Meerkat Moments & Music
James is an instructor in the Melodic Connections’ Conservatory and works with students in area classrooms (pre-K through middle school), and leads summer programming at Stepping Stones. He is also certified in Drums Alive and has worked one-on-one with students to develop their leadership potential. Before coming to Melodic Connections, he was a choir director and special education teacher. He has Bachelor’s in Music Education from Northern Kentucky University and a Master’s in Music Education from Kent State.
He is currently leading a new project that focuses on using songwriting to support parent/child bonding and attachment. Here James talks about how songwriting has had positive impacts on members of our community.
Songwriting in the Classroom
The songwriting and the work I do in schools combines using songs of learning in the classroom for teaching social skills and musical skills. Also, I come up with transition songs – opening and closing songs – to tighten up a classroom schedule and to make it easier for students to follow the day.
I’ve written songs for assessments. I’m on a team here that visits with six Cincinnati Public School preschool classrooms. I started using songwriting to assess students’ ability to identify safe people and helping people in their lives. It ties into what we are doing with Trauma Responsive Care, using songwriting as a catalyst to get as much information we can in a short amount of time.
In 2019, the staff at melodic connections became certified in Trauma Responsive Care through the Tri-State Trauma Network. Trauma-responsive care goes beyond understanding trauma and its effects to providing interventions that seek to alleviate trauma symptoms and lead to a higher level of functioning. In this learn, practice, receive feedback, and master model, each staff member received a total of 30 hours of training and 12 hours of consultation for the certification.
There was another student I worked with at an area school. As much as we enjoyed each other’s company in class, I never really felt like I was bonding with him, or that I was even someone he would consider a safe, reliable person.
One afternoon, I was just noodling around on the electric guitar when he came in he grabbed a kid-size acoustic guitar. He started rocking back and forth humming the tune to “Eye of the Tiger.” I started playing the galloping rhythm on the electric guitar and his face lit up! He started rocking even harder, strumming just as hard as he could and that’s when he started making up words to the verses of the song. I couldn’t make out that what he was saying, but you could see that for those few minutes, he was having an absolute blast!
From that moment forward it turned a page for us. I was someone who he could spend quality time with, which mattered a lot to him. He knew that he could come in I would play with him, not just teach him things that I think he should know about music, but play with him by meeting him exactly where he was in that moment. You just can’t replicate atmospheric moments like that with a kid. To this day it’s still one of the most authentic, raw, and organic musical experiences I have ever had.
His mother sent me a message over the summer just to wish me well and let me know that her son had talked about me all the time since that little jam session. I’ll never take that for granted!
Songwriting as a Support Tool
One of our Melodic Connections’ students has experienced profound loss in a short amount of time. He never had the opportunity or the time or the words to describe his grief. He’s a big fan of Chris Daughtry. He would say “I want to write a song” but he wanted to write it to a Chris Daughtry song – with the same melody and rhythms. Then he was hooked on it and wanted to write another to a Carrie Underwood song.
I suggested we come up with something of our own that’s authentic. When you’re using songs written for a specific purpose, the meaning is so much greater. It’s not song recreation, but song creation. By building from the ground up, there much more investment than just pulling up a lyric sheet or chord chart and assigning meaning and emotion.
With this student, the process didn’t start with music at first because he had so much to say. He would tell me things and I would write them down verbatim. Then we’d work on how to say the same things but using different words. For example, let’s substitute this word – it could rhyme better, or this other word could have more impact. It also gives him more vocabulary in his toolkit to describe difficult or complex emotions. Now he has a journal of songs, like a poetry journal.
Songwriting is also a way to put a time stamp on a child’s life. It’s taking a moment to stop and reflect on their child during a particular time. I worked with Paula Mounce and her teenage son, Kyle, to create a song that marks this time in his life – when he’s moving into adulthood. Kyle is a student at Melodic Connections and I’ve been his vocal coach for three years. I’ve built a solid relationship with his entire family and especially Paula. I asked her to write a letter that theoretically Kyle wouldn’t open for years. When we started working on the song, she opened up in a way she hadn’t before. It turned a page for our professional relationship to understand Kyle a lot more than I had. I think there was a shift in trust. Paula has always had a trust in me to help Kyle vocally, but this took it to a new level.
Kyle was instrumental in writing the song. The first thing he does when he comes to the studio is noodle around on the piano. There are two chords he plays with and I knew we had to use them. We built the story around that melody. All three of us – Kyle, Paula and myself – pieced it together using some of my observations of Kyle growing up and Paula’s stories that she put in the letter.
When Kyle heard the finished product, he was surprised. He said, “Wait…this is about me? But I wrote this.” I told him, “Yes, you wrote this but it’s the story of your life.” It was a touching meerkat moment.