Connecting through stories: Sharing Holiday Traditions

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For the past couple of years, our family has been taking little weekend trips during Thanksgiving. Our extended family is scattered throughout the United States so we typically focus the rest of our holidays and travel efforts on visits with them. This Thanksgiving, we spent some time at Legoland in San Diego. While we were waiting on line for the 4D Legends of Chima movie, we met a family who has been coming to Legoland every Thanksgiving for the past 12 years. Chuckling, as he was talking about family holiday plans, the dad said “I know we’re crazy but we love it. It’s just what we do.” What he said didn’t strike me as crazy, though.

Family traditions are special and memorable, and quickly become beloved habits. They form bonds, are reliable, and give children a sense of ownership and something to look forward to. It made me happy to think that traveling with just my husband and my daughter could turn into a special holiday tradition for us.

Our family celebrates both Chanukah and Christmas. Chanukah brings songs of peace and celebration as we light the menorah. With regard to Christmas, we prep in our own home by playing the CD A Charlie Brown Christmas as soon as our tree is up. No decorating takes place until the music is playing. It’s simply something that sets the tone, and gets us in the mood for the holidays. We also visit with our extended family for Christmas, and watch as Em wakes up to find filled stockings and gifts under the tree. In the evening, we launch into a post-dinner dance party battle. It’s a rager and it’s so fun! No surprise that music is the centerpiece of our holiday celebrations.

Sharing stories of tradition and hearing from the family during our Legoland trip, added a feeling of connection and another element of joy for me this holiday season. It was a nice reminder that amidst the hustle and bustle of it all, there are sweet, sentimental moments to be grateful for. Besides, it’s always fun to hear other people’s stories.

As an addition to holiday music posts, today’s post features friends and artists sharing their holiday traditions from their own childhood, things they do with their families now, and of course some music. Continue reading

Check this out: Alastair Moock – All Kinds of You and Me

a1194426617_10“You’ve gotta be who you’ve gotta be, a dancing plant or a cat who skis // A boy in a dress, a girl in a tree, you be you, I’ll be me.”
– “It Takes All Kinds,” All Kinds of You and Me

Artists in the kids’ music genre frequently reference two classic albums that inspired them and whose music embodies their same values: Schoolhouse Rock and Free to Be…You and Me. No doubt that both are landmarks, and it’s easy to see why many artists making music for families aspire to carry on the legacy of these albums and uphold the same values and messages.

Understandably, creating a modern day version of such a notable and groundbreaking album like Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be would be quite a feat. However, if anyone were to approach this task, Alastair Moock is the man.  To take on such an epically classic album that has impacted so many people and challenged society’s view of our world takes courage and really the perfect amount of humor and swagger. And I don’t mean swagger like Jagger.  Well, maybe in that way, but we’re talking about the children’s music genre. Think G-rated swagger.

In Free to Be, Thomas very directly spoke to her 1970’s society, proclaiming equality across all conceivable categories. With his latest album, All Kinds of You and Me, Boston-based singer-songwriter Alastair Moock picks up where Thomas left off. Joined by a stellar group of musicians (Rani Arbo of Daisy Mayhem, singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, Debbie Lan of Grenadilla, singer-songwriter Samirah Evans and producer Anand Nayak who is also from Daisy Mayhem), Moock gently reminds kids (and adults!) that we should all be free to be who we want to be, without limitations or the borders of stereotypes, and that love is very much a force that drives acceptance. Love of ourselves as well as one another.

Moock is a modern day Woody Guthrie, mixed with a hint of Bob Dylan. You can hear it in his style, in the way he uses music as a guide for justice and most certainly in his clever wit. His gentle voice with its signature rasp lends itself nicely to the Americana sounds of his compositions. Like Dylan, there is poignancy in Moock’s approach but also a deep well of passion for social justice, equality and healing through music.  As with poetry, artists can eloquently articulate in music what might seem heavy-handed, too serious or too awkward in the written or spoken word – especially for a young audience.

