If you’re free or know anyone who is tomorrow, Thursday August 10th at 3 pm, come hear WHEN THE MOON DANCED WITH THE SUN: Tales for an Eclipse! at the Dighton Public Library in Dighton, MA. The performance is free to the public and appropriate for families. Fun music, amusing and amazing stories, plus a little info about the upcoming eclipse!
Thirty-five years ago I was a young guy on a mission. I lived in Manhattan and worked with well-heeled independent schools like Spence and Ethical Culture, developing story-based programs for exploring nature in Central Park and beyond.
But I longed to just tell stories––to be a real storyteller. I knew very few tales then, maybe four or five, and my best, I thought, was Sedna the Ocean Mother. It’s a haunting Inuit creation myth about a marrying-age girl and her old father alone on their windy beach. The problem is, Sedna is very picky about a potential husband. One’s too fat. Another puts too few fish on the beach to ask for her. Others have rotten teeth.
Yes, it’s an Eskimo myth. Courtship was like this.
I once told Sedna at an environmental conference and that performance led to an offer from Antioch University New England to teach storytelling and imagination graduate courses, which I did for seven years.
In the story, Sedna’s fed-up father finally forces her to choose a stranger in a kayak who brags about how rich he is. He won’t take off his snow goggles, however, so she can’t see his eyes, and he won’t stand up, so she can’t see how tall he is. Off she goes, huddled in the back of his kayak. But when they slide up onto his home beach and he steps out, he reveals bird legs and burning red eyes. He’s no man at all. He’s the spirit of the storm petrels, an arctic bird, a powerful supernatural being.
Spooky, right? It gets even worse, much worse. Terrifyingly worse. Treated badly by him, she starves and freezes. At the story’s end, Sedna’s father drowns her in a whirlpool created by the husband who’s found them trying to escape. Her severed fingers become the seals, whales and walruses and she becomes the ocean mother, the goddess who provides food to the Inuit. She’s now supernatural herself. A typical Eskimo origin myth. Scary and elemental.
So what was my terrible mistake so long ago?
I told Sedna to an audience of kids too young to hear it. They were Lower School students at the Fieldston Ethical Culture School. Little kids. As an artist, I thought everyone would be entertained by the music, the wind sounds and the characters. Especially the kids.
Instead, the next day, angry parents demanded to know who this stupid young man was who’d told their children this story. I’d terrified their kids so badly––tears in the car and nightmares in bed––that the parents were up in arms. I’d hurt their children. For weeks I felt awful. Still do, looking back on it.
So after I recovered emotionally, I swore to myself that I would never be at a loss for an age-appropriate story again. Instead, I’d learn to tell many more of them, gentle and beautiful ones, tales that even pre-kindergarteners would love and feel safe within.
And that’s what I did. You can find them here. All with age-recommendations.
Sedna is nowhere to be found.
I’ve been playing 12-string guitars to accompany stories for a long time. Nowadays I play a Taylor 12 and a custom-built Ron Ho made in Port Townsend, Washington, both great instruments. This coming Sunday night I’ll be using the Taylor to score The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, tuned to a modified open E, a unique tuning that allows the guitar to sound, well, symphonic. Or at least that’s the goal.
The music is like a second voice, adding drama to the spoken words, much the way a movie score works. Leitmotif is a cool word coined by Richard Wagner denoting themes for characters and emotions, and The Odyssey is filled with many of them. One is a soothing, broad oceanic theme meant to relax my listeners. Another is a haunting, melancholy theme of longing that signifies Odysseus himself, wishing he were home even as he’s facing terrifying dangers. Polyphemus the Cyclops has his own music, too, bursting atonalities played in double-stops on the bass strings. Musicians tend to enjoy the accompaniment as much as the tale itself.
The show is at 8 pm on Sunday, April 2 at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. If you know anyone in New England who might enjoy this performance, please pass it on.
Tickets are $20 here.
Today I told two Holiday tales to 300 middle school kids in Laconia, NH. I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much fun holding middle school kids spellbound for fifty minutes as I did today, I really don’t. I harped for them as they noisily came in and sat on the bleachers. Slowly but surely the music began to get them, 6th and 7th graders from a somewhat rough-and-tumble town along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, all relating like mad to one another in little clumps of conversation, which I always expect from middle schoolers during the entering of the space.
