Singing with fifth graders

November 17, 2012

This past week I wrapped up a several-week engagement at Harmony School teaching five fifth graders how to sing. It was a fun, challenging, eye-opening experience.

The teacher, Kathy Boone, approached me after Lara Weaver (who she’d worked with when Upstart was big Back in the Day) referred her to me. Kathy had a stack of songs that Upstart had shared with a class back in the ’90s and described briefly how they had come up with these fun and energetic exercises for the kids. My heart sank. I don’t have fun and energetic exercises. I just have me.

But we shall soldier on! I explained that my approach was more formal. Kathy was very supportive, bless ‘er. So on we went.

I met with the girls three times a week for several weeks, teaching them basics like “barrel breathing” rather than “bellows breathing,” “breathing in the flower breath,” onset articulation, hearing a starting pitch in your head before onsetting, and more.

They had never sung harmony before, so to start them off I split the group into threes and placed each sub-set around the room so we were apart from each other (Kathy and I sang with the girls throughout the class). We then sang a simple chord pitch and slowly moved towards the center of the classroom when we could hold our own notes and hear the other pitches in the chord. They really liked that. Oh, and we also worked on unison, which was really great because we were able to get some lovely resonance going. I thought later that I should’ve had an exercise where we raised our hand when we heard the resonance kick in so we could train our ears, but maybe that’s too advanced.

Anyway, after warm-ups we’d review the previous day’s song and then learn a new one. One was a two-song medley of Hey Mama (a Pagan chant by Gypsy) and Mother I Feel You Under My Feet (by a woman whose name escapes me but she’s a writer for the women’s music movement, not a Native American, as is so often claimed). (I just linked to a version of Mother I’ve never heard before but it gives you the idea. Order Kaia Live! 2006 at the Kaia store or download the Mamamerica mp3 at Amazon or iTunes for the full monty.)

Enough with the parentheses! We learned Shut De Door (wow, this is a scary version), Round and Round the Earth is Turning, So Glad I’m Here,  All Around the Kitchen by Woody Guthrie (where we learned how to bend a note), Go to Sleepy Little Baby (made popular by O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Bring Me Little Water, Sylvy by Ledbetter as sung by Voco, and the aforementioned mom songs.

Kathy taught Shut De Door and used it to pass around solos. Round and Round is, not surprisingly, a round, which proved to be beyond the capabilities of the group. Kaia’s version of So Glad I’m Here has 6 or 7 lines of harmony which I reduced to one high response line. Hey Mama featured a light harmony response line for one soloist and then an attempt at a round which never worked. All Around the Kitchen had a harmony response line and solos for everyone. Go to Sleepy was supposed to have simple body percussion where we slapped each other’s hands, but everybody got sick and I didn’t want to spread the pestilence. Sylvy featured simple body percussion (thighs, then right-left upper chest) and a high harmony line on the verses.

The girls were a quirky mix. Kathy said they all faced challenges, being at an awkward age where their personalities were fighting to emerge or be submerged due to peer pressure. There was one particularly bad day where some other kids made fun of the girls for singing (!!!), so Kathy posted cardboard over the door’s window for privacy from then on.

“Ab” was my most challenging student. She was continually disruptive and all “me, me, me.” She was just dying for attention, which made me have the opposite response of wanting to discipline her. Bad me. I so often wish I hadn’t been raised in such a strict home; it’s left me so few tools to deal with children successfully. She had a small, pretty voice. She loved Adele and wanted to sing Rolling in the Deep for the school’s Holiday Follies. For all her acting up and wanting to be in the club (it was her idea in the first place), she never volunteered for a solo or harmony line. She finally did one when asked, but she seemed self-conscious. On the last day, she tried to sing Rolling in the Deep for us but got thrown off by the karaoke version she was singing along with.

“Em” was the opposite of Ab. Painfully shy, she whispered/spoke her solo lines rather than sang them. But she volunteered for harmony lines and did a great job of quickly learning each song. When we sang harmony her eyes never left my face and she seemed to be holding onto my voice for dear life, but she did great. I really admired her.

“Ma” had the most defined personality of the group. She liked the band Skillet. I had never heard of them but when I looked them up I suggested she check out Evanescence, which has a similar sound. She of course had already heard of them and liked Bring Me to Life. (As a side note, Bring Me to Life reads like a particularly dysfunctional love song but it more interestingly makes a great statement of supplication to Spirit for spiritual development.) Ma was sick half the class so she would spend time up in the classroom loft, but she stuck her head through the bannisters to sing out her lines. Can’t help but love that!

“El” was the only one with formal choral training, having worked with IU Children’s Choir. She had a full, strong voice but struggled with learning by ear. She fully participated in the class, which was great, taking on harmony lines and singing fully.

