on topics at the intersections of the arts, technology, education, intellectual property, and public policy. She has attended two songwriting workshops led by Paul Reisler. First published in Virginia Educational Leadership, Volume 5 Number 1, Fall 2007.
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