Monday, December 15, 2008

What I learned in Elementary School. Both times

Here's what I remember about music in elementary school: In third grade, there was this mousy woman who looked like a cross between Gilda Radner and Rhea Pearlman. She came twice a month with her plug-and-play Casio and we sang "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" and "Rockin' Robin" and that song about the hole in dear Liza's bucket, dear Liza a hole. They were, in other words, some of the most annoying songs ever written.

Because of this rather unfortunate introduction, making music didn't seem all that fun to me. You can only sing "It's a Small World After All" a dozen or so times before even the most innocent of nine-year-old brains begins pondering the pros and cons of in-class sepuku. Music wasn't something that seemed enjoyable at that point: it was just another lesson. And a sucky one at that.

Time passed. Third grade dissolved into a summer of "Gremlins 2," "Dick Tracy," and "Ghost Dad." I went back to school and embraced such ferociously dweebish pastimes as the Spelling Bee (I stank) and the Science Olympiad (I ruled), while Gilda Rhea Radner Pearlman's Musical Gulag receded in my mind, replaced by more important things like the origin of Spiderman (radioactive spider) and the best teams in "Tecmo Super Bowl" (Bills, 9ers, Bears). Then, near the end of fourth grade, the way I thought about music changed forever. And for that, I owe thanks to a pair of teachers from our local middle school who, like the biblical Noah, brought a pair of every conventional instrument into our elementary classroom.

"Try them out," they offered, doling out the shameful tuba, the effete piccolo, the bitch-ass oboe. And so, for a good hour, the room was filled with the singular noise of ten-year-olds test-driving brass, woodwinds, and string instruments, a sound which reminds one of an elephant with Montezuma's Revenge.

My fixation was the saxophone. This might've had something to do with Lisa Simpson or the Sanborn albums my Dad played at home; I can't be sure. But what I do know is that on that day I realized that people like me can make music themselves. While Gilda Rhea Radner Pearlman's Musical Gulag was a remarkably sterile proceeding---a woman with half a voice playing two-fingered chords while disinterested students half-heartedly sang or whole-heartedly Milli Vanillied their way through various obnoxious ditties----this "band" idea was something wholly different: namely, kids---us---me!---making music. This was a profound realization.

So I played the saxophone. From fifth through eighth grade, from "Hot Cross Buns" to "Theme from Jurassic Park," I played in my school band and I enjoyed it. Then, high school rolled around and the stigma of being a "bando" reared it's ugly head and, tragically, I stopped. I hate that I did. It wasn't as if abstaining from band was enough to evict me from the "Magic: The Gathering" dorktown I then inhabited. I don't even think I thought that it would. It was just that I and all my friends just, well, stopped. It felt like one of the many phases you got through growing up: you're obsessed with something one day and the next it's gone. A few years later, maybe knowing something was missing, I picked up a bass, learned to play by figuring out the songs on MTV (this was, of course, when the "M" stood for something), and have been playing some instrument pretty much every day of my life since.

All this went through my head when we were given the opportunity to participate in the America SCORES program. As an introduction, America SCORES is a national non-profit that, in their words, "develops programs that use the world's most popular sport, soccer, to energize and inspire public school students. All of our programs require that our children use the teamwork they learn on the soccer field to support each other as poets and authors in the classroom. The combination is unique and it works." Which, of course, begs the question: what the hell was Birdmonster doing there? Well, America SCORES sees the logical offshoot of poetry as song writing and, in a few cities, invites musicians to come into the classroom and write a song with the enrolled kids. We were some of those musicians.

So, a few weeks back, three of us Birdmonsters* descended on Bret Harte Elementary. The first thing I remember is one of the kids asking, "Y'all the Jonas Brothers or something?" I had to disappoint him. Basically, it works like this: a band (or, in most cases, a solo artist) goes into an elementary school for a total of three days. The first two days are spent writing a song, the last recording it to tape (it's worth noting here that a good number of the kids we rocked out with were unfamiliar with the concept of a "cassette tape," which made me feel old and sad, especially when I had to restrain myself from beginning the explanation with the words "Back in my day"). And while you usually get six hours total for this, our session was split by gender: boys for an hour, girls for hour, three hours each over the course of three days. In other words: we're not talking about a Leonard Cohen schedule here. We got right down to business.

We began by noting that one of the first rules of writing lyrics is to chose something that's important to you and sing about that. For Elvis Costello, it was the enigmatic "Allison"; for Captain & Tennille, it was muskrats fucking. Our group of girls chose their families and their feelings, while our group of boys chose a tomato plant that lived in the gutter. And if that isn't proof that boys and girls are inherently dissimilar, you need to put down that Judith Butler book.

One of the refreshing things about writing a song with a bunch of nine to eleven-year-olds is that they don't overthink anything. Pete was the first one who articulated that and, looking back, it's one of the things I think I learned here. If a girl wants to sing about purple bananas, she's just gonna scream out "let's sing about purple bananas!" and then, all of a sudden, you're singing about purple bananas. It's that simple. We've always tried to maintain a spirit of improvisation in our band but nothing shows you how structured you really are then when you're doing the same thing with kids trying it for the first time. And indeed, the girls did sing about purple bananas. They sang about riding dolphins into the sea and being among their friends and dancing in their dreams and how cheetahs like playing soccer. In short, they sang about any damn thing they pleased. We came up with a few chords and a melody and, really, that's all there was to it.

As for the boys, I found their tomato plant song weirdly touching. It was called "The Tomato Blues" and it centered, as noted above, on a tomato plant that was growing in the gutter. The lyrics focused on how much they loved that tomato plant, a plant that was run over, crushed, and smushed indiscriminately by vapid motorists. They loved it even though (and, in fact, because) it had been neglected and near destroyed but that it kept persevering. How very American, I say: the story of the loveable underdog. Since it was "The Tomato Blues," we tossed together a simple 12-bar blues thing, then neglected that since the lyrics didn't exactly fit the classic 12-bar format, and settled on a weird bastardization of that and what sounds to me now a little bit like "Black Velvet."

Which is really the meat of thing. We practiced the songs during the second session, learning a cardinal rule of children's music: if you give them a tamborine, they will shake it; if you give them an egg shaker, they will wing it at somebody's head. We recorded on the third day, then, like that pair of musical Noahs I remember fondly, let them hammer away at our banjos, guitars, drums, and harmonicas. And in the end, that's what I hope came out of the three days. Sure, the kids used the teamwork skills they learned in soccer and the writing and peer review skills they learned in their poetry lessons, but what I pray is that a few of them learned how deceptively simple it is to write a song, to play music, to sing about something because you care about it; that music is fun. I was lucky enough to have somebody show me that at a young enough age for it to mean something. Here's to hoping we returned the favor.

(One of the songs and some purty pictures can be found here. I tried linking it proper but my technological skills have atrophied to the point that it took me an hour to get that picture of Lisa the right size. Sad but true).

* Our fourth was in Mexico. Dave traded in the subtle and sweet joys of musical instruction for the more tangible joys of shitloads of tequila.