All entries filed under Teaching Artist

I had my first April gig today, part of a Chamber of Commerce Zoom conference. I was asked to lead a break-out session of music so I called it a hootenanny, a term that the corporate folks didn’t quite recognize when I brought it up. There ya go.

Fred from Working Dog Press hired me (he really is a wonderful supporter of me, Godfrey’s and the LV arts community at large) to work my magic and lead a sing-along. I appreciate his trust. These folks are community leaders working in various civic organizations, and this was an opportunity to bring my creative arts to them. I was among a chef, a golf instructor, a painter and a physical therapist.

I actually did something for this organization several years ago with a break-out songwriting session up at Zoellner Center, so I felt comfortable in working with these professionals.

I led off with Take Me Out to the Ball Game and followed with I Like Peanut Butter. I said that even if the sound was turned off on Zoom, I wanted to see them singing, the next best thing. I also wanted to see them move. I was able to sprinkle in my Pete Seeger observations about the power of singing together. I followed with My Girl, breaking the response into the three parts, and, again, insisting on Motown movements. It worked well.

I experimented with Skip To My Lou. I gave them a prompt early in the session to put a minor peeve about the pandemic. I linked my verses about insects (Ants in my pants are making me dance) and wanted to show how the song could be able for us the shake some negativity off from the past year and put it in the song. So I did some simple verses about missing family, coffee with friends and lack of hugs. It was fun.

I finished with Simple Gifts, stating that sometimes we just have to sing for ourselves. I share the lyrics on the screen and we sang it several times together, with the last verse on their own. As it turns out, it was a good song to finish the session. Time was up and we returned to the larger group.

I had planned on finishing with A Little Help From My Friends but ran out of time. I was able, though, to bring in up in my short recap. I think it really hit home for the larger group. “What would you say if I sang out of tune, would you get up and walk out on me?” I thanked the group for not getting up and walking out on me. The facilitator took that as a perfect way to bring the larger session to a close. Sometimes things just work out like that.

It was an intense half-hour session but I did my job well. Still, I’m a little rusty from the lay-off.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to get paid for my skills.

It’s been a long time since I’ve made a journal entry, basically because I haven’t had many gigs to talk about. There were a few farmers’ markets in the fall but no school gigs for a year. Finally, I had my first Zoom assemblies on Friday with a new school in Allentown – Anna May Hayes ES, a combination of two older inner city schools, including Cleveland ES, a school I’ve played for over 30 years. My friend John Christie taught there some 18 years ago and some of the teachers remember me from back then.

I was sponsored by Community in Schools, an umbrella organization for art/education for all the elementary Allentown schools. The process was long and tedious (and expensive) since this organization insists on background checks on several levels (even for Zoom). I rounded up my paperwork and sent it in, only to find out that they were all outdated. So, I embarked on my PA Child Abuse, FBI Criminal Record and fingerprinting (seems my prints go out f date, too.) So, I spent a bunch of money to keep the gig. So it goes these days.

I was part of a Rewards Friday program for the kids, all of whom are still at home, working on Zoom with their teachers. The school itself is now complete and sitting empty, apparently a beautiful building waiting to open. I was scheduled for two half-hour sessions, with 3 – 5 students and then K – 2 next. I must say that this has been hanging over my head for weeks and I was eager to get it done. I lose sleep over these things.

Green screen studio in kitchen

I did a lot of prep for this, having done quite a few Teaching Artists sessions over the last 10 months on Zoom technology and audience techniques. I finally got to use my green screen and external camera and that was fun. I also decided to use a video I worked up with John Christie on Giants and used it in the first session with the older kids. I decided not to use it for the second group; it seemed to distract from the “liveness” of the show. I’m sure some of the teachers in attendance would have enjoyed seeing their old comrade, but so it goes.

The green screen allowed me to change scenery for each song, something I figured would help retain eyes on the screen. I believe it served that purpose. I used peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Mars landscape, beach, assembly kids, a sine wave, etc. I had things in order so the transitions were fairly smooth.

I did I Like Peanut Butter, Tutti Tah, Cat Came Back, I Wanna Be a Dog, Giants (video), and Tropical Vacation. I emphasized movement and dance, as well as singing, and that proved really effective, even surprising several of the teachers unfamiliar with how I work.

Unfortunately, I was unable to watch the kids on the grid to watch and record their interactions. I was on the school’s Zoom account. I really wanted to be able to connect with individual students and also get some visual feedback from the show. I hope to learn from this for future Zooms.

Quotes from teachers:

“He has a love for music, children and entertaining and well… that just clicks.”

“Fun, making faces with the kids!”

“The children were dancing, smiling and engaged! Dave has a gift for connecting with children. You can’t ask for more in a performance. Highly recommended.”

I found myself physically and mentally exhausted afterwards and missed the closure of getting the $$ check afterwards. I was extremely glad to  complete the task that was weighing on me for months, and proud that it seemed to go well. It’s not the same, by any means, as performing for 500 kids in an auditorium, but rewarding unto itself.

I’ve been quite lucky to be part of this Teaching Artist movement over the last thirty years. Thanks to my involvement with Young Audiences of NJ and the CT Council on the Arts, I’ve been able to take in some great professional development courses and mini-sessions that have shaped what I do as an artist. I even came to recognize myself as a “artist”, beyond just a “musician”.