At most stage shows, the audience gets to come in and either sit in silence or else listen to piped music until they begin to chat in a happy roar and then the curtain opens. For better or worse, in my shows, as kids leave their classrooms and line up to come down to the gym or auditorium or multi-purpose room, they can hear the harp music probably from thirty or forty feet away from the doors.
I have Charles Bradley and the great people at the Putnam Fund to thank for today’s show and others I did earlier this month up in Laconia. The other ones were at a Catholic school for an all-age group, and shows for elementary schools where I experienced the great privilege of being trusted enough to to even have Pre-K children in my audience, very young and sensitive souls that they are, and to make them laugh and feel safe inside my stories.
The Pre-Ks, just out of diapers and learning to socialize, are little tiny children, they really are, and I always like when they’re the first to come in. It’s not that they’re privileged, it’s just because as the shortest kids, they’re naturally in the front row. All these kids are sitting on their gym floors or in auditoriums. The Pre-Ks, who are like numinous little beings, only trust their parents and their beloved teacher usually. And other gentle ladies around them. They’re not sure about the custodian men or most other males. Children at this age are still deeply attached to their mothers and dads only.
But I’m a stranger. To make things even more horrible, I’m a big bearded man (beards are known to scare little kids fairly often) sitting there playing a harp, paying more attention to the playing than I am to them at first. Wonderful, watchful women have led them in. So eventually I smile at the kids and make some sparkly tinkle of harp music, and lo, they burst into smiles and so I touch my heart and thank them, take a breath, and I play for them some more, some extemporization that is tender or fast or whatever, and this utterly engages them. I watch their teachers glancing down at the problem boys or girls, exchanging comments that I never hear, but I know they’re remarking about how certain students who are usually bouncing off the walls are sitting uncharacteristically still.
Anyway, I had that privilege again today, to tell other stories in yet another setting to older kids. Lots of young musicians and artists, a teacher told me after the show. One kid was a guitar player and had realized I was playing a 12-string. I don’t think he’d ever seen one played. One girl, who I’d noticed had been one of the first to listen to the harping even while kids around her were chatting, came up afterwards and smiled, saying she’d liked the harp a lot. I thanked her a lot. A little boy with a mop of purple hair said those were cool stories. With a bunch of other kids who wanted to high-five, I declined, saying to them that I didn’t want to give them my cold.
Alison, the principal, said she’d enjoyed the most just watching the kids’ faces.
So that was this morning.
In any case, I’m offering two last WINTER CHERRIES shows for this Holiday Season over the next couple of evenings, here in New Hampshire. If you have friends anywhere near Hampton or Plainfield, New Hampshire, please let them know that WINTER CHERRIES storytellings are for families, sponsored by two fine libraries, and they’re happening during the next two evenings. They’re free to the public.
Details are at my web calendar here.
Two recent download purchases at my digital store have come from Krackow, Poland and Beijing, China. That’s very interesting to me. Even in these far flung (at least from America) locations, people out there know the value of intelligent listening for their children. And themselves.
They know, as a mom who wrote me recently stated, “Thank you for writing about tough topics but remembering that humor is important, too. Thank you for being someone my kids could use to help explain the world but never told them what to think. Thank you for talking about doing the right thing, even if it is hard, but never beating anyone over the head with the morality.”
In all the lines in her lengthy letter here, those three sentences meant the most to me.
Visit the shop and buy some MAGIC COINS as a gift for kids or adults. Recipients can visit and choose which titles they like at their convenience. Latest new releases include Strings in the Clouds, a calming 6-minute composition on Celtic harp and strings. Good music to listen to while working on complicated things.
Thanks for listening!
Beowulf: The Only One is coming out on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24th, 2016, American time zone. I have no idea what time that is in Beijing or Krakow, but I hope those customers enjoy it, too!
This post came in yesterday on Facebook from Valorie Gamer Osterman.
