Now Hear This: Misfit Country

December 20, 2015

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Are you a total sucker for inspirational songs? It’s ok, you can admit it later.

I’m also an irrational disliker  of modern country music. I’ve tried, I swear. Please comment with a country song that will change my mind. I dare you. 

Through the wonders of my Discover Weekly list on Spotify, I’ve recently played to death enjoyed three psudo-country songs that share a beautiful common thread: Not fitting in. Whether they were judged and found wanting, or are just not measuring up to societal standards, these are musical offerings staring folks who don’t give a rip if you like them or not. And they’re country-ish at the least. BOOM. Horizons expanded.

Give a listen!

Elle King’s “America’s Sweetheart”

This is the 7th track off Elle’s Feb. 2015 album Love Stuff. Despite a handful of kind of cliched phrases in the verse, this is raucous anthem for girls who don’t feel the need to behave like perfect ladies. I also dig this because I, too, amfunny when I’m drunk (I think), and, unrelated, just aquired a stupid tiny chip in my front tooth. You just want to do a shot of whiskey and sing along with Elle here.

I also adore “Ex’s and Oh’s” from this album. Good stuff, Love Stuff.

Kacey Musgraves “Cup of Tea”

This is just a sweet little song that coos at you not to fear the blotches on your permanent record. The variety of sins and shortcomings listed are relateable but and entertaining. She reminds us that “We’ve all got the right to be wrong.” in a way that grants anyone permission to have hope, even if they’ve screwed up. Hey, I’ve screwed up! Sweet! “You can’t be be everybody’s up of tea”. Musgraves shakes off any judgement at the her final lyric, asking “Why would you wanna be?”

Her video for her song “Biscuits” is freakin’ infections and involves a puppet, in case you were wondering.

Josh Ritter’s “Getting Ready to Get Down”

This catchy song addresses some narrow-minded Christians forgetting that they know no more than anyone else, failing to leave the judging to God, and screwing with young people’s heads. It’s a little bit in the vein of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young”. The girl to whom Josh is singing is sent away to bible college because she’s not fitting in with her town’s conservative ideals. Instead of coming around to their ways, she ends up absorbing all the acceptance and love messages in the Good Book, and none of the “Thou Shalt Not”s. Although I don’t presume to know Ritter’s feelings on certain major social issues of today, his lyric “Give your love freely to whomever that you please” hints at it nicely.

Plus, there is an official LINE DANCE to this song, people.

As you get quickly older and slowly wiser, you learn that whether some people like you has very little do with YOU. Thankfully there are pleasant songs like these to remind us. For instance, I have clearly judged country music unfairly. I’m sorry. There was all that association with confederate flags on the back of pick-up trucks.  However, Hubby has already requested I put in earbuds while working on this post.

Convince me that it’s not all honky-tonk bars and cowboy boots. What is your favorite “country” song?

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Op/Ed: Children’s Music

August 31, 2015

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I’m writing this post on my phone, at a 5 & under children’s playplace. Don’t pity me too much. I’m the only parent hanging in the nice little seating area. I have my Dunkin. I have my shoes off. I’m not crawling through tunnels to rescue a screamer who’s too scared to go down the slide (anymore). It’s kind of nice, except for one small issue:

MY EARS ARE BLEEDING.

The ceiling speakers are loudly playing a list that alternates between Laurie Berkner, The Wiggles, and Kidz Bop. I don’t hate Laurie. I will after our two hours here. But the rest of it is pretty much creating a “Kill. Me. Now.” situation over here on the Uninvolved Mommy benches. And that’s just unnecessary. 

Disclaimer: I am an elementary music teacher. I’m not going to pretend that 12 years of this (awesome) job automatically makes me an expert in children’s music. Parenthood will do that for  you just fine, anyway. It does, however, make me opinionated about the subject. There is experience, research, and Master classes talking here. And they’re opinionated too.#sorrynotsorry

Parents, teachers, child-centered businesses, I beseech you: Play actual music for your children. Please.

Kidz Bop is only good for elementary school pep rallies when you want to seem cool enough to play music the kids will recognize, but not lose your job from parental complaints. There’s nothing wrong with pop – I love it. But I think it’s better to play the actual artist whenever you can. If you can’t, there’s a good chance the song isn’t a fabulous pick for kids anyway, even edited with words that rhyme with the objectionable stuff and vocals by (what sounds like) freaky castrati.

Laurie Berkner does some nice stuff; a few covers of folk songs and mostly songs about kid stuff. I like her acoustic approach and she’s a decent vocal model for children (they can match her voice and sing along). But it all sounds pretty much the same and I can’t take more than 15 minutes without wanting to go all Pete Townsend on her guitar. 