Often, we get to hear a keynote speaker that has changed system of thought. Eric Booth, author of the Teaching Artist “bible”, challenged me to take home some of what we learn and apply it to our own home town. Out of that, I began our own Teaching Artists of the Lehigh Valley and that has become a template for more local artist meet-ups.

One year, a photographer gave an opening speech called Three Sixty Five. He challenged himself to creating art every day for a year. He randomly selected the theme “Skull” for no apparent reason. But, he began a year-long project to find, create, share something with in that parameter, with the caveat that he had to post it online every day. He had to publish it, and that was a factor that made sure he stayed on course. Eventually, he formed a following of others who started sending him their images, even troops stationed in Afghanistan. What he found out that, not only did he have a book at the end of the period, he found himself to be a much stronger artist.

Thanks to the pandemic, I now have the rare opportunity to attempt such an extended work of art. Once I began to post a song a day online, it dawned on me that I could adopt his process to my music. So, hear I am, posting a song at 4:30 am or so, spending time in my kitchen recording tunes, learning new ones, revamping old songs from repertoires past and playing my guitar every day. I’m also finding that I’m extending my art into performance for the camera, design and production of the videos on my computer and working on promotion, too.

After six weeks, I already feel stronger as a player and performer and I’m finding friends enjoying waking up with one of my songs and a cup of coffee. That’s pretty cool.

But I’m not doing this just for the social value I get out of compliments and a number of daily hits (though I do get a warm feeling), I am doing this so I remain engaged as an artist and, therefore, continue to grow. I do believe it’s the publishing that makes this exercise so important. You can’t hide it under a bushel, as the song goes.

So, there ya go. A song a day. I think I can, I think I can……

As usual, we had another stimulating session at Godfrey’s with several short exercises.

Creating Monsters Exercise:

Bill Christine led a small one with three of us in the beginning, Creating Monsters. Folding an 8×11 paper into 4 sections, we each did a small doodle in the four spaces, passed them around several times and added more lines to create monsters. Bill then asked us to write answers to several questions, like what do you need to do, a line from a poem or song, a command from a king or queen and the like. We then put the lines into captions for the pictures. A great opportunity to collaborate and create.

The Home of the Brave

I’ve Got to Bathe the Hamster.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?


What’s Up Pussy Cat?

Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall exercise

I led the next one as some fellow TA’s arrived from a Bethlehem City Council meeting. I pulled out the lyrics to Dylan’s Hard Rain Gonna Fall, a fairly dark, apocalyptic song that has a raft of imagery in each line. I asked that we each pull one line that struck us and then put it in a four-line piece, not necessarily in rhyme.

We came up with some interesting work, and, as we discussed later, the images revealed something of how we work as artists. As always, the discussion was rich.

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest, black forest,

I’ll swim with the blue and the purple-backed shark,

I’ll float in the lightening and soar in the thunder,

I’ll waltz in the clefts left in the quake of my world.


The forest was hollow, the wind kept whippin’.

And no one was with me but three sullen ravens.

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,

On the bones of the judges so carefully shaven.


Kaleidoscope days flip by like playing cards,

Ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,

The time, it is gone before things really turn bard

But it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard not to love.


The sound of silence is quite deafening

We’re lost in the vast hollows of unspeakable rage,

I heard ten thousand whispering and nobody listening,

So how can I can I keep from singing?

Poetry Exercise: 

Jenny Gilrain then gave us a short Hilda Doolittle poem. At first, we got to “orchestrate” the rest of us, using the verbs at the beginning of each line – whirling, covering, etc. We then got to animate the poem through movement and then discuss our efforts. Great stuff and wonderful to see each of us acting it out.

Oread  by H. D.
Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.


At the end, we discussed the latest TAMA webinar session with Eric Booth on Advocacy. We decided that we’ve come up short in involving others into our sessions, as rich as they are. We need to spread these exercises to other TA’s, teachers, etc. We decided to move our next meeting to Touchstone Theater in order to involve, hopefully, their interns in this process.

I took some FB advice to play with the kids first and work on the song second since they have to play  and burn some energy after a day at school. The three girls Maryalice, Kilianys and Gabriella wanted to jump into the puppets in the bag but settled for the Thunder-tubes. The attendance is pitiful but I’m glad to work with these three girls. They want to have some fun.

Being close to Halloween, I decided we would use them to construct a short play based on walking past a haunted house. I establish Cat Came Back chords and away we went. On the porch of the house were 3 spiders, as big as a guitar. They were doing Fortnight with three dance moves: “T-snake, the Floss and the third one just said, “Taco, taco, taco!!!” I knocked on the door and I heard the Thunder-tubes. When I said, “Ice Cream” they all stopped. I knocked again and the three voices said, “Choc!  O! Lat!” and I said, “I scream for ice cream!” and we all ran away. We called it Spooky House.

It wasn’t particularly literary but the four of us came up with suggestions and the girls had a great time using their imaginations. I invest in their ideas and roll with them. That’s the point of it all.

It was time to start working on writing our song. I had done some homework and we decided to work on the horse-tender verse. This was pretty new for them, and I’m not sure how proficient their reading skills are, but we came up with two verses that have a storyline.

I love horses, I’ll be a horse-tender if I’m able.

I’ll work on the farm, down in the stable.

Put on a blanket and saddle and go for a ride.

Down the hill to the beach by the ocean-side,

Our horse splashes in the blue waves.

We could do this every day,

Back to the barn, I groom my friend’s hide

Wash, brush and dry, she’s my best pride.