Through clever repetition, “My Life is a lot Like Yours” speaks from a child’s perspective and illustrates the normalcy of family life with same-sex parents (two moms/two dads), reinforcing that families might look different but they can still be a solid unit and operate in similar ways to those with a mom and dad at the helm. “You Might Be A Girl” stomps on gender stereotypes by articulating the endless possibilities available to girls today; Samirah Evans’ voice adds so much strength to this empowering song. Like it was written for her (and in a way it was), this song tops my daughter Emily’s favorites list.

Taking on topics and conveying them without preaching is delicate. Moock meets the right criteria with poetically intricate lyrics that are impactful, delightful and accessible to a large audience. His 2014 Grammy-nominated album, Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids, for example, gave listeners insight into his ability to address sensitive subjects head on; each song reflects his family’s experiences during the time when his daughter Clio (now in remission!) was diagnosed with leukemia. Moock’s capacity is tremendous.

In “I Am Malala,” Moock sings: “I raise up my voice for an equal chance // To live and learn and grow // to be who I want to be and explore // The things I want to know.” Through these words, he reminds us that it takes courage to stand up for who we believe we are. But through that courage we grow and learn how to make a lasting impact.

As I was listening to this album and thinking about an angle for a review, the seemingly ever-present phrase Live Laugh Love came to mind. While I recognize the beauty in this motivational quote, it’s so overused that I typically write it off as just another “Hallmark” greeting.

The thing is, the effect is much more meaningful and profound when I think of the words one by one. Each one makes a bold statement, commanding me to remember to hold onto its important value as I move about my day – as a parent and just as me. All Kinds of You and Me offers the same relief. My personal favorite song, “All in a Day (featuring Anand Nayak),” inspired by Cynthia Rylant’s book of the same name, smoothly underscores this sentiment with encouraging words: “...live it well, make it count // fill it up with you // The day’s all yours, it’s waiting now… // See what you can do.”

Whether we directly speak to our children about justice, acceptance and global love, we prominently place a big Live Laugh Love sign in our homes or we let the music do the talking for us, it’s never too early to incorporate the values woven within All Kinds of You and Me. Just like Guthrie and Dylan, and many others who spoke out so freely and took a stand for change and love, Moock proudly joins the ranks, inspiring future generations to do the same “cuz every life’s a kind of prize.”

All Kinds of You and Me is available through Moock’s official store.

Check out Moock’s video for “It Takes All Kind,” illustrated by Key Wilde, for a visual treat.

Holiday Music 2015 – Albums, Videos and Songs

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I was decorating our tree with my daughter Emily the other night and when I heard her singing along with “Frosty the Snowman” it seemed like everything was quiet in that moment. Music is such a significant part of the holiday season and it never goes out of style. This year brings another great bunch of variety to add to your classics. They also make excellent holiday gifts/stocking stuffers! Giving the gift of music is truly a gift that keeps on giving.  Enjoy!

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Rocknoceros
– Happy Holidays

Rocknoceros comes forth with a rock solid collection of holiday jams. Happy Holidays contains 9 tracks that start from Halloween and end with New Years. What I love most are the combination of musical styles and the creative approach this Virignina-based trio takes towards traditional tunes. In many ways they remind me of They Might Be Giants. “Christmas Brie,” for example, features some punny dialogue around the words “Christmas Tree” and is layered over some Vince Guaraldi-esque jazz. The Peanuts quality of this song goes well with the album cover which also reminds me a bit of scenes from the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. “The Dreidel Song” honors a traditional Chanukah game and “Wenceslas” echoes all the gratitude, love and giving of the season with a memorable story set to the toll of beloved holiday bells. Happy Holidays will help you glide through the last quarter of the year and send you happily sailing into the coming new year.

Happy Holidays is available through Rocknoceros’ official store.


joshandthejamtones5Josh and the Jamtones – Jammin’ with Jew!, Volume 2 Holiday Xxplosion!

