Making Music

by Barbara Burt

“Can You Turn a Poem into a Song?” is the title of an article I just ran across. “How hard could it be for a poet and fiction writer to turn a poem into a love song?” asks the article’s author, Desiree Cooper. She concludes that it’s “Pretty hard.”

Some of us in the TLA Network might beg to differ. The fact is, even if you don’t read notes, play scales, know chords or fingerings, you have the capacity to make music. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

We are all born with music in us; whenever we sing or play music, we unleash that expressive engine. A number of ways to make music are represented in workshops offered at this month’s TLA Power of Words Conference. Here’s a sampling:

Songwriting: The Inspiration and Acrobatics of Language — Martin Swinger shares insights and processes that lead to the creation of his quirky, one-of-a-kind songs which gain national recognition and awards for their originality. Part concert, part discussion, part hands-on exploration of language, inspiration, songwriters ‘filters’ and the prosody which makes songs SING! No songwriting experience necessary.

Soul Song for Centering: An Experiment in Creating Sacred Song — Using your name as a foundation for exploration, you will be guided to create your own personal Soul Song to sing or chant whenever you want to connect with and feel the beauty of your Soul. You will create your own meaning and intention for your Soul Song and will be gently guided to find your inner melody. Whether you’re shy or comfortable using your voice to sing, we will create a safe environment for you to find your Soul Song for Centering. No singing or musical experience needed. Bring notebook, ear buds or plugs (if you have them), and an open mind and heart. Led by Tonia Pinheiro.

Sound Puzzles, Rounds, and the Meaning of Life According to the Woodthrush — This interactive presentation showcases the culmination of one woman’s modest experiment in responding to birdsong as a unique portal to re-inhabiting her own singing voice.  Interspersed with narratives from her story, “I Shall Go Singing,” spoken against a recorded backdrop of original vocal sketches, Deb Hensley’s presentation offers listeners live performances of original songs, rounds, and sound puzzles inspired by birdsong. Audience members will be invited to learn a few of these lyrical, whimsical, and sometimes quirky “why” rounds. Deb’s story offers insight into how deep attention to sound and song in the natural world promotes access to one’s own ancestral, spontaneous, innate, and amazing natural voice, as well as a deeper understanding of ecological literacy, place, and identity.

Note that none of these workshops requires previous experience with songwriting or musical training. Yet, by the end of the workshop, some wonderful and unique musical compositions are sure to have been created. I plan to record some examples of this music-making as I attend the conference; watch for videos on upcoming blog posts.

Writing in concert

by Barbara Burt

I have been leading a writing workshop at my local community center. While I enjoy hearing the writing that the four members have worked on over the past week and are eager to share, I think the most fruitful part of the workshop is the prompted writing during the workshop. Often the prompt is met with moans: “I hate these introspective exercises.” “I can’t think of anything…” But invariably, within a minute or two, everyone is writing away, engrossed in their response to the question that may have made them feel a bit uncomfortable at first (although that’s not my aim).

When the time comes to share the prompted writing, at least one or two people find that there is the germ of a story to follow up on, planted in that day’s scribbling. To me, there is definite music in the quiet sound of all that thinking and writing that reminds me of playing chamber music. We are aware of each other, listening, but also intent on our own part. It happens that the music of our own writing is more meaningful, somehow, residing in the harmony of our group endeavor, whether we share it or not.

I wrote this during the most recent workshop:

Writing in Concert

We sit in folding chairs
and set our elbows on the plastic tabletop.
Its bumpy surface doesn’t slow us.
The mah-jongg game in the next room
erupts in loud laughter.
Still, we are not deterred.

Pens scratch.
Hands swish across smooth sheets,
pages are turned, paper rattles.
We hold our breath
or sigh.                                                                                                                                         Sip coffee.
Or rest our foreheads in our hands,
eyes closed, thinking.

There is companionship in writing alone
Our thoughts are secret
but our output obvious.
We start together with the same prompt
then wander separate paths,
secure in the knowledge that
each step is worthy of its effort
and will be celebrated.

Celebrated, whether spoken or
Celebrated by our fellow writers
in the chamber music of creation.

Greetings from Maine, site of the 2017 Power of Words Conference

As one your new editors of the TLA Network blog, I am looking forward to reading your submissions and engaging in the conversation about the importance of Transformative Language Arts to each of us, as well as the importance of our TLA practice to the community around us. I am fairly new to the field, although I have been telling stories through writing for my entire life. As the title of this post says, I write from Maine, which means I’ll be excited to attend the Power of Words Conference in Maine this summer, where I hope I’ll meet many of you in person.

The conference, officially called the 14th Power of Words Conference: Transformation, Liberation, and Celebration Through the Spoken, Written, and Sung Word, takes place from August 18 – 20th at Ferry Beach in Saco. As a Mainer, let me assure you that this is prime summertime on our beautiful southern coast. I can’t imagine a better place to feed the imagination and create a sense of community. Here’s a photo from the Ferry Beach website:


Picture yourself in one of the chairs on the porch surrounded by fellow conference attendees. You’re all sharing stories, ideas, and reactions to the great workshops/lectures/performances you just attended, while the porch flags flutter in the sea breeze. (Learn more about the Ferry Beach Retreat and Conference Center here.)