Again, big holes to fix but that’s part of the process. We’ll have a chance next week to work on the arrangement and edit. The energy was pretty scattered in the second verse. They really wanted to play with the puppets, play my guitar. I figured we got some work in so I acquiesced.

The puppet play was scattered; they really wanted to run around the room. I tried to get their puppets to play an instrument to little avail. Thankfully, the girls take my suggestions and add their own wrinkles to the creativity and that’s what it’s all about, I guess.

We packed up the bag in time for dismissal and we all headed home at five. The time went quickly because we were involved and I appreciated that they got me out of a funk that I was in.

Next week, we’ll review our verses and try to work on Nurse or Vet.


Old school on 4th St.

I headed up to the new site of Holy Infancy School, now up South Mountain a half mile from home. What was a gargantuan school has been moved to a more modern building and it’s quite nice. Lots of windows and sun light. I lined up an acoustic set for the pre-k, K and 1st kids in the cafeteria at 8:45.

I’m having some communication problems with the new principal as I sat in the office for a half hour until one of the teachers came down looking for me while the kids were waiting upstairs. When I got up to the space, I unpacked and introduced myself to the kids. (I am long-time friends with the teachers, going back at least 12 years)

New school on Pierce St.

Since these were new kids for me, I launched into my standard set: I Like Peanut Butter, Tutti Tah, Down by the Bay, I Wanna Be a Dog, Giants and Magic Penny. The teachers allowed me lots of time (they said, “It’s a Monday.”) so I was able to do some in depth work.

We did Tutti Tah and then spent some time unpacking it by reversing the process. What came last, second to last, etc. It was tough but the older kids latched on and we worked it through. Down by the Bay involved creative rhyming with animals they came up with. Again, the older kids pick up on it. (Even though the little ones don’t know about these skills yet, it is a great model for them and an important exposure for them.)

As I do frequently in these small group sessions, at the end I asked the kids, “What did we do today?” We worked on recalling song names, etc. The important thing being reflection and conversation.

I then asked the three teachers what they liked: reverse-engineering, movement and rhyming skills. It’s good to hear from them, and good for the kids to hear, as well.

The principal dropped in for some of the later work and got to see some the “best practices” that I use. After the show, she thanked me for being part of the school curriculum and is going to install some “best practices” with the teachers shortly. I said I’d like to come back to this group monthly as well as do a Christmas time show for the whole school, like I’ve done in the past.

As we parted, I was surprised that she asked me if I felt okay. I said that I had some strong coffee this morning and apologized for being somewhat intense. But I said, it is intense work for me. I really don’t know how to be more mellow when I’m in the heat of these sessions. I am on stage, frankly, trying to figure out how to engage 40 young kids.

So it goes. Good work for no pay.

These Marvine afterschool sessions are tough. It’s been two weeks since the last one and found myself moved from music room to a class room (surprise!) and attendance is already down to three girls, two of whom are new. Such is the challenge.

The bright Maryalice (one word….) returned with Jaidale and Kilianys joining in. My cultural shortcomings are up front when I am confronted with these new names. I have to ask them to spell it out and struggle when I talk to them. No boys this time, and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps we’ll get some focus today. No Gabriella, Melina or Leeanne.

Kilianys started out pretty shy so I made sure that she was encouraged to add to the conversation, and, thankfully, she came out of her shell and felt good about participating. Mission accomplished.

Since I have to work on the theme of “What I’m going to be”, I took advantage of a quiet time in the beginning (instead of immediately playing music), each girl listed two possibilities including nurse, horse rider (equestrian – we’ll work on that term later), teacher, Spanish teacher, veterinarian. Nice possibilities. I also told them I was a postal worker, a cook, a dishwasher and worked construction.

We worked on what a nurse does (K’s mom is one): take care of kids, grandpa and grandma, put a broken arm in a sling,  sew up a cut with needle and a big band-aid, give flu shots, check your heart and blood pressure, push your grandma in a wheelchair. This will give us a base to work from, though it seems I’ll have provide quite a bit of set up. There’s very little focus with a small group, an afterschool situation and no teacher support. I’m still a babysitter, too.

We picked up on horse tender next. We talked about where: farm, barn and new word, stables. The work involved putting on a saddle, new word “reins”, feed the horses hay (?) and carrots, have babies (new word “foal”), brush and clean the horses. A start. Semi-urban school with no rural experiences, it seems.

Veterinarian: a doctor who cares for pets, dogs, rabbits, cats, kittens, puppies, kangaroos (?!), pandas and cheetah (baby). I accept all input and I can often use the quirks in the song for spice.

It seems we got some good head-work in early. So I shifted to some play. I opened up the bag and decided to do Giant with the thundertubes and they immediately came up with a new sound, as a vocal chamber. So we also worked up marching in a circle to the beat, playing the tubes, vocalizing, freezing when the music stops, marching in the other direction. We were simply going with the flow. By now, all three girls were involved, coming up with new ideas. I did have the thought that if an educator was walking the halls at the moment, and happened to listen in, he/she would be aghast. But this is how I work. It’s about the creative process.

The girls were champing at the bit to play with the puppets, so, for the last ten minutes, we did Old MacDonald. The trick, at this level, is to get the child to animate the puppet’s mouth with the singing. This was new to them (2nd/3rd graders) but they easily picked up on it after some work. I’m not sure that culturally they’ve had the chance to do this at home. Just a thought, referring to my early childhood as a reference, I remember using my hand as a vocal puppet (Ninger was his name) with my sisters.