A huge part of Jewish tradition is centered around music – song, and especially dance. Each one significantly contributes to the practice of traditions and observance. So the fact that Josh and the Jamtones, known for their high energy kindie jams, put out an album that promises to be a “Holiday Xxplosion” (double X for Xtra Large fun!) just makes sense, and is awesome. Though there are plenty of songs for Jewish families out there, the Jamtones bring a hip, cohesive alternative to the fold. Jammin’ with Jew!, Volume 2 is a collection of 14 songs in both English and Hebrew. The prayer for peace, “Oseh Shalom” sounds even more on point backed by some equally harmonious reggae rhythm, while the more secular “Amen,” a Bluegrassy/Big Band track encourages gratitude in a bold way. “Amen” is such a joyful song, there’s no doubt you’ll find yourself engaged with this song while clapping along. Chanukah specific songs include a rollicking ska-drenched version of “Oh Chanukah” – super danceable for those ready to turn their living room into a mad Horah dance party  – and a swingin’ version of “Dreidle.” Jammin’ with Jew!, Volume 2 offers families a one-stop destination ready for a happy set of celebrations throughout the year. We are a family that celebrates both Christmas and Jewish holidays and having an album with popular Jewish songs all in one place has been an especially welcome convenience.

Jammin’ with Jew!, Volume 2 is available through iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon.


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Andrew & Polly
 Other Days
Representing the West Coast is the wonderfully warm duo of Andrew & Polly. They are offering up a sweet little gift of 4 songs celebrating tradition and family. As a bonus gift, the duo teamed up with master collaborator Mista Cookie Jar in “L.A. Christmas” which delights with festively mellow sun and sand style. Together they remind us that regardless of whether you’ve got pine trees or palm trees (or are rockin’ a Hawaiian shirt), this is simply the season to fill up on love and just sway together. The beauty of Other Days is that it truly can persist beyond the holiday season. Though half of the songs include holiday specific references, “Thank You for the Box” and “A Mapmaker’s Song” go beyond the boundaries of this time of year, and feature what makes Andrew & Polly so lovable – a little whimsy and a whole lotta charm. Ending with “A Mapmaker’s Song,” families will relate to the sentiment that home truly is where the heart is.

Other Days is available through Andrew & Polly’s online store, and  iTunes.


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Greg Page – Here Comes Christmas!

Greg Page, otherwise known as The Yellow Wiggle, has embarked on a solo path with a new production group called Yellow Entertainment and a children’s program called Butterscotch’s Playground (available through DVD ). Just in time for the holidays, Page has produced a holiday album full of original and traditional songs which display vocal chops that easily put him in even footing with some of the holiday’s best crooners. Page’s voice, like Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, and even Ol’ Blue Eyes, is full of the same smooth characteristics that have made the aforementioned notables significant voices of the season. Here Comes Christmas! will be nostalgic for adults reminiscing on their own childhood traditions while gleefully making new memories with little ones to reflect back upon when they are grown. Beloved tunes such as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” among other favorites found in this collection are why music has become such a staple for invoking the holiday spirit. The arrangements are preserved to the tee for the most part, although “The Twelve Days of Christmas” gets wild and wooly as it features guinea pigs, goldfish and puppy dogs with a bonus of goat’s milk (which is made into…well, you’ll have to listen to find out! No holiday spoilers here!). Among the aforementioned albums in this post Here Comes Christmas! is a comforting and familiar place to return to, just like coming in from the cold and being handed a warm mug of cocoa and some freshly baked cookies. This is definitely an album you can just spin while gleefully trimming your Christmas tree. Every now and then you might just catch yourself singing along and then smiling as you look around and see your little ones joining you in the chorus.

Here Comes Christmas! also contains 4 bonus songs from Butterscotch’s Playground and is available from iTunes and the official Butterscotch TV website.



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Maestro Classics
 – The Nutcracker 

One of the most iconic soundtracks of the season is The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s lush orchestration is truly prized and unforgettable.

Adapted and conducted by Stephen Simon and narrated by Jim Weiss, Maestro Classics presents music (performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra) that tells the story of this enchanting ballet.

This retelling of The Nutcracker is punctuated by the majestic sounds of the ballet in the background. Jim is a master storyteller and his enthusiastic narration will adorn children’s imaginations with lavish scenes full of wonder featuring Clara, her Nutcracker Prince, the battle with the Mouse King, and the dance with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Nutcracker will always conjure up feelings of Christmas and this album is truly an excellent gift of the season. Maestro Classics is dedicated to fostering a love of classical music and their storytelling series will help children pair important works with time honored soundtracks, thereby identifying with the music (independent of the story) later on. Combining a story with the music also serves as a great resource for children who may not already be familiar with or who may not prefer classical music or songs without words.

