This weekend at a retreat, I’m conducting a workshop that invites participants to listen to various songs and then spontaneously write using the music as the only prompt. This muse always inspires creative results in a range of emotions from melancholy to stand-up-and-holler joyful.
I’ve used this technique to teach adults and school children. In my collection of vintage books, I have a copy of a children’s book from 1886 titled Please Tell Me A Tale. One story, “Under the Maypole”, has the following lines:
This Mayday morning they will plant the Maypole on the green,
And hang it round with cowslip wreaths and blue bells set between;
With starry thorn, with knotted fern, with chestnut blossoms tall,
And Phil, the bailiff’s son, will bring red roses from the Hall.”
Can’t you just imagine little Phil proudly bringing the roses? The book doesn’t have any illustrations, but children still love to listen to the lyrical stories and imagine the scenes.
I use this example in my writing class for local fourth grade students. Then I follow with an excerpt from a current bestselling children’s book, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. In this particular version, the children rearrange letters on a sign to read:
Please Don’t Fart in a Diaper.”
Laughter ensues, but it causes me to doubt the evolution of children’s literature over the last 125 years.
To inspire the students to write, I play a variety of musical selections. We begin with “No Blue Thing” by Ray Lunch. I instruct the children to close their eyes, listen to the music, and then write anything that the music inspires. The responses always are delightful.
“I’m running through the tall grass through a cloud of butterflies,” is a typical comment.
Then I play “Circle of Life” from the Lion King Soundtrack. Their expressions change as their imaginations play with the music. We then discuss how the music prompted images and thoughts. They are instructed to write what they envision.
For the remainder of the class, I play a variety of other songs, but I always end with the same two selections. “Adagio for Strings” by Samual Barber typically elicits strong emotions, even among the teachers. Once at Garfield Elementary, after the song a shy, little boy in the back of the room timidly raised his hand. “I see blue tears flowing down my wall,” he said. “Write about that,” was my response. He seemed pleased.
The session ends with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Often, most of the students will sit taller and smile wider as they listen with their eyes closed. The song prompts comments such as, “I fought the dragon, and I won!”
The class can be used for early grades, too. Even if children can’t yet write, they can talk. Many tell how the song helped them to remember happy or sad times. I’ve discovered that even though these children have less than 10 years of life, they have stories. Their responses are unfiltered and honest.
My classes lasts an hour, and I enjoy volunteering my time with the students. It’s my goal that they will use quality music (with an emphasis on quality) to inspire the muse within them. I want to challenge young people to temporarily laugh about Professor Poopypants but to wonder and write about characters as rich and provocative as Phil, the bailiff’s son. No batteries required.