A L I F T I N T H E L A S T V E R S E
Watching a “reality” television show the other night, I found myself fascinated with people I didn’t even know, as they tried to cope with their difficult situations. I thought to myself, “I have better things to do with my precious life. Why am I watching this?!” My own real life is already filled up with people struggling to cope with their own crazy and upsetting situations! I thought, “maybe I’m watching to pick up some life skills, or maybe I just want to see that my life’s not nearly as complicated as some of these folks!”
Why am I watching this? It’s a good question to chew on, because I think it’s a question our family audiences ask themselves as they watch our performances and listen to our music. So it’s worth thinking about. How do we write and choose the material we perform for kids and families? What does our version of life provide for them that can engage and entertain them while giving them some perspective they might find useful or empowering?
Most of us might agree that our musical sounds and rhythms, our humor and fun and clap-along, sing-along group participations engage and entertain our audiences. For many folks and kids, that’s plenty of good reasons to watch us. But just like in real life, where we so appreciate it when someone helps us make sense out of what’s going on around us, we have a chance as performers to provide our family audiences with some perspective about what’s going on around them, so they can see their lives a bit more clearly. So they can see “why we are doing this.”
A friend of mine played me a new song she wrote about three kids who are friends. One only likes strawberries, one only likes apples, and one only likes bananas. It’s a cute song and has a really catchy melody and a sing-able chorus. After my friend played the song, she asked me if I liked it.
“Sure I liked it!” I said, “Where’s the last verse?”
“The last verse was about bananas, remember?”
“I remember the banana verse,” I said, “but where’s the last verse that helps me understand why you thought it was important to sing the other verses to me?”
“Oh!” she said. “You were looking for a ‘message’ in the song?”
“Well, I’m asking you to help me understand why you wanted me to hear that song?”
“Because I wrote it!”
“And you sang it wonderfully!”
“It’s fun, right?” she asked.
“Yep!” I said.
“So you think it should have a message too?”
“I think it already has a message,” I said. “That’s a great song to help kids and families understand that different people have different likes and dislikes, and that every one of them is okay. It could really help a kid to hear that if someone disagrees with you or likes something different than you do, that doesn’t make what you like wrong. It doesn’t make them your enemy. Kids learn that it’s really not okay to be different than other kids. They need to hear that even if you’re the only kid in the whole world who feels like you do, that’s still okay! That idea could help some parents too. The whole world could use more of that kind of thinking right now! So your last verse might be about how the strawberry kid liked the banana kid enough, to give bananas one more try, and then found out that bananas are actually not so bad, … just not as good as strawberries of course!”
She thought for a minute then said, “Or maybe the kid tries bananas and still can’t stand them!”
“Exactly!” I said. “The outcome’s not as important as the idea that we all have differences, even with our friends, and that’s kind of neat. And as long as we keep trying, there’s hope for change. That’s what I call a 'lift'.
“What’s a lift”? she asked.
“It’s when we feel like something’s been lifted from us. We can see things more clearly. The veil goes away. We feel empowered to go on again. We have hope. We can pick ourselves up and give it another try, like a kid learning to walk. And when people feel a lift, they know why they just spent time listening to our song.”
We might not be able to have a lift in every song, ... but the last verse is where we can tie things together so the picture becomes clear; so connections are made between what the kid learns and what the parent learns. It’s where we applaud the effort, regardless of the outcome. It’s where we get a glimpse into someone else’s world and their story. It enriches us and it gives kids and parents, (don’t forget the parents!), other ways to think about changing some of our own rigid behaviors and beliefs. And if it's not a song I wrote, and the last verse does not have a lift, I can always lift it myself with a comment or a story on the way to the next song.
Some people don’t need “a last verse”. Kindergarteners for instance, mostly just want to be present and laugh and dance and have fun! If I sit on a rug and play music with kindergarten kids, it’s different than making a music video or an album. If one of them takes off his shoe, I might stop singing my song-with-a-lift-in-the-last-verse, take off my shoe and hold it to my ear like a telephone and pretend I’m talking to him. We might talk for a while or share our phones with others, and maybe eventually get back on track and finish my song, or maybe not. That’s where the phrase 'playing music' comes from. When we’re actually physically present with each other, we can ‘play’ with each other and our music. Doing that is a most important message. It provides the experience of caring about each other in a visceral way that is rare and more essential than the content of the song lyrics. When I write songs or record them, I’m usually not with my kindergarten kids, so my focus is to create and pass on songs with a lift in the last verse. I keep lifted songs handy in my 'song bag' so in a live concert situation, I can pull one out when I need it, or I can always decide to stop a song and play around with my audience, but at the end of our time together, I like knowing that I’ve passed on more than just a good time.
My frustration around watching reality television is that when I’ve become involved emotionally with the people and engaged in their current struggle, it still shocks me that we don’t actually have a real human connection. We don't know each other. Stories like “The Velveteen Rabbit” or “The Little Prince” remind us that if we are going to be “real”, we need to belong to each other. My daily life is fully engaged with the struggles and turmoil of my real family and friends and co-workers, because we know each other. And the “lift” for me spending time being involved with them, is love, … a wonderful, real, messy, tangible and reciprocal connection. We belong to each other. Kind of like what happens with our audiences, eh?
Kids and families can always use help figuring out how to do things better, and our songs can help model other ways to deal with some of the tough things they face. Even though, like us, they might be okay with listening to songs that engage them enough to simply pass the time, … 'reality show' type songs, why not make the effort to give them that added value that 'the last verse with a lift' can provide. Give ‘em something to chew on in the car on the way home!
Reprinted from Children's Music Network - Pass It On! Magazine - from Peter Alsop's "Thoughts To Chew" column - Fall 2013