Each CD set comes with an activity booklet which includes bite-sized educational features such as The History of Ballet, a few lines of music for “Overture to The Nutcracker,” information about the Harp, a brief bio of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, and some word games. In addition to The Nutcracker, Maestro Classics offers other timeless pieces as part of their Stories in Music series which brings the magic of theater, classical music and storytelling into a very accessible space for families, whether you are listening at home, or traveling in the car.

You can purchase this set, along with other fabulous classical music collections at the Maestro Classics official site.



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A Laurie Berkner Christmas

The following songs are from one of our favorite holiday albums, A Laurie Berkner Christmas, which features a mix of Christmas, Chanukah and seasonal songs. “Candle Chase” has a nice rhythm similar to the beat found in many Jewish songs. Perfect for celebrating around the brilliant glow of your menorah.

Laurie recently came out with a new video for “Children Go Where I send Thee” which also features 2-time Grammy nom Brady Rymer. It’s such an infectious version of this classic song which is featured on an equally heartwarming and upbeat album. You’ll love it. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” is featured on both A Laurie Berkner Christmas and Laurie’s recently released Laurie Berkner’s Favorite Classic Kids’ Songs.

Read my previous review of A Laurie Berkner Christmas here.

For posts from previous years featuring our favorites, check out Songs for the Season – Part 1, Songs for the Season – Part 2, Untangling the Christmas Lights – Brady Rymer, Santa Flying in your Sleigh – Todd McHatton.


 

SONGS

8CeH48N2iDd2Oo2QnipzeeZolrhJUOuq4-KGgWtfwWUJason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam – “Summertime Santa”

As a native of New Jersey, and a resident of California, the sounds of this song, and seeing Santa give the shaka (aka “hang ten”) sign makes me smile. Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam’s new holiday track, “Summertime Santa” rings with jingle bells and some good ol’ Jersey Rock n’ Roll. So what does Santa do in the summertime? He hangs up his big red winter coat, and heads down the shore to unwind, basking in the glory of all that the boardwalk has to offer. Didner and the crew conjure up some classic Springsteen sounds with this happy holiday number. Check it.

“Summertime Santa” was produced by Marc “Baze” Bazerman (from Baze and His Silly Friends), and is available for download via CD BabyiTunesBandCampJungleGymJam.com


 

A good blend of original and traditional tunes keeps the music of this season feeling fresh. Each one of the albums and videos mentioned in this post, as well as those from previous years, is guaranteed to fill you up over the coming holi-days!

Stay tuned for the addition of holiday songs!

Karen K breaks ground with The Blue Bike Chronicles

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You know, you become an artist, you become an observer of life,
and you digest life by making art about it. – Liz Phair

Life inspires art. And it’s pretty cool to witness the inspirational evolution of a musical artist especially when it fills a gap in the world’s musical jukebox. Boston singer-songwriter Karen Kalafatas, leader of Karen K & the Jitterbugs, is branching into solo territory and breaking ground with her new series The Blue Bike Chronicles, inspired by her daughter, Becca, and vivid memories of her own childhood.

Still working in parallel with the Jitterbugs, Kalafatas is journeying into new creative turf as she witnesses and processes the shifts in her 8-year-old daughter, the changes she needs to make as a parent to an older child, and the mirror that reflects her own 8-year-old self.

The kids’ music genre is expanding to include a broader range of ages. But still there aren’t many songs with lyrics that ring true to the experiences and emotions of the “in-betweener” age. This pre-tween 7 to 9-year-old crew is making a major leap from early childhood to, well, middle childhood. They’re straddling the space between the safety and comfort of cuddling up with mom and dad and the instinct to break free and take life by the reins. Through The Blue Bike Chronicles, Kalafatas boldly directs her artistry toward crafting songs that speak to and nurture this magical in-between stage.

