Musings from Home

Songwriting With Kids

There is a controversy in our area right now about a songwriting residency with third graders from one of the local elementary schools, and the resulting song. Many parents are upset about the seemingly political message of the song and others are concerned about the songwriting process itself, as it seems to them that the lyrics could not have come from third graders.

First a little about the residency. [Note: I am not affiliated with this organization and do not know anything about it except for what I have read or heard around town from people whose schools have participated.] Local songwriters assist children in writing a song through a “group songwriting process”. From what I’ve read (and heard), the children choose the topic of the song and are guided by the professional songwriters through the process of writing a song together about that topic. The mission of the organization that runs these residencies, as stated on their website, is:

to inspire and empower children to become creators of their own music, not just consumers of popular culture. The songwriting residencies and character development assemblies give children the opportunity to express their creativity and learn how thinking creatively can lead to future success, and:

  • Promote self-awareness and self-confidence by attaching value to the students’ creative impulses;
  • Help children experience creative expression as a means of embracing diversity, teamwork, and collaboration by supporting creativity as a prime skill to all critical thinking and problem-solving;
  • Help children learn and increase their ability to learn. [The organization] addresses national learning standards in the areas of creativity, music, English, performance, and connects to other areas of learning including History, Civics, Science, and Health. We think this is one of the most important outcomes of our program.
  • Promote community awareness of the arts as essential elements of instruction in the lives of children; foster collaboration between students, teachers, administrators, artists, and the community through working together in a creative process.
  • Teach respect for intellectual property. Children who have written their own songs have a first-hand understanding of the negative effects of “pirating” on creators and their communities;
  • Raise funds for more arts enrichment programs through sales of professional CDs of [the organization’s] songs.

Neither of my children has ever participated in one of these residencies, although I’m sure both would love it. Several years ago, I did hear a concert from one of the local school’s residencies and was very impressed not only by the song, but also by the kids’ excitement and joy regarding their experience and their creation.

Now to the controversial song. The following is a transcript:

Some people have it all
But they still don’t think they have enough
They want more money
A faster ride
They’re not content
Never satisfied
Yes — they’re the 1 percent

I used to be one of the 1 percent
I worked all the time
Never saw my family
Couldn’t make life rhyme
Then the bubble burst
It really, really hurt
I lost my money
Lost my pride
Lost my home
Now I’m part of the 99

Some people have it all
But they still don’t think they have enough
They want more money
A faster ride
They’re not content
Never satisfied
Yes — they’re the 1 percent

I used to be sad, now I’m satisfied
’Cause I really have enough
Though I lost my yacht and plane
Didn’t need that extra stuff
Could have been much worse
You don’t need to be first
’Cause I’ve got my friends
Here by my side
Don’t need it all
I’m so happy to be part of the 99

Parents are up in arms about what seems to many to be an “Occupy” message. Others believe that the song may have been indeed written about a subject the kids chose and even with their ideas (even if it was referring to Occupy, as Occupy was very prominently demonstrating in our town at the time), but question how much influence is given by the facilitator during the process, as some of the phrases used don’t sound like they came from 8- and 9-year-olds.

The organization maintains that the children selected the topic and wrote the lyrics, but admits that the “politically charged phrases” may have overshadowed the children’s message. The group’s founder and artistic director stated recently that he should have avoided certain phrases when facilitating the songwriting process. According to a local news report, he says, “It was my personal mistake to introduce these phrases and I take complete responsibility for it. I will not make a mistake like this again.”

I have mixed thoughts about this whole controversy. From everything I know about the program, this is a wonderful opportunity for our children. It teaches them to use music in a positive way. It also teaches them self-expression. Friends of mine who have had their own children or their students participate in this process have had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. [Note: These friends’ children or students did not participate in this year’s recent residency.]

On the other hand, reading those lyrics, I find it hard to believe that any of that song came from a group of third graders, even the idea. So that brings up the question of how much of the idea or the song itself came from the children and how much from the facilitator? And if this song is about Occupy (I’m not saying it is), how much of a balanced discussion took place before the lyrics were chosen? Did the children feel this way on their own? Do they even know what it means to be “part of the 99”?

I think parents are concerned about the influence others are having on their children’s thoughts and beliefs, especially in a school setting. As a parent, I understand and share these concerns, even as they apply to this situation. But part of me thinks we may all be reading too much into what was probably a very positive experience for the children. I would certainly hate for this program, which I believe to be a very beneficial one for kids who would otherwise likely not have the chance to learn about songwriting from a professional songwriter (and reap all the benefits of the process), to end over this one “mistake”. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take a closer look at the songwriting process and maybe even give a few more guidelines to the organization as to the policies of the school system.

I also believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt that an honest mistake was made and giving them another chance.

See how I’m flip-flopping?