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And screw the Wiggles. Just screw ’em. I’ve been here for an hour and if one of those mates showed up to give a free concert it would take all my self control not to kick him Down Under. 

Please: Play decent recordings of folks songs. Put on “classical” (instrumental) music. There is a ton out there (See below) that is lively and engaging, the perfect sound track to imaginative play. Mix that up with pop songs that *gasp* YOU like, as long as you think they’re ok for your kids to hear.

Here’s a great CD set for this instrumental music that’s got some oomph:

Music for Creative Movement“, GIA public (click the title to find the CD on sale).

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Play music that was written for the sake of Music, not to give children something kiddie friendly to listen to. There is already so much music out there for them.

That said, I’m sure there’s some newer ones out there, but here are my favorite “children’s” albums with as little ear bleeding as possible:

“Here Come the ABCs” by They Might Be Giants

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Any of Sandra Boynton’s full book albums

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“Snack Time” by the Barenaked Ladies

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I realize this list is pretty dated. My kids are 8 and 5, and their mommy has Spotify. (We don’t buy full kids albums anymore.)

What are some of your favorites? Have you banned any albums from your home or car?

Have you ever fantasized about dropping a certain Australian singing group to the playroom floor?

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Now Hear This: Sia’s “Big Girls Cry” – With No Shame

April 4, 2015

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Sia sings – belts, rather – with impressive range and unapologetic emotion. 12 year old dancer Maddie Zeigler commits so fully and physically to the lyrics’ narrative that, watching, you quickly forget her age and 3 + minutes later realize you’ve been mesmerized by a middle schooler. I came across the new video for Sia’s “Big Girls Cry” on, of all things, NPR.com  If you haven’t seen this artist’s previous two videos with Zeigler dancing, they’re very much worth watching right now. “Chandelier” consists of Zeigler moving expertly and shockingly all over a barren house, and “Elastic Heart” features Zeigler and Shia LeBeouf in a beautiful, unsettling, choreographed cage fight. They’re not exactly SFW, or for kids who ask questions. Enjoy their talent and the visual metaphors here:

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Elastic Heart

Although the video is harder to watch, “Big Girls Cry” is my favorite of these releases yet. Evocative and simple, this single-take show exhibits the both singer and the dancer perfectly. It’s mostly facial and hand gestures.  (Oh yeah, and a little strangling a kid, sort of.  I know.  Sorry.) Sia unabashedly sings:

I may cry ruining my make up/ Wash away all the things you’ve taken/ And I don’t care if I don’t look pretty/ Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking. 

This singer/dancer/choreography/lyric combo is a beautiful match. The refrain wouldn’t stir anything inside you, were it sung by a half-voiced sopranino. (Ellie Goulding, back away.)  If Zeigler didn’t commit so fully, this would be a weird kid making faces in the bathroom mirror. (Not that that isn’t fun, too.) This video is instead many things, including – according to YouTube comments:  “sad”, “creepy as hell” and “perfect”.


Being very much over the ethereal voices of breathy female singers, I’m all about this artist’s voice. Zeigler, comfortable in her skin and gifted well past her 12 years, doesn’t seem to care if she looks pretty, either.

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The Arts as an Antidote to Testing

February 25, 2015

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If it’s quiet in here, I’m doing it wrong.

I am sitting on the chilly windowsill with my legs dangling, kicking the bookcase below. The sound in my room is such that my clunky boots can’t be heard hitting the shelves right below me. Another teacher walks in – she may have knocked, who knows – and her eyes go wide. To be fair, the scene looks a bit chaotic if you’re used to seeing children at desks with books. I enjoy her facial expression, she puts some paper or another on my desk, and mouths to me “How do you not go crazy with all this noise?”

I clown pantomime that I can’t hear her.

Every few minutes one of the kids motions to me to come across the room and hear his group play something they just thought up. I remind them to make sure it’s written down in some way. Every few minutes a quieter kid looks up surreptitiously and scans the room to see where I am, just to make sure I’m not upset about all this sound. Then they go back to their playing. I swear several of them have the smirk of a 10 year old who thinks he’s getting away with something.

Because they are. Like I said, they’re at school, and they’re playing. 

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Character Ed. is not dead.

While driving to school last Thursday, I decided that I am guilty of expecting too much of my students academically, because of residual idealism left over from my well-meaning but ridiculous Elementary Music Education classes. Worse, I’ve been expecting too little of them in the way of character.