Keynoters at the conference include Joseph Bruchac, True Story Theater, Mahogany L. Brown, Susan Bennett-Armistead, and Kelley Hunt. The list of workshops is varied and extensive. To find out more about the conference, visit the conference webpage:

Speaking of the conference, if you are planning to attend, you can save $20 by registering before April 25th.  After that date, the registration fee becomes $230 for TLA members and $250 for non-members.

I have to say, just thinking about a wonderful seaside conference in August is an effective spirit-raiser in gray late February. And, this year, it seems more important than ever.

–Barb Burt

“Music Allowed Me to Be Myself”: Interview with Kelley Hunt

Kelley Hunt OM6_edited_2[8]Kelley Hunt is a rhythm and blues singer who has six critically-acclaimed CDs to her credit, including the recent award-winning The Beautiful Bones. Her previous CDs include Gravity Loves You, Mercy, New Shade of Blue, Kelley Hunt, and Inspiration. She regularly tours the U.S. and Canada with her band, performing at blues and jazz festivals, on television and radio shows, in movies, and at concerts in a variety of venues, including currently on the Blues Cruise. She has been featured many times on National Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” as well as at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. She also regularly leads workshops on blues piano, songwriting, and singing, and she collaborates regularly with other writers and artists, including Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, with whom she offers Brave Voice writing and singing workshops and performances.. She also composes for film and various projects. The TLA Network is thrilled that Kelley will be teaching an online class, “Soulful Songwriting: How to Begin, Collaborate, and Finish Your Song” Feb. 14 – Mar. 13. Here is an interview excerpted from The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Have you always known that you needed to make music?

Kelley Hunt: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that. My first memories of myself as a child involved music, either hearing my mother or my father, or hearing music in the house when I was just a tiny little kid. I never questioned it and the people in my family never questioned it.

CMG: More than anyone I know, you play in many genres at once. What gives?

KH: I think a common thread runs through all of them that has to do with my development as a person. It also has to do with what I was exposed to as a child and what I chose to surround myself with that gave me comfort when I was growing up. So instead of trying to put some kind of censor on myself and think, I’ll just do this style or that, a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to not be conscious of the style and simply let happen what was going to happen, knowing it was going to be unique to me, and also fully understanding it would be incorporate a lot of things. And that’s when my music and creativity opened up, when I took the fences off from the different styles and quit separating them.

CMG: One of the styles that you do, gospel, speaks to a spiritual center and yet I hear that in so many of your songs. Is singing and writing songs part of your own spiritual practice?

Kelley with Mavis Staples

Kelley with Mavis Staples

KH: Yes, I think it’s the major part. It’s also a reflection of things that fed me as a young child and as a young woman. My grandma sang gospel and spiritual music, my mother and father, and especially my mother sang in church so when I was very, very young, like two, I had a memory of watching my mother be the entire choir in the little church I was in. It wasn’t so much about saving souls but about the music she was doing, and the style was gospel. As a little kid, I thought that’s what you do, it’s the no bullshit approach, it’s celebratory because she absolutely exposed herself, tears coming down her face, smiling and very unguarded in her music. I found that endearing.

CMG: Who wouldn’t? Where else did you learn about music and community?

KH: I also saw my mother in different settings sing different styles of music, and I would observe the people that were observing her, and see how moved they were, and seeing what she put out that moved them somehow that wasn’t about the music but what she did. Even as a young child, I realized how moving that was for other people, like a direct line to somebody’s soul.

CMG: Kelley, you grew up in Emporia, Kansas which is what we might call a medium-sized town in a small town state.

KH: I think it was 18,000 people when I grew up there.10177906_867454999967647_2102425794278092792_n

CMG: What was the role of music in both community and identity when you were growing up?

KH: Well, I’d say, interestingly enough, it had a very strong role in the school system that I was in. There was a lot of singing, dancing, music from other cultures that was brought in (like part of learning Spanish), but I had exceptional teachers in junior high and especially in high school in singing. I was bored a lot – there wasn’t a whole lot going on in my world or anyone else’s – so I tended to get involved in singing in school choir, church choir, rocket adult choir. And in my home, it was music all the time, mom singing, my parents’ friends coming over and playing music – they all played music. My older sister sang and wrote songs, my brother was singing in a choir in junior high, and there were records and radio always. I woke up in the morning and my mom would be downstairs with the radio going on, playing the hits of the day, and when I came home from school, she always had music playing in the house. It was something for me to do with my time, a way for me to be unique. In a lot of ways I didn’t fit in — I wasn’t the blue eyed, blond hair Kansas girl. But when, although I was really shy about it for a long time, the cat was out of the bag, and I played in a talent show with a guitar and singing, I realized I was only one doing this. Music allowed me to be myself.