It was a particularly rainy and grey day, I was a little depressed coming in and the session was intense so I left a little dazed. But, it’s work like this that makes the time worthwhile. It remains important to keep this journal for reflection and a record for where I have to go for the next session.

This remains one of my favorite gigs of the summer. Camp Happiness is a special needs camp, kids with behavioral as opposed to physical issues, so, they seem to me to be fairly functional and fun-loving kids. So that’s how I roll.

I’ve been doing this camp for over 10 years and the campers, staff and counselors have their favorites that they know and actively use during the camps. When I came in the doors of the school today, I was greeted with shouts of “Hey, Dave Fry”, “There’s Dave Fry!” etc. and, since I had my shades on, I looked the part for once. This, of course, never happens anywhere else so I smiled to myself. Cool. Even the counselors were glad to see me and made me feel really welcome.

I had left 4th St. at 5 am, partly because I’m waking up early these days, and I never know what morning traffic I might hit. Today was a breeze getting there so I had time to meditate  before I headed to the school.

I set up in the wonderfully air-conditioned auditorium and the kids and staff sat on the rug area in front of me. Lots of familiar faces. I thanked them for having me back and told them off the bat that this was one of favorite gigs, that their counselors are the best I’ve seen and that this gig gives me the chance to try new things that can use at schools and festivals later on.

I started with I Like Peanut Butter but did it a cappela with four girls and four boys up with me with matching red shades. It was a good way to start, singing as a group, no guitar, movement and solos by the kids. I also did Avner’s crowd sound direction with three separate sections. It was another good way to work the crowd away from the microphone, in the space.

Then, I picked up the guitar ten minutes in, with Cat Came Back, a song that is a camp favorite. We worked on paw movements, singing like a cat, the counselors doing opera and the kids doing rock. The kids really surprised me with that one; I definitely heard some punk vocals during that. It was a riot and unexpected. When I gamble, I’m rarely disappointed.

Bear Hunt is another one that they love. This time, as I was headed for the finish, one of the counselors slipped on a bear mask and ‘hid’ behind my PA speaker. When we hit the end, the woman jumped out as the bear to everyone’s delight. They were prepared for me, and it was delightful.

Giant was next and one male counselor had asked for it before the gig so I got him and two campers to come up and play Thunder Tube. Again, these counselors commit to having fun along with their kids and it makes all the difference. Big fun.

I had success with Jimalong Josie this week at Summer Slide so I’ve substituted it for my other dance pieces All Around the Kitchen and Keep A’Knockin’. I passed out the bag of instruments and my scarves and the counselors helped distribute everything, so things were not as chaotic as I had expected. I did some of my scarf exploration with them, and got everyone up to dance. Jimalong affords me the opportunity to guide the kids with hopping, twisting, twirling, etc. and then with the current dances (Floss, Hype, etc.). Since the camp is divided into groups (Tigers, Hurricanes, Dolphins, Monkeys, etc.) I then had the kids make up dances for each tribe. The whole place was rocking with kids, staff and counselors shakin’ that thang.

I decided to do a reflection at the end, and the kids came up with singing, dancing, wearing shades, etc. and then I opened it up to the counselors. That kind of took them by surprise, but I said that there were things I did that they can use. They came up with the surprise bear, Avner’s applause conductor, the movement and dance, having fun (no small thing), singing all together, etc. This discussion also gives me a chance to explain what I do and what I get out of it personally, in the moment.  Maureen, the head of the camp, who has booked me these many times over the years, said she liked everything.

As I packed up, I got one of the groups to put things back in the bag, and this also works well as a way to interact in close quarters with the kids, exchange small talk. I’m not just some performer up on the stage.

As I headed out, one of the counselors thanked me and told me I was great. That was totally unexpected coming from college-age counselor, and helped me realize that these folks understand what I’m trying to do with the kids, and have a great time along with the campers. That’s no small thing either.

The drive back was a bitch. Traffic on I-95 was thick and every twenty minutes featured a torrential downpour all the way home. But I had my tunes and leftist podcasts and a general high from my annual visit to Camp Happiness. Funny thing about that.

It was the first day of summer school in Allentown and, amazingly, I was approached by three different schools to play for the kids. These are all schools I played for last year, as part of a district-wide tour, so it was nice to have these folks reconnect with me this year.

The first session was at 10 am at Jefferson and it was for about thirty kids, K – 5th grade. The second school was at 12:15 at Jackson for the incoming K’s and the third was at Ritter for the general K – 5th graders. Each group had it’s peculiarities with the K – 5’s spanning the little kids with the ‘mature’ kids, so I had to gauge the material appropriately. The K’s were pretty homogeneous, so that was a bit easier. Those kids still lacked some social skills, this being their first day in a school situation. There were some runners, some kids uncomfortable but, all in all, they were a great group to play for.

Each session ended with my conversation of “what happened”, my way of trying to get the kids to reflect on the songs, the singing, the dancing, the playing of instruments, so that there would be some retention. At the last one at Ritter, I followed up with asking the teachers what happened, to let the kids hear what the adults observed. There were some great comments: We had fun, we could get silly, we played as a group….. It was nice to hear that those things are important, especially with so much “seriousness” in our community.

I am glad that I got to be part of their first day at summer school, create a little community for the kids and teachers right off the bat and establish some connections that might last for the next few weeks.