Forgive me while I faint. My daughter is home visiting, and I just told her you had written me. The house is ringing with her squeals of joy! We are a family who treats you as a rock star, stalking your schedule, pouncing upon new recordings, and checking the internet for news of you. Living in Seattle, we lived too far away to enjoy a live performance but now my eldest is at Eastman School of Music so once again, we are stalking your schedule to make it to a live performance.
I did not write the article but feel free to quote my comments about it. The article was written by Diane Levin of Wheelock College in Boston.
Music is important but humans fought to speak for a reason. Music may move the soul but stories create and shape the soul. Music moves the emotions but stories help us understand them. Storytelling is a rare skill these days with so much TV and radio being formulaic rather than original. Finding those who can still tell a story is a rare find. Finding those who can tell a good story AND make great music is priceless!
You are, indeed, an enduring legacy in my household. “Drip, drip, drip” is often used as the punchline in a family story to denote that it is one to remember and share. In the transition from audio cassette to CD, we had to forgo many of the stories because I could no longer find copies. When my then 16-year-old daughter saw a tape-to-mp3 converter, her first thought was to find your old stories so we could listen again. When I saw you were going to debut “Beowulf” on the East Coast, I encouraged all my NY/MA friends to come but when I said I was going to buy a copy, my kids insisted I had to wait until Christmas so we could all listen together. My eldest will be 25 so I think that means we’ve been listening to you for 22 years at this point!
We are a very plugged-in family and never far from electronics and screens. I credit our car rides filled with stories from you and Jim French Productions for a large reason why my kids never turned on their walkmans/ipods/laptops in the car. It wasn’t just the stories, it was the situations and characters you brought to life. Unlike most music, the stories you tell invite conversation, discussion, and analysis so as we drove from school to sports to drama to dinner to dance and finally home, we listened and, more importantly, we talked. As the kids got into the car, I’d ask “Talk, stories, or music?” If a kid had a long day, a few stories would rejuvenate them and they’d start to tell me about their day.
It’s those conversations that were the play in their minds. Not only did the stories engage their minds in ways books and screens didn’t, they presented the option of stopping the story, talking about some aspect of it – often in the context of something they’d learned or were experiencing – and then listening to the rest of the story. Given the wide range of stories you tell, we could always find connections between what was going on in our lives with some character or situation in one of your stories. Sometimes when a kid was wrestling with something, they’d pick a story they wanted to hear, stop the story somewhere, then talk about what was bothering them.
So, thank you. Thank you for years of stories and coming back to give us new ones. Thank you for writing about tough topics but remembering that humor is important, too. Thank you for being someone my kids could use to help explain the world but never told them what to think. Thank you for talking about doing the right thing, even if it is hard, but never beating anyone over the head with the morality. Most importantly, thank you for providing a role model for my kids that storytelling is just as important today in our era of smart screens as it was when we lived in caves. At one point when one of my kids and I were just irritated with each other, they suggested we go for a car ride and listen to some stories. An hour later, we came back talking again and laughing.
Mission accomplished, sir. Mission accomplished.
Artist’s Note: Valorie proceeded to purchase a $99 All Collections Bundle at our download store. Bless her heart. I hope to meet her someday. And her kids.
What makes modern kids intelligent and adaptable in such a rapidly changing world? What is a critical factor in the educational system that gets short shrift? I think it’s teaching kids to imagine, as a basic skill. Learning numbers is necessary, and we all need to learn them, but considering the amount of cheating going on––web assisted, in colleges across America––I would humbly submit that these cheating kids do so because they’re unappreciative of the hard work of learning, and the reason that learning is such hard work for them is because digital life has robbed them of something.
Native human imagination.
It doesn’t happen on a screen, but within the brain itself. The true nature of intelligence––the human ability to look around at the world, see what needs to be done for survival and imagine solutions––includes the inventiveness to make the inventions themselves that solve the problems. Even if those inventions are not machines or technology, but social processes.
Learning theories abound out there. Once long ago, during a Door to Imagination Workshop I was offering, a woman educator sat back, rather startled, and said, “What you’ve described here is a genuine learning theory.” I’ve never forgotten that. She was right, I think, in that the simple act of imagining builds neural nets in kids’ brains. It doesn’t really matter what they’re imagining, as long as they’re tapping this hidden gift they’ve all been born with. Imagination in childhood becomes creativity in adulthood. And vision. And drive. The stories don’t matter. The neural activity is what matters.