Yes, my oldest students should know the difference between various types of keyboard percussion, the theory behind pitch and acoustics, and be able to read and write basic rhythmic and melodic notation.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, they should be able to play these instruments in a way that does no damage and respects others’ right to hear themselves think. They should regulate their own progress on a task and keep their time limit in mind. They should collaborate with a partner without much conflict. They should listen attentively and show respect when other people play for them. They should help clean up and store the instruments in a way that maintains order in the room and allows every student to use them for years to come. In short, there are many opportunities in a music room – or band room, or art room, or gym –  for kids to play, and practice how to not be a little jerk

****

Opting out of control.

So we know we fail as teachers the moment we get into the habit of doing a lesson the same way just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. If your tried-and-true lesson is working, every child is engaged, the curriculum is covered completely, and every need of every child in your classroom is met – then wake the Hell up because you’re dreaming.

I teach a modified Orff (basically, xylophones) unit every winter, mainly because it’s fun and a less-boring thing to come back to after Christmas break. We learn songs, talk about the pentatonic (5-note) scale, and do lots of echoing of the teacher and each other. I look forward to these classes. However, I’m pretty psychotic about you playing my instruments the right way. Don’t break it, and get the best sound. Watch it. We play together. Show me bicycle grip. Do we pick up the mallets when we rotate???! (Confession: As a college freshman, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a high school band director. I may have some marching band issues to resolve.) I hate to admit it, but there is definitely a right and wrong way to do stuff, in my xylophone lessons.

In light of the increasing structure in children’s lives, I’m attempting to take a small step in the opposite direction.  One 5th grade class happens to be ahead of the other sections, because of my recent health fun and absence from school. So, I’m throwing out the structured Orff lessons and letting them loose. To sum it up, they’re getting free play time with anything they want in the Music room, the end goal being to compose some kind of music and write it down in some way. I’m giving them whatever instruments I have, a couple guidelines that are mostly about safety and stuff-music-teachers-say, and 40 minutes. Yes, the curriculum objectives are now completely changed from what is written in my lesson plans, in doing this. Ask me if I care. 

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Music is a more loosey-goosey subject, to begin with. There are protocols in other subject areas, pre-written lesson plans for everything. There is a curriculum, and we will test the daylights out of them on it, yearly. Twice a year, actually. Thank you, PARCC. It’s all nicely planned and controlled. However, because of the above-mentioned health fun, I am reminded lately that CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION.

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The arts as an antidote to testing.

During those 40 minutes I get a little glance from several kids that says “wait, you’re really ok with this?”  several times.  It’s not that big a deal, but they’re uneasy with it.  We have set out to do something with instruments before; play the rhythms, demonstrate this understanding or that, compositions with prescribed forms.  I still get looks from other teachers who wander in then, too. It’s still loud.

This time the class could write/do/play whatever. Some of them added lyrics or flourish-y dance moves, because they’re freakin’ adorable. Week 2 of this will include some kind of standard notation, because blah blah blah, curriculum. Also, these kids are very sharp and can bridge the gap between iconic and symbolic notation like they’re jumping over a puddle. I gave them no rules about notation – whatever, as long as they could look at it next week and still play it, it was cool. This is not revolutionary, just busy, musical chaos that totally looked like I was doing nothing in the way of teaching. However, the kids are responsible for their own progress. They knew that they have the privilege of playing these instruments so they only play them correctly. They were self-regulating, and writing some very cool little songs. I was pretty impressed with what happened when I let go.

This was my favorite so far:

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Also, a shout-out for my two manly men, M&M, who think they have invented music notation for jocks: “Basket-ball” is a short-short-long, or eighth-eighth-quarter pattern, “Football” is long-long is probably going to be half notes, all on bucket drums.

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And they sounded pretty good, too.

This thing where we give kids stuff to play with and say “go” is the basis the wonderful curriculum in my 5 year old’s Pre-K class. Somewhere after that it gets tossed. Because their lives now include lessons in how to take tests, that playtime really needs found again.  A child’s work is play.

I love this:

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In our attempt to be taken seriously as an area of academics, have we taken the play out of playing music?  We have our own standardized testing and huge curriculum binders, too. But the arts, and the tragically disappearing recess and Gym class, are sometimes all our kids have left in the way of play at school.

 So, for my part, here’s what I’m going to do about all this: My goal, in light of the ever-increasing need to structure and test, is going to be to make sure there is more actual PLAYING in my class.  When you walk in (sign in at the office first), you may think they’ve taken over and I’m tied to a chair somewhere. Don’t worry, they know there’s a filing cabinet of worksheets they could be doing instead. That usually keeps them in line. Wa ha ha. 

I’m looking forward to this. And, probably, to going deaf before my time. Because holy crap are they loud.

 

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