It was a long but productive day.

This has always been a good gig – the summer Kids’ Camp at Allentown’s Jewish Community Center.  The preschool kids are always bright and there is a good amount of engaged teachers, too.

This session brought in the entire daycare, with infants, toddlers and young, active preschoolers. It made for an interesting audience, and though I play to the preschoolers, I love to see the reactions of the younger children, especially when I witness their engagement at any level.

Before the main core of kids came in, the infants came in, in strollers with their caregivers. I went over to play guitar and sing for them and the reactions were wonderful. The teachers got out their Ipads and recorded some of the rapt attention and one child clapping her hands and feet to All God’s Critters. It was a shear delight for us all.

As the kids gathered for our set, the older kids sat on the gym floor in front of me while the toddlers sat on mats around that area. The energy of the teachers adds a whole lot to the situation, as they help guide the younger kids with hand-motions, singing, etc. since the kids have little idea of what’s going on. It also gives me a chance to play to the adults, as well. During Bear Hunt, two young girls were laughing and rolling on their backs when I did the “what’s that?” I said an aside to the teachers, “That’s what the girls used to do when I played in bars.” Part of my success is the attention to the adults in the audience. Not necessarily planned but instinctive.

The 45 minutes went quickly and I had them up dancing with puppets, instruments, etc. when I noticed the attention of the toddlers start to wander. At the end, we talked about what we did, and the older kids were surprisingly in tune. It was a great session and appreciated by the teachers and the JCC administrators. I was back on the road by 10:30 in the morning.

Tuesday was the first installment of this summer slide program at Fountain Hill and Marvine schools. Both sites have kids from several other schools so it is a polyglot of kids. The Marvine set at 9:30 had about 25 kids, some of whom I’ve worked with at Marvine last fall. It was interesting to see how some of them jumped in right away, comfortable with me, but also how one boy still had the issues that made him a real challenge before. That was a disappointment.

Marvine ES

I hit Marvine at 9:30 and immediately head to Fountain Hill for a 10:45 session. The time does go by quickly.

The effort with this session is to partner with the teachers more intentionally. I was able to meet ahead of time to explain what I want to do, involve them in the process and have them work with the kids while I’m not meeting with them. I gave the teachers a thumb drive of some of my songs to use (now that CDs are no longer a useful tool in the classroom). I asked them to work on Down By the Bay rhyming exercises, using Tutti Tah as a class warm-up and to see if kids can memorize the moves and perhaps find classroom leaders for it.

We worked on reverse-memory of the Tutti Tah moves, to think backwards and see if that helps retention. It was a good way to see who is engaged and who comes out of their shells. I got lots of feedback.

We did Bear Hunt and I hope to have the kids come up with new situations, sounds and movements. Marvine came up with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and asked if the teachers could research his Moonwalk as a dance move. We played around with that for awhile. I made a point to take time at the end to reflect with the kids about what we had done. I should have asked the teachers to comment about what they liked. We have scheduled artist/teachers chats as we move through the month.

Fountain Hill ES

It’s important that the main idea for these sessions is to have fun so that the kids want to come to summer school for more. One teacher said that I was her favorite part of the sessions. We do have to prepare for a final “show” at the end of July so that the parents can see the energy and for us to document our efforts so that we can maintain and grow our funding sources (United Way is our benefactor for this series).

I’m off until two weeks from today. We’ll see what the kids retained when I return.

These events are always energizing, surrounded by fellow Teaching Artists in the spectacular Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. We were in the education center, separate from the main grounds, but there were some nice, large installations in the building. Still inspiring.

Great art on the wall of the meeting room.



The topic is  Reaching All Children: How Your Teaching Artist Practice Can Embrace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. These are the new, hot-button issues for teaching artists, and how we have unique opportunities to model our skills for teachers and school staff. We are learning to recognize how some kids are challenged by our own biases as well as systemic biases that we all have: race, gender, class, etc. There is some good research going on that I won’t go into here.

We have to create welcoming environments, be able to check in with students, get their feedback, and hold ourselves accountable for our actions and reactions. We did looked at case studies on how we might react to various situations: gender bias, stereotypical humor, others. Enlightening, to say the least. Lots of concept wrestling.

We also did several group exercises to get the blood going in the beginning, after lunch, and at the end. As the day finishes, we all come away energized and sharing a nice communal glow. It’s particularly nice when we meet colleagues from past seminars, trade stories and genuinely care for each other. The new TA’s also get a sense that they are in the right place, with folk who have experience in these studies.

There was a peacock patrolling the grounds outside the meeting room, giving us all a glimpse of the exotic. Nice touch.

Even though the TALV meets only every other month, I relish our get-togethers. It’s a group of fellow visual artists, poets, musicians, etc. who share our trade in the arts-education field. And we are good friends.

We start out with a check-in as we share what we’re doing in our community. The projects range pretty far afield but we get to say what works and what doesn’t work. We are doing some mighty fine work, though.

Each meeting, a particular artist leads the group in exploring something from their specialty. Tonight was poet Marilyn Hazelton, a poet that works with tanka, a Japanese form of poetry that is actually older than haiku. She started us out with the five stages of creativity.