CMG: It seems like music also allowed you to convey where you come from, such as in songs like “Rose’s,” which is about the corner grocery store in your town, and “Queen of the 88s,” famously about the woman who taught you to boogie-woogie. You’ve used your songwriting to keep some of that life going on.

KH: I hadn’t thought about that, but because it’s so meaningful to me and helped me make some choices in my life and helped form who I am. There’s something very dear and limiting about growing up in a small town. My choice was to leave that town, but I think I’ve written about the things that meant the most to me in one form or another.

CMG: I’ve also noticed that a lot of your songs celebrate the essence of being alive. What’s happening between you and the page and piano when you write?

KH: I lose my sense of time when I’m writing. I get very energized, I get really focused and excited, and three hours can go by and it feels like ten minutes. There are days when ten minutes go by and feels like three hours but more often than not, I’m very energized by it. Sometimes I have to work on songs a long time, and sometimes I finish them quickly, and sometimes I go back to them a year later. But when I really feel like a song in done, and I have some investment in that song, often I immediately take it to a performance setting just to see how it flies. When I take (a song) to an audience, I have a preliminary experience of taking it to a band and fleshing out arrangement, which can be real exciting or put a big damper on the song if it isn’t working. My intention is when 154475_150872431625911_150871691625985_242996_6281305_nI’m writing to write something well, and if not, let it go.

CMG: One thing that I find particularly unique about your process is that you write songs with so many people. You collaborate constantly. Why?

KH: I didn’t do that for most of my adult life. I only recently started co-writing in the last four years, three years. I used to be very adverse to it; in fact I turned down an incredible songwriter – I turned him down for seven years, the head of the gospel songwriting division at Universal. When I really took a hard look at why I was turning down these opportunities, I realized it was about fear, fear about being unequal, fear of sounding silly. I was just afraid. I wasn’t ready so it was good I didn’t do it until I was ready. I was scared to death and now when I do it (co-writing), I realize it’s not going to work with everybody, but I’m going to grow form the experience in one way or another.

CMG: One other thing I wanted to ask is how you sustain yourself when keeping yourself employed full-time as a performer, and keeping a whole band employed and being on the road so much under so much pressure with all those guys.

KH: That’s been a real process for me over the years, always surrounded by men in my work with occasional women writers or performers. I have to really work at it. I need time by myself to be quiet, I try to eat healthy food, I drink an ocean of water, and I do a lot of reading that is positive, uplifting, interesting. We call our tour bus the book mobile because I always show up with five to six books, books that inspire me, that feed my emotional/spiritual female self. I feel like I have to work keeping my attention and thought process in a healthy place. It’s easy to get discouraged when physically fatigued, easy to go to that bitter place of “why am I not wealthy and debt free when working as hard as many people?” It’s a conscious focus to take care of myself, also keep in touch with women friends and family…and find pockets of time alone.

CMG: It takes a lot of courage to do what you do, to live the dream without any holding back

KH: (laughter) Well, I think there’s some courage involved, there’s strong will involved, there’s some audacity involved, and there’s just some insanity involved. There’s a big price, or has been, almost as if I’m driven to it and have to do it. It’s a blessing and curse but more often it’s a blessing, it’s my choice, but then again, I can’t see doing anything else.

CMG: I’ve found your concerts to be deep exchanges, soul to soul. What’s happening for you when you perform that you can give so much, so vibrantly to the audience?

KH: I feel as though I’m in my element, it’s my joy, it’s what energizes me, and if I’m lucky – and although this doesn’t happen all the time – my day has been spent preparing for that burst of energy. I’ve been quiet, I’ve been restful in whatever ways I can on the road. Sometimes I’m out there when I’m sick, sometimes when I’ve just had an upsetting incident when I walking out, but generally what happens is that once I’ve began the process of playing and performing, it lifts me up. It has a lot to do with the audience. I feel very part of the audience – I don’t feel separate from them – and we’re all participating in this event. I just feel like I’m in my element. I know how to prepare, to be present and do that job. That’s what I’m here for.

CMG: If you were talking to yourself 20 years ago, what advice would you share?

KH: I’d say, listen to your intuition more. I’d say, don’t take yourself so seriously. Enjoy your gifts and spread them around.

CMG: And one more question – especially considering the very political songs you’ve been writing of late – what’s the role of music and social change for you?

KH: A lot has to do with personal growth. When you’re aware of what’s happening, and it becomes important to you, and you’re ready to say something about it in public, then it’s time to do that. Many times – in all of our history in music and politics – music has played an important role. When commentary needed to be had, it could be out in the song and out in the world, like in the work of Woody Guthrie. A lot of my songs tell a story, but it’s not necessarily a conscious decision to say, “here’s a political song,” yet because of something that’s been on my mind, it comes out in my work. It can take a bit of courage to do that out in the world – it won’t always be well-received. A good song doesn’t necessarily need to beat you over the head, but a good political song will last forever.