Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sing a Song

Today is the opening day of the week-long fall Arts Fest at DePauw. The theme of Arts Fest this year is "Art and the Other." Events include everything from a panel discussion on vampires in literature and film to a choral program of Gypsy music. The festivities opened this afternoon with an exploration of the arts for children called Art Attack, where children could encounter musical instruments in an instrument "petting zoo," write poetry at a poetry station, make necklaces of Lifesavers, pound African drums in a drum circle, and more. The event was headlined by local singer/songwriter Bobbie Lancaster who performed a children's concert and led a children's songwriting workshop.

I loved the songwriting workshop so much. Under Bobbie's gentle guidance the six or seven children in the audience, all around ages six or seven I'd say, wrote a song together. I always err on the side of being too controlling when I work with children, or with emerging writers generally; I have such a clear sense of how the project needs to unfold that it's all I can do to hold back and not will my vision into being. Bobbie let the children go where they wanted to go, and yet they came up with a song with a delightfully funny and spooky Halloween flavor.

First they brainstormed together for topics. One child wanted a song set in a graveyard; one child wanted a song about a tooth, or perhaps a dentist dressed up as a tooth; some third topic was suggested, but the graveyard theme won out. Then the children started tossing out ideas about zombies, skeletons ("creaking and clanking"), and mummies (one boy insisted that the song include the fact that mummies came from pyramids in Egypt - these were very well educated children!). Bobbie collected all the ideas, putting them into two categories on the chalkboard: ideas best suited to the verses of the song, which could tell a detail-rich story, versus ideas best suited to the chorus, which would be at a level of greater simplicity and generality, establishing the basic theme for the song. As the ideas began to form themselves into song lines, Bobbie had occasional suggestions for rhythm and (slant) rhymes, but the children did the rest. The bathroom humor was definitely theirs.

Here is more or less what they had come up with by the time I had to leave; two further verses were planned, one on skeletons and one on zombies. Imagine this sung to ukelele accompaniment in a minor key:

Down in the old graveyard
Something is happening.
Creaky and lurking things,
Creepy Halloween!

In Egypt Land, the pyramids stand.
Mummies arise from their sarcophagi.
They get up from their naps
And try to unwrap
Because they haven't gone potty
For a long long time.

I thought that was pretty funny.  It all sounds much better sung in Bobbie's pure, lilting voice, too.

So what I learned from the workshop is that the most important guidance beginning writers need is a structure on which to hang their own ideas, whatever they are.  Once Bobbie had given the children the concept of chorus (simple, general, thematic) and verse (detailed, narrative), they were off and running.

And now "Creepy Halloween" is singing itself in my head, a good omen for Arts Fest.

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