  1. First Insight – the beginning
  2. Saturation – gathering information and ideas
  3. Incubation -letting go
  4. Illumination – ah ha moment
  5. Verification – checking

Marilyn also introduced the concept of ma, the space and time around an idea, similar to the silence before and after a musical note. Miles Davis said that the silence is as important as the note itself. It’s like taking a breath before and after an idea, and that negative space helps reinforce the moment itself. We split into teams and acted out each of the first four stages, and the physicality of doing that helps define the term. Besides, we love to watch each other perform.

We then took apart some tanka/haiku poems, taking note of using pauses in the reading, how the pause can strengthen the poem and even change the meaning of the poem. Often the middle phrase can be a pivot point, referring to both the first and the third lines at the same time. Quite fascinating.

the ball sky-high

as the crack of the bat

reaches the outfield.


Tossing a stone

into the dark well, I am

suddenly five years old

…..waiting to hear from

the other side of the world


We then formed duos to physically interpret the poems and present them to the group. These exercises are amazingly creative, and, again, great fun to watch as well as think through.

The final part of the workshop is deconstructing what we did, what we learned from the experience and how we can apply it to our own work. Marilyn (as with each presenter) also gains some great tools in how to do the workshop in other situations. We are especially good at taking creative leaps and coming up with some rather intelligent presentations.

That’s the takeaway from all these sessions. We are good friends and are willing to take artistic chances, exercising our artistic muscles. We come away intoxicated by the experience.


It’s a rare day to have two separate school gigs in a day. I was booked for a small parochial school in Wayne, NJ for an 11:30 set with 160 K – 8th graders, a very tough spectrum of ages and abilities but I’ve done this before in other catholic schools.

As I arrived, I set up in the echoey gym while a funeral was going on in the sanctuary in the next room. The kids came in with a unique set of kids up front, apparently the sponsors of my visit. I was instructed to feature these kids during the show – not my natural way of performing. It seemed odd.

The 8th grade girls were having a good time while the 8th grade boys tried to pull up their sweaters over their mouths. I did try to nudge them and eventually kind of warmed them up.

It was a tougher gig than I thought. The kids were noisier than most catholic schools and certainly less focused. I did my Peanut Butter routine with the kids listening for the echo of the room (and there was a mighty echo), but they never quite got the concept of hitting the ‘wooo’ and listening for the echo. There was always some chatter or late woo so the kids never got the rich payoff experience.

There were several times that I tried to encourage some spontaneity from the teachers or kids, but there seemed to be a relatively dry lack of creative energy. That could be a function of this particular school.

In fact, at the end, I was asked to get a picture of me and my ‘benefactors’ and tried to get them to do a super star for the camera. most of the kids did nothing and, in fact, a teacher taking the photo asked them to be serious for the shot. That spoke volumes about the control factor I was experiencing.

The principal said thanks and said everyone enjoyed it. It still seemed to be not quite what it could have been. I’m thankful for the gig, and I’m sure most of the kids and teachers had a great time.

We circled up for a chat with Reggie, Sally, David (in the King David Room) and Jennie with some other like-minded family folk people. Great discussions about what we do, how we do it, working in classrooms, assembly vs. classroom presentations, and, in general, a spritely discussion of where we all are in this arena.

Interestingly enough, there were absolutely no millenials around to (wishful thinking) absorb this opportunity to form a long-form guide to a financially productive means to making a living as a folk artist.

I chatted with one fellow from CA who shared my “method over message” approach to kids music, stressing it’s how we do what we do that makes a difference over what the song says. It’s a real dichotomy that is never addressed at these sessions.

There was lots of info passed around, and most folks got their say. Sally finished out the session with her Seed song. Point on.

I met some new folks and made some new friends. Passed out CDs to spread the music. That’s what it’s all about.

Next, take in the day.

I hit the road at 5 am, crack o’ dawn this morning to head up to NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance) in Stamford, CT at a Marriott hotel. Clear skies, not to bad traffic for a Friday morning and got to the hotel around 7:30. I did some meditation in the parking garage (how Zen is that?) as the construction guys started sandblasting a flight above me. I walked into a relatively empty hotel lobby, with no open registration until 9 and sound check around then, so I found a couch in a corner, unpacked my guitar and played some tunes to an ’empty’ atrium. Nice acoustics, to say the least. As I was playing Giants to myself, a woman drifted over with her coffee and sat down, my first unintended audience of the day, and said, “That sounds a lot like Stan Rogers’ Witch of the Westmoreland. (This could only happen at a folk music conference.) I said that it was a Stan song, and as she listened, I said it was my morning meditations on guitar to got to get my ears and brain on the ground before the rest of the millenials woke up. It centered me for the day.

My gig for the day was a kids’ music showcase and  following panel discussion about this music. I linked up with Reggie Harris (thanked him for his rather amazing spot as a leading black folk performer in our field… he’s the best) and met Sally Rogers and David and Jennie from Two of a Kind. This workshop is a kind of ‘sacrificial opening act’ for the conference and a small nod to us folkies who seed the future with our kids’ music. (A tip to Sally’s seed song that finished out our workshop discussion.)  That’s okay by me and gives me an opportunity to be here.

We cleared the space for the 50 some 3rd grade kids coming from a local school, set up the sound system, shared knowing jokes about what we do and got the call that the bus had pulled in. Bring it on.

David and Jennie welcomed the kids, teachers and a few curious conferencees and the sound guy with their Tree Hugger song and then introduced Reggie. His presentation is highly refined, intelligent, engaging and a bunch of other superlative adjectives. He know what he’s doing. He had the kids singing, clapping and I got to take note of all the subtle things he does to teach, share and maintain control in a positive manner. A master, though he went too long for the situation, but…. I quite understand.