I’ve been in the business of telling stories to kids since 1982. It’s not that I’m trying to use fairytales, myths and legends to convince kids that those old stories are real, because they’re not, although they all carry ethical lessons. No, it’s because I know that archetypal stories carry a pulse that’s ancient and strong enough to get modern, digitally-distracted kids to imagine them in the first place.
Not by watching.
When kids imagine, their brains light up, according to PET scans. The learning theory is to forge new, underutilized, under-myelinized neural connections to build their basic intelligence structures. Wasn’t there some presidential election where “the vision thing” was an issue?
It doesn’t matter what the kids become in life when they grow up. It’s how they approach whatever they become imaginatively, so they can run clear-eyed scenarios for their futures, take stock of what’s going on around them (we are in unique times, I must say) and use their creative minds to fix the problems and survive.
To explore samples of how this learning theory works, I invite you to visit the new www.oddsbodkin.net and purchase storytelling audios that appeal to you. I get letters from twenty-somethings all the time who grew up with my stories. Out of the blue they email me, thanking me for being turned into imaginers.
Maybe we can’t smell as well as dogs, but we can paint mind pictures across our potential futures. Dogs can’t do that. Nor, as far as we know, can any of the other beasts with whom we share our fragile, biologically crafted Earth.
That’s our burden as the supposedly smart ones, we humans.
Little plastic dinosaurs. When I was a kid, I was in love with them. I loved T-Rex and what back then we called “Brontosaurus.” I had a spiky Ankylosaur that reminded me of a turtle and a Triceratops with its three horns. As kids do, I’d line them up on my windowsill. Sometimes they fought each other but mostly I marveled at their shapes and imagined how big they were in real life. Without a doubt I wanted one for myself. A Triceratops who knew me and would let me ride around on his neck as I held on to his bone frill. What would the kids in the neighborhood think when I rode my friend down the street?
If the film Land Before Time made dinos talkative and Jurassic Park made them scary, I figured a place for a third kind of dino story existed: very talkative, sometimes scary dinosaurs who existed not on screen and not on the windowsill, but in children’s imaginations.
So I set about creating my first dino story for young children. Since Apatasaurs had already been done and I wanted a little dino hero, I chose the Protoceratops, a little fellow about the size of a German Shepherd who sports a neck frill and chews plants. I named him Little Proto and set him in the Cretaceous Period about two million years before the asteroid strike and volcanoes that ended everything for the saurians. His voice came naturally and with it, lo and behold, a clever, warm-hearted personality. Proto is filled with joy at the beauty of life and dwells with his family in the Sea Forest.
Unashamedly anthropomorphic (these are children’s stories, after all), as are all the dino characters in the Proto tales, he sings a lot. So I ended up singing his songs in his character voice while playing my 12-string guitar in the studio, and enacting other characters, my favorites being King Geoffrey the One-Eye, a T-Rex, Old Wrinkles, a grandfatherly Triceratops, Ankles, an overweight Ankylosaur with a heart of gold, Plessy, a young girl Plesiosaur who lives in the river, and Bump, a Pachycephalosaurus with a bone dome on his head for bumping things.
To transport kids into Little Proto’s world I did some crazy things. Mimicked loon cries and flapping pteranodon wings, Maiasaura calls, crickets ringing––all sorts of sounds embedded in music to make it seem real. After The Adventures of Little Proto, the first recording, since one mom wrote me and told me her autistic daughter had listened to it and had suddenly spoken for the first time, I made two more, watching back stories emerge and having fun writing more songs. Little Proto’s T-Rex Adventure and Little Proto and the Volcano’s Fire follow Proto as he grows up, gets a little sister and narrowly escapes dangers while being faithful to his friends. Parents loved them and still tell me that their kids would often fall asleep listening to them, over and over again. Good stuff for an artist to hear.
Never been there in person, but I can imagine all those thousands of bedrooms with dinos on the windowsills and happy, sleeping kids.
Bradford, New Hampshire