“Everyone has a story,” says Paul. “I help them get it out.” Paul has been performing, composing, recording, and teaching songwriting for more than 40 years. His discovery that kids, with their vivid imaginations, make the best song co-writers led to the founding of Kid Pan Alley, which provides group songwriting workshops to schools and camps worldwide. “I’ve found that we can write songs about almost any subject,” he says. “If I had to choose between writing with kids and writing with Grammy winners, I’d pick the kids every time.”
In addition to teaching at schools and camps, Kid Pan Alley offers intergenerational residencies, partnerships with museums, projects with orchestras, a musical, and an assembly program featuring songs written with the children. “I am informed by the Picasso quote, ‘We’re all born as artists and the challenge is to remain one as we grow up,’” he says. “I want kids to experience themselves as artists so that they can approach whatever they do artistically. In turn, the children have inspired me to remain an artist.”
“We live in a creative economy, yet there is precious little training in creativity in schools. My goal is for children to experience the entire creative process from blank page through lyric writing, melody writing, rehearsal, performance, and recording.
“Kids learn about songwriting by doing. I may point out something cool that they have done and explain the process, but the real learning is in the process. Here’s a typical class overview: I ask what they want to write about and from the 20 or so ideas, they vote on one. We brainstorm on that idea and when I start to see a direction forming, we begin to write a section of lyric. Then I have them speak the first line. We clap the rhythm they have spoken. Using my hand, I show them the relative pitch of their speech.
“Then I ask one of them to sing it. After they’ve created a line of melody, I play it for them in several different styles and they pick the one that most evokes what they are trying to say. They write the melody, line by line, informed by the lyric, always singing what came before. I play the accompaniment, giving them choices of chords and rhythm. Then we create the contrasting sections. If we started with a verse, we’ll write a chorus, more verses, and often a bridge.
“We can write a song in two sessions, one hour each. At the end of the week we rehearse the songs, and work on singing and stagecraft. There is an afternoon performance for the school, and an evening performance for the community.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
Every idea is a good idea. We encourage each other to say the first thing that comes to mind. We say little bits of things, stream-of-consciousness, and try to stop over-thinking. Non sequiturs welcome!
“I lead the process, but I’m not writing the song. I’m doing as little as possible. They are writing the song, developing the melody. I’ll give harmonic choices, but I want their ideas to come first. They must have a choice.”
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“There’s nothing like writing 2,700 songs with 40,000 kids to hone your skills! I’ve run into every kind of situation, and basically we make it up as we go along.
“I’ve learned to be there in the moment, respond to what’s happening. By now, songwriting and guitar playing are second nature, like talking, so I can focus on the kids. The variety of their skills is broad, so I’m looking for what each can contribute.
“Sometimes I work with children impacted by autism. When writing songs with kids without language, I’ve had to learn to listen differently, more deeply, so I can find the story inside each child. We work with pictures, trying to sense what they are trying to say. Everyone has a story, but not everyone has an easy way to communicate it. Kids on the autism spectrum may use grunts, squeals, and shouts of joy, which become part of the song.”
What is an example of a good day?
“Every day is good for me, ‘cause we’ve got songs going.“