These kids were great and were a perfect audience for us. They were kids that were going to sing that afternoon at their school, so they were musically hip, to begin with, and Reggie’s set proved that. I knew this was going to be good.

I jumped up on stage, knowing I had to be crisp with my 15 minutes, posited my Pete Seeger “ears, lips and hips = community” jive and launched into Tutti Tah. It immediately shook the house. During the tune, I often save space to call out the teachers if they aren’t up, and I did. Bang. It’s a powerful, yet subtle moment, but I got great feedback on that moment from several of the folkie folks later on. I now had their attention.

I decided to do one sing-along and, of course, did The Cat Came Back. Again, getting the teachers to sing one of the verses by themselves, and mentioning community is a conscientious move that makes a difference. The song had a bunch of fine moments, as always, on several levels.

I took a chance with my last tune and went for All Around the Kitchen to get them up and moving. I’ve also found that kids are more dance-oriented these days with The Floss, Orange Justice, etc. and felt that this could be a good and concise closer (perhaps). It worked great but bordered on being a tad too long, so I got the nod from Jennie and closed it up with six or so kids who had drifted up on stage. “Embrace the Chaos”, sez I. A good and fairly tight set. As I walked off the stage, the sound man thought it was great, and that’s really who I’m trying to impress.

David and Jennie mercifully covered for us all by doing their wonderful fireworks applause and introduced Sally Rogers, a consummate pro and children’s songwriter. She did a dulcimer song, got everyone singing, picked up her guitar and sand another superlative world song. Her songs are truly amazing vehicles for societal change and a welcome change from my chaotic approach.

Reggie, David and Jennie, Sally and I came up for This Little Light of Mine, and Reggie did his great job of leading everyone in singing along.  It was a pleasure to look out on this gathering of kids, teachers, folk music lovers and a sound guy filling up a conference room with music.

I high-fived the kids as they headed out, chatted with a few folks and started setting up the room for the following discussion/workshop.

A great start to the day.

Next, the discussion/workshop.


It’s been a while since I’ve been able to showcase my solo show for Young Audiences and prospective PTA’s. I was glad to be part of this PA showcase and I was slated for the 9:30 opening set for the day. I get to do 15 minutes and then make way for the other YANJ acts.

I got there in time, inspite of brutal traffic around Norristown. As I set up, I was able to get some updated publicity photos for my spot in the new catalogue. Having been part of YANJ for many years, I have come to know many of the staff and appreciate all that they do to introduce and promote us to assembly buyers.

Today, there was only about ten ladies in the audience as I started out, but I had a good audience of first, second and third graders and their teachers. My people! I started out with I Like Peanut Butter and immediately broke a string. I could see a wince from Seth, the artist representative – he knew – but I plowed on, knowing that I can follow with some guitarless material.

I followed with The Tutti Tah, getting the kids up and moving. It was a riot and created some great energy. I picked up my 5-string Martin and did The Cat Came Back, again making space for the kids voices to be featured. All in all, it was a crisp 15 minute set, the kids were charged, as were the teachers.

I brought along my CDs and made them available to the PTA moms and the school’s teachers, many of whom were delighted to get a copy.

I stuck around to see some of my fellow arts-ed performers, including a Native American storyteller, an African drum and dance group, a salsa and samba trio, an actor who did a piece on his being born with a deformed hand, and a hip hop dance troupe – all quite remarkable performers. I rarely get the chance to see the other acts on this roster, but have come to know them at various YANJ artist conferences. We are all doing some mighty work.

There used to be many PTA folks at these showcases but things have really changed since the recession of 2008.

And, who knows if this showcase translates into work for me.

Young Audiences of NJ and Eastern PA had a teaching artists gathering on Thursday at a corporate site outside of Princeton. These are always energizing in many ways. It’s good to meet some of the new artists on the roster and get to see what they can do and it’s good to reconnect with some of the familiar faces again.

Young Audiences is making a concerted effort train the artists in some pretty heavy philosophy of some cultural shifts in arts education, especially with Diversity, Equity and Identity. We need to have our antennas up so that we can reach each and every child in our audiences. Thus, DEI has become an intentional aim for the group at large and is taken very seriously. We are at the beginning of this process and the YANJ is looking for our input.

The concept of creating safe spaces for kids, engaging the kids and encouraging their voices in what we do. It’s also important not to have a “saviour complex” thinking that we have all the answers as artists.

The discussions were great and the mini-workshops were fun, as well.

 I ran into Rand Whipple, a movement artist from Bloomsburg, PA. He toured Mexico with Touchstone back in the early 80’s and I don’t think I had seen him since. A great surprise.

As always, I drove away energized and inspired by the people in this field.

I was honored to be part of the pilot project for a regional Teaching Artist Retreat on Monday and Tuesday. It was held at a resort in Boiling Springs in central PA, where the corn is twelve feet tall this August. Sponsored by the arts councils of VA, MD, WV, DE, PA and NJ, and thanks to my relation with Young Audiences of NJ and Eastern PA, I was one of 6 NJ campers chosen to attend, in spite of the fact I’m from Pennsylvania.

Driving through another torrential downpour, I got there before noon on Monday, just in time for lunch and a keynote from Gina Lyles, an arts advocate for juvenile justice and incarceration issues. There were several discussions involving teaching artists and underserved communities throughout the retreat. Good stuff.