I would love to hear what you think. If you’d like to read more about the organization and hear other songs that have been written through their residencies, check out their website: http://www.kidpanalley.org/

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Comments on: "Songwriting With Kids" (11)

  1. You are not flip flopping. You are being reasonable, balanced, thoughtful and forgiving. You probably just thought you were flip flopping b/c we are in the middle of the republican primaries and you had those guys on the mind. Hey, now I’m politicizing :-0

  2. My daughter participated in this program though her class did not write that particular song. She enjoyed the whole process completely, however, her song was about seeing the beautiful colors that make up this world. A great message.

    I was at this concert, and this organization stated several times throughout the concert that the songs were a complete product of the children’s work. So I was taken aback when I saw the political title of the song above and was truly skeptical as to what this songwriting process entails. Now it turns out that this song is not at all a complete product of our children’s work. Another aspect of the song that I was not excited about is that the song uses exclusionary terms such as “they’re the one percent.” As a special Education teacher, I have worked hard to promote inclusion. No matter what the topic of the song is, it is never okay to pick out someone and say that they are the 1 percent. ” You’re the 1 who messed it up for everyone else.” Another song that was sung at the performance, and I don’t remember the title but it talked about hating teachers.

    I feel, if your going to go into public schools, you should lead our elementary aged kids with strong, positive messages like seeing the beautiful colors in our world. The songwriting process is fun and the message should be positive and fun also.

    • Very well said, Kelley. You make some excellent points I didn’t think of. Teaching kids exclusion is definitely damaging, to say the least. Thanks for adding so thoughtfully to the discussion.

      • I should add that I believe that no one should impose his/her political opinions on anyone else’s children. If that is what happened here (and again, I’m not saying it is or isn’t — I have no idea) that would be completely inappropriate and may necessitate looking closer still at the process. I really don’t know what to think about what happened here, mostly because I’m not sure exactly what did happen or how that song (and the one Kelley mentioned about hate)came to be.

  3. My kid has participated in this twice. I know kids are much smarter than we give them credit for but both times I wondered how much the kids actually wrote. According to my daughter, they had one brief songwriting session – under an hour. And she was quite honest with me, she didn’t feel they really written the song they performed. The kids may have come up with the topic and few phrases, but the adults definitely exerted more control over the finished piece.

    I can also tell you that having sat through their shows twice, the music professionals all perform at least one of their solo pieces, without the children, smack dab in the middle of the show, with lots of plugs of their CD’s for sale in the lobby. They also like to perform songs they’ve done with other kids, so the last show we sat through was close to a half hour of just the KPA performers, and not our kids. Most of the other parents I talked to felt the show smacked of their personal agenda.

    Between that and the exoritant price tag, it will be a long time before they are in our school again. We realized our kids get a much richer musical experience from the music teacher at the school, who is also much more gracious about letting their talents shine, instead of showcasing his.

    • Thanks, Becky. Since my children have never participated in this program, this is very enlightening for me. I also hadn’t thought of the price tag. Thanks so much for your perspective. Obviously there’s much more to this program than is seen on the surface. I’d like to see music programs in the schools do more (at least my daughter’s; I don’t know about others). My daughter loves her music teacher and I am impressed with him, as well, but at best they have music once a week and right now they’re not having it at all so that they can be taught keyboarding in order to type essays for the SOLs later in the year. I’ll refrain from jumping on my soapbox on that one.

      • At least they are teaching them to use the keyboard before expecting them to type for the SOL’s. They didn’t do that for my daughter last year. Recess also became optional in the push for the SOL’s.

        This year my daughter is in 4th grade in city schools – all of them do Minds in Motion as well as All City Chorus, so there is lots of emphasis on things other than the SOLs this year. Her class sang the national anthem at the UVa men’s basketball game over the weekend and it sounds like they tend to cancel other things for music this year. Which is pretty awesome really.

      • They don’t teach keyboarding in my daughter’s school either until 5th grade because the 5th grade SOLs include an essay so they have to actually type more than just a letter or number. The city schools seem to do more with music than our rural county does. My daughter is in band and had the option for chorus, but they only meet once a week and she isn’t yet being taught to read music. I’m working on that with her at home, at her request. I understand the reason for the focus on the SOLs in light of “No Child Left Behind” (and I understand the origins of that, although I don’t think it’s working the way it was intended). I just think there is more to education than testing, but that’s a whole other topic.

  4. Yes it is.
    Back to the original topic, at the library with my daughter, who is in 4th grade, I picked up a local publication that had the controversy in question on the cover, even if it was small and along the bottom of the cover. Without knowing anything about it, my daughter looked at them and said, “They really need to stop saying the kids write the music, because they don’t”. I explained what the story was about, showed her the song lyrics in question and her response was, ‘Kids didn’t write that.’

    So there you go. From the mouths of babes, from one who has participated in the residency not once, but twice.

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