Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Songwriting for Kids: The Mystery of Nate and the Skate

Well, we had another fabulously fun and creative summer session of Songwriting for Kids! Over the course of the week, my students (aged 4-8) not only learned Rock Island Line, Red River Valley, Oh Susanna, and I See the Moon by heart, they also wrote their own song. Melody, words, tempo...they created the entire thing all on their own.

You can listen to The Mystery of Nate and the Skate at

A few of my favorite moments:
  • When we learned Oh Susanna, I asked the kids what they thought it meant when the songwriter wrote contradictory lines like, "The sun so hot, I froze to death." One little girl said she thought he was just trying to cheer Susanna up by making her laugh. I thought that was just about right on.
  • The first version of the class song had present tense and past tense all mixed together. I have to admit, I didn't know if the kids would be able to understand tenses enough to be able to fix it. Boy, was I wrong! All I said was something along the lines of, "It looks like sometimes Nate did something in the past and sometimes, it looks like he's doing it right now...does that make sense?" And they zipped through the entire song, replacing "is" with "was" and "don't" with "didn't." I was blown away.
  • I loved the concentration and detail they put into their song, throwing out their ideas with abandon, but choosing their words carefully. For instance, all on their own, the group had a short discussion about how the phrase magical belt is more musical and has better flow than magic belt.
  • Polka-dot, polka-dot, polka-dot underwear. Need I say more?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lisa Wheeler: Jazz Baby

I'm always on the lookout for new picture books to use during my summer Songwriting for Kids workshops, and this year I was absolutely elated to come across Lisa Wheeler's Jazz Baby.

Jazz Baby grooves and swings like nobody's business. The rhythms are infectious. The text is filled with bounce and joy. R. Gregory Christie's illustrations of Jazz Baby and his family, hip-hopping and be-bopping around the house practically dance themselves off the page.

The kids in my class had a blast repeating Jazz Baby's parts ("Snap-snap-snap" and "Go Man Go!") back to me. And in the end, when Jazz Baby is gently put to bed after all that dancing and swinging and shouting and jiving, we all took a deep breath and echoed the sleepy, satisfied last lines...."Oh, yeah!"

It's no wonder this book has won awards like the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book (that's Dr. Seuss to you and me) and the ALA Notable Children’s Book. It is a commendable celebration of rhyme, rhythm, and music. Most importantly, it is pure fun.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Grab Bag Friday Movie Vault: Here Comes the Groom

It's been a rainy week here in Maine, and there's nothing like grey, drizzly days to put me in the mood for old movies. So here's a very special one from my movie vault for you.

When I was a kid, Frank Capra was the only movie director I knew by name. And I devoured his movies. I loved his dramatic stories of community, love, and decency triumphing over individual greed. I loved his screwball comedies. I loved the family dynamics and the big, teary-eyed finales. I remember inviting friends over in junior high to watch movies and being somewhat shocked that they had never heard of Meet John Doe or You Can't Take it With You. And I have to say, they were probably equally stunned (and dismayed) that I was suggesting we watch them!

But there is one little known Frank Capra comedy that has a special place in my heart. In Here Comes the Groom, Bing Crosby plays Pete Garvey, a journalist who adopts two orphans while on assignment in France. When he returns to the States, he has five days to win back his ex-fiancee Jane Wyman (who is now engaged to another man) or he will have to give up the children.

This movie can *still* make me laugh until my sides hurt. There's something about the combination of the slapstick comedy, the orphans, Bing Crosby's charm, Jane Wyman's endearing practicality, and the music (be prepared for a great Louis Armstrong appearance!) that is absolutely timeless. As far as I know, Here Comes the Groom can only be found now in a double-feature DVD set with "Just for You" (another Bing Crosby/Jane Wyman flick).

And here's a little secret for any Songwriting for Kids enthusiasts out there. You know how "We Always Leave 'em Singing?" Well, that little gem comes straight from this movie. You'll just have to watch it to find out!

Here's a clip of Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman singing In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jo Stafford: The Gentleman Is a Dope

Jo Stafford, one of the great singers of the big band era, died last week at age 90. She studied opera as a child, and had a brief stint singing with her sisters as "The Stafford Sisters." In the mid-1930's, she joined the popular vocal group, The Pied Pipers, and had the opportunity to sing with Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey's big band.

In her solo career, Jo Stafford was clearly a star. She had a pure, clear voice, and was an incredibly versatile singer, pulling off comedy numbers like Tim-tayshun, traditional American folk songs like Poor Wayfaring Stranger, and pop ballads like You Belong to Me. A video I posted last summer shows her holding her own with Ella Fitzgerald on St. Louis Blues.

Here's a video of Ms. Stafford in concert in the 1950's with her hit song, The Gentleman Is a Dope:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gary Schmidt: The Wednesday Wars

Well, I'm finally *back* from blog vacation. Well, sort of.

One of the books that I enjoyed quite a bit when I was away from my computer was Gary D. Schmidt's middle grade novel The Wednesday Wars. I was going to write you a nice little review about it, but since my husband already wrote one this morning that pretty much covers what I would have told you, I thought I'd just point you to his.

How about that? First day back, and already I'm passing the buck. :)

You can read K. M. Johnson's review of The Wednesday Wars over at Guys Lit Wire--a new blog about books for guys.

Guys Lit Wire is a great project and it's worth heading over there anyway to see what they're all about. So see? I'm not just passing the buck. I'm giving you more bang for your buck. Ok, I'm off now before the buck stops here. Ouch. That was sad. Really sad.