I ran into a few familiar faces, performers and fellow TAs that I knew from Godfrey’s and the folk scene: Sue Trainor from Hot Soup and Crabmeat Thompson, a kids’ performer from Delaware. I love the surprises at these meetings.

We broke out into sessions: Marketing, Residency Planning, Entrepreneurial Skills and Advocacy. I took in the Entrepreneurial one led by two black women (Purple and Wincey) who have developed interesting lives in arts advocacy and making a living doing it.

The second session I went to was for a new group Teaching Artists of the Mid-Atlantic (TAMA) led by my friend Sue. It’s a new regional organization trying to connect the TAs with each other. I hope to share my experiences developing our local TALV group with them.

The final session were pop-up labs for some personal creative time doing poetry, dance, painting, and drumming. I went to the drum circle led by Philly percussionist Joe Tayoun on Doumbek. He was pretty intense but very good in leading a group of mostly amateurs. It was fun and a necessary part of any gathering of artists.

I checked into my room overlooking a daunting cornfield, and headed to the main hall for dinner with my NJ clan. The food was expensive but the company was good, including three women potters, including a woman in her 80’s who was a hoot. Good connections and conversation.

There was a ‘milk and cookies’ reception following dinner on the outdoor patio, so I headed to down there with my guitar slung on my back. It was early on so I unpacked my guitar, sat on the stone wall and started to play. One theater movement lady (familiar with our own Touchstone Theatre!) from WV sat down to listen to Here Comes the Sun. Another graphic artist got out some spoons to play along with another tune, and then Joe the Drummer came by with eight drums and some percussion instruments. Things took off from there and we created a cool center of energy that enabled others who got to mix, meet and chat on the patio. The drummer took over (no surprise) and a bunch of the women started some quite tribal dancing. That’s when I headed for the cookies. But I was glad that I found a good way to introduce myself to everyone, create some music and energy for the event. I headed for my room for the night.

The Tuesday session started with breakfast and open discussion around the ole Jersey table, followed by a plenary panel on “The Profound Possibilities of Arts Learning” dealing with arts in underserved communities. The four participants had some great stories of their work with aging, incarceration, military and special needs families. It was really impressive to hear how TAs can affect positive change in these communities. The four breakout sessions were led by each panelist. I went to the aging discussion, lead by a theater manager from Elkins, WV. She had some great insights on working with folks in old folks homes, developing a crew of high school theater kids and doing the hard but personally refreshing work for the elderly.

We gather again for a closing plenary for some reflection and sharing of what we had gathered, with some remarkably varied responses. My quote was “Embrace the Chaos.”

We then gathered into groups of ten out on the lawn and did a closing activity. We had a skein of yarn that started with one artist sharing what they took away, then tossed the yarn ball to another and that artist did the same. By the end we had built a web that was unique. I suggested each dip their point around another string in the middle, ala a Cat’s Cradle and the web took on a wonderfully strange and beautiful shape.

I said adieu to many of my fellow TAs, gave out CDs and download cards of Troubadour as parting gifts, and hopped in my car for the two hour drive back to the Lehigh Valley. As usual, I prefered to drive back in silence, pondering the experience, negotiating another torrential rain storm and feeding off the energy that these retreats give to me.

I am a lucky man.


An interesting day as I wrapped up my 12 Allentown schools for the summer with a 9 am set for the Dodd ES kids and a 10:30 set at Jefferson ES.

The Dodd show was in a small gym with an incredible echo and I used that to center the kids on the first song I Like Peanut Butter. It was a creative bunch of kids, for the most part but the several kids were pulled out at a time (testing?) over the set so those kids had to reset when they came back. They came up with a good Bear Hunt (Chucky Cheese – yelling and screaming – (hmmm, “pizza!”, munch, gulp!) verse and the All Around the Kitchen was again a great vehicle to finish out the show.

There was a telling situation during the session. The teachers were rather chatty off to the side while I was playing. I noticed that the kids and myself were distracted a little, so I asked the teachers to be quiet. They settled in, but, as I looked over shortly thereafter, I noticed they all had dived into their cell phones. Nuts. Not involved with the process.

I headed over to Jefferson ES, a more inner city school and there were more teachers and they remained a part of the action. Again, these kids were engaged and responsive. I noticed several young ones were not as involved as I would like, but during the show, they had moments of participation which I celebrated with the teachers.

As I found out later, some of these kids were pre-K kids, heading into their first year of school in September. The teacher was pleased that the kids were getting this experience as an initiation to learning how to listen, follow instructions and have some fun, too. That was a valuable reflection for me.

The Bear Hunt was fun: The Pool – wet and slippery – (swim “splash”, go underwater “blub, blub”, “dinosaur in the pool!” splash, splash). One young lad had been insistent on adding “dinosaur” to anything I was doing so this was a great time to add a dinosaur to the proceedings. It was a nice nod to his creativity and the other kids loved it.

This was one of the better sessions I’ve done, thanks to the kids and teachers. I told them so.

The whole series was a chance for me to work on some techniques – especially with  recurring themes (Bear Hunt, All Around the Kitchen), the opportunity to pass these songs around the larger school district community (the teachers loved this idea) and the reflection time at the end of each show – a chance to have the kids take time to think about what we did. That’s really important – something I do with these blogs. It’s how we re enforce what we do as learning, creative beings.