“Do” was my favorite, hands-down. She was irrepressibly cheerful and game for anything. Her ear was not very good but she made up for it with enthusiasm! She laughed her way through class but wasn’t disruptive about it. And she had no qualms about calling me out when I sang the harmony line wrong on All Around the Kitchen.

If we’d had more time, I would have structured the class so they could bring in songs that they wanted to sing rather than hand everything off to them top-down. Ab had suggested the class based on her love of Glee. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for learning songs from scratch where no one has their own vision invested in a particular interpretation.

They kept sitting down! I’m old enough to be their grandmother and I was constantly telling them to get up. If I had my way, I’d hold all rehearsals on my feet, since I believe that helps focus energy and concentration and also makes for better breath support. But as soon as we were done with a warm-up exercise, bam!, they were back in their chairs. Then Kathy would harangue them until they got up again. And half the time they would kneel on their chairs instead. I didn’t get it.

They also weren’t into the body percussion, even if it were as simple as hand claps. Kathy and I kept the percussion going. I thought they’d enjoy getting their bodies more involved, but it just didn’t seem to interest them. I’d planned on doing exercises to clap on the beat and then off the beat so they could feel the difference, but their lack of interest tanked that plan.

On the last day, we reviewed all the songs we’d learned. It was such a joy to hear them belting everything out, when just a couple weeks before they’d been all mousy. Kathy said she could see a difference in their confidence levels outside the classroom as well and hoped this would contribute to their further development.

The best part of the experience was when Kathy told them to thank me and they all came barging over and gave me a group hug. They just kept hanging on and laughing and having a great time. Then I knew I’d done a good thing. That was fantastic.

There’s such a big debate about arts funding in this country, and while I’m strongly in favor of increased funding, I often have difficulty explaining exactly why it’s important. Of course, working with music increases your performance in math. There are other examples of how the arts reinforce “serious” subjects. In my mind, try to imagine a world without radios, without concerts, without shows, etc. It’s a paltry world, barely worth living in. Where’s that song that helps heal your heart? Where’s that play that broadens your mind or just makes you laugh your tail off? Art makes us more human. And in this class, even though we just had a few weeks, I saw how art could help take a disparate group of awkward girls and give them the confidence to sing out and shine. Certainly that’s got to be worth something.

Story Play debut

November 11, 2012

Last night was <trumpet flourish> my debut doing Story Play, Nell Weatherwax‘s pioneering art form of story, improvisation, body movement, and theatre. It was a free show in Indianapolis at the Pine Cone Yoga Center. It’s a clean, intimate space and we had a full house.

Barry Callen opened the show with some great music—as Nell’s partner, it’s no surprise he’s a master storyteller in song. I then did my piece, we had a short break, Nell did a full-length piece about her mother’s funeral and attendant family craziness, and then we broke for Q & A.

My piece was a lighthearted frolic about death and funerals. The art form is based in improv, so ideally you like to just move with the moment and shape the story as it comes to you. But since I was very conscious about not going over my time limit, I did a couple dry runs in the afternoon. These were interesting because I was aiming to hit my main points and purposely trying to forget what linked them so I could be open to whatever came up in performance. As I suspected, I was over my time, so I was able to have an idea of what digressions I should steer clear of to stay on-target.

Story Play is all about telling true-life stories in such a way that you bring the audience in with you. As I mentioned in the Q & A last night, it’s about being “universally specific.” This term comes from the greeting card industry, where you find a card that says exactly what you intend—and thousands of other people feel the same way. It’s a universal message but expressed in such a way that everyone feels like it’s a personal expression.

I began my piece with the story of my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was five. It’s a very clear memory, probably my longest continuous memory from those days. I was standing in front of her coffin, staring at her chest, waiting for her to breathe. I had never contemplated death before and I couldn’t quite grok how she could not be breathing, not be holding her breath—she was in this new state I had never witnessed before and I had no way to file it in my undeveloped brain.

There was a series of windows up and to my left, and there’s something in there about a robin. Did I see a robin? Unlikely, since the trees through the window were across the street. More likely it was a song in my head. Maybe the song my great-grandparents brought from Ireland over a hundred years ago:

Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave.
Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Oh, oh, oh.

Or more likely, the Jackson 5’s Rockin’ Robin. Regardless, there’s some association.

I turned around and was looking into the vestibule, “golden light pouring in through the door like angels,” to see a low bench upholstered in “inoffensive green.” My grandfather sat there, “so familiar I don’t have words to describe him.” He had his arm around my grandmother who was leaning into him, “already well on her way to being the quintessential little old lady.” It was the first time I’d seen them touch. And her face was covered in a white handkerchief as she sobbed into him. It was the only time in my life I saw her cry. “Every year for the rest of her life, she will mark this day in her diary—this day when her mother left her.”

I then moved into my experiences of funerals growing up. My mom and dad, “being good Capricorns,” believed that if anything happened to them, we should know what to do. We had a large extended family, many of them old, so people were dropping like flies. We went to funerals All. The. Time. I didn’t put this in the story, but it got to the point where I was afraid of having a good time. There was one time when I went to the mall with friends and spent the day laughing my head off. But I had a sense of guilt and foreboding. Sure enough, when I got home I found out my uncle had died. I never understood people who hadn’t been to a funeral until their twenties. Funerals were part and parcel of my formative years.

When I say “funeral” I really mean three sections: the wake, the funeral service itself, and the funeral feast. Each has a different flavor. I loved wakes. I had a blast with my sisters and cousins. There was one funeral home in Hammond, Indiana that had a downstairs area with kitchen and lounge, so we would congregate down there. And they had, miracle of miracles, a fridge full of free Coca-Cola. Zing! We weren’t allowed to have pop except on special occasions, so we took full advantage of the sugary goodness. We would tear around those two rooms playing hide-and-go-seek, which is not hard to do in such a limited space. When I think of wakes, I think of being hot and sweaty. Which tells you how seriously I took the things.

A Catholic graveside funeral is a thing of beauty. Pure catharsis. I didn’t even have to know the person. I would be beside myself with grief. These days when I see the frenzies of funeral processions in the Middle East, I am reminded of the ancient Egyptians who hired professional mourners and I think, yeah, I could totally do that job.

After the funeral, we would race in our cars to the church, “where the pleasant church ladies in their pleasant cardigan sweaters would dish out comfort food like mashed potatoes.” Heaven. And a great way to ground after the hystrionics at the graveside.

Death is a great black bird which blots out the sun and enfolds me in her sooty wings, pressing down until I am in the stillness of her mystery.

The last funeral I went to was earlier this year. It was for my cousin Mike. “I didn’t know Mike as an adult but I did as a child. I was nine and he was maybe nineteen. He was six foot 12 and a million, and hugely buff from working construction. He was my Teutonic knight, with long blonde hair (this was the ’70s), a long blonde moustache, and a bright white smile that could light up the room.” (As I said that line I wished I could come up with a better phrase than the hackneyed “light up a room” bit. But we work with what we have in the moment.) My sister was afraid of him but I felt safe around him.

And he went into the house that he had built from memory, no blueprints, built with his own two hands, and burned the house down around his head and put a bullet through his brain. And the first thing I thought of when I heard the news was, “At least I know it works.” I have fingers that itch for the trigger.

That last is not my wording—it comes from a poem one of my beloveds wrote about me. It still amazes me that she captured me the way she did. She is a talented artist. Anyway, this line transitioned me into the last portion of my piece, which was the story of her leaving me, going on thirteen years ago now.

She is sitting in the driver’s seat of her small car, her hand plastered against the window, freakishly white in the florescent glare of the light which shines down on us. Her huge brown eyes stare up at me full of questions and anguish. Her pale white face, her small cap of brown hair, her pointed chin. I place my hand over hers against the glass, but there is this barrier between us.

I had wanted to say how this barrier put her beyond the Veil, how it was a permanent separation for the moment. I can’t remember if I said that “this is the parting that will not just break my heart but rend my spirit.” It broke me as a human being, and I have never been the same since.

But this time I will change this script, I will not be the one left, so I turn my back [I turned around] and I [I walked away].


At the end of every performance, whether it’s a song or a scene, I think it’s really important to hold the space. It’s not a freeze exactly, because there’s still energy flowing. You just hold the space in stillness, letting the final words and emotions seep in before you relax into applause. Silence informs a lot of what I do artistically. It has been brought home dramatically to me by Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility (and later live in London in his performance in Antony and Cleopatra) and demonstrated masterfully by Richard Harris in Gladiator. I use silence and stillness in Story Play to mark transitions between stories and themes. It’s much more effective than a tidal wave of words which the audience doesn’t have time to absorb.

All of the above storytelling is done in the present tense, which makes it much more immediate. The full body is brought into play to illustrate themes, not just individual words. And sometimes words just go out the window as sounds are substituted instead. Story Play is not about being a stand-up comedian trying to be impressive and witty. It’s about fully inhabiting the story in a theatrical way to create a transformative experience for the audience. (For an example of Story Play in action, see this hilarious story from Nell. And to see how a story can be told by two people simultaneously, check out this fabulous duo she did with Marielle Abell.)

I am deeply grateful to all the people who set up this event and made it happen, and especially to Nell for giving me the space to share my stories. The audience was stellar, just so warm and appreciative, right there with me as I led them on the journey. Nell is working on a Bloomington show for January, and has invited me to participate. I am in! Story Play feels so authentic, so purely theatrical (in the “Greek ritual” sense of the word), that it is one of my favorite modes of performing. Praise Gaia!