There’s so much heart in this series; accompanying the songs is a short story, vulnerable and real – Kalafatas’ nostalgic recollection of a bittersweet childhood moment that begins with “Lucy had a blue bike.” The story transports you to that innocent age when what matters most is your best friend. Friendships forge lasting memories, and moving away from your best friend is one of the worst things that can ever happen. Kalafatas poignantly reinforces how young minds connect emotionally with the world.

We spent nearly all of our time together – playing spy in the grassy field near the middle of the [Army] Base; reading books with our backs on the cold ground, knees up, and our faces to the sky; buying candy from the Candy Man with our hard-earned spare change (think ice cream truck, only candy); and riding our bikes.

“As it happens with moves, nothing was running on schedule. And if we were going to make our plane back to the States, we had to leave. Without a goodbye. Without Lucy.

…I was heartbroken.”



The story beautifully sets the backdrop for The Blue Bike Chronicles and the gentle weaving of perspectives from childhood to parenthood and back again.

My daughter is eight now, the same age I was when I met Lucy. She is full of wonder and joy and amusement, and sometimes sorrow and pain. And in her presence I am reminded that we, as parents, as adults, as humans big and small…we are all on a journey to find those moments of joy. Of connection. Those moments of reading on our backs while tasting the sugary sweets of candy and friendship. Those moments that take us back to the very best of ourselves, wrapped up warm and comfortable in our childhood memories. Those moments of Lucy.

My road has taken me many places, and I’m still riding, still looking for the next adventure around the corner. My daughter is too. And I hope one day she’ll look back and remember a blue bike and the girl who rode it, the childhood love who lives on in the mind’s eye and heart. Waving furiously. Reminding her to take those precious moments and memories along, blessed companions, as she bravely peddles her way into the future.”

Karen K and Love Bug 1 PrintLet’s face it; every stage of childhood embodies a particular magic. The beauty of the pre-tween stage is that these kids are still young enough to enjoy music that appeals to their vivid imaginations, but are on the cusp of using their imaginations less and less in juvenile ways. They are becoming more independent, self-aware, thoughtful and intentional mini adults. But family time is still appreciated, secrets are still shared, social status is not even a blip on the radar and the world is still filled with wonder. What they hear and see adds substance to what they understand as reality, but the lines between imagination and reality are still a bit blurry. With The Blue Bike Chronicles, Kalafatas creates a moving narrative that grows along with her daughter, and captures the essence of this stage with memories they can share together.

The best part? The musical quality rivals the “Top of the Pops.” This is pretty boss because the gap that needs to be filled for this “in-between” stage is pretty darn big. The Blue Bike Chronicles elegantly weaves together themes about Family (with “Cousins Party”) and Connection (with a rendition of “I’ll Stand By You”) in a playful and powerful way that keeps pace with the catchy pop music sounds and styles that are so attractive – and addictive – to kids.

It’s complicated because pop music isn’t all bad, right? On the one hand, there’s certainly value in songs like Beyonce’s “Girls Rule the World” or T-Swift’s “Shake It Off.” On the other hand, I want my own 7-year-old daughter to be able to relate to lyrics that help her understand herself better and the emotions that go along with entering and navigating a bigger, more mature world. But who doesn’t need a song for those belt-it-out diva moments with your invisible microphone? It’s true that the world can be a pretty scary place, but the last thing I need is for her thinking that twerking makes it all better (it doesn’t, right?).

Karen at Party 11.15.15Like books, music helps us gain a sense of self and offers us space to feel. Through this new creative venture, Kalafatas reveals herself as both a musician and an author, seeking connection by sharing her beautiful story with both her daughter, and girls her daughter’s age, to create long lasting memories. That is priceless.

The series’ first single, “Without You,” officially releases today and it’s a pop masterpiece. It’s crafted with all the ingredients of a radio-ready pop song, but with meaningful lyrics that express two perspectives: that of an 8-year-old ready to bust out of school and cavort on the playground, and that of a parent going through the motions of their own busy day while thinking about their child at school. I challenge any parent to listen to the song and not be moved by the way the two come together in the end. The parallel universe drawn between parent and child is so relatable – it gave me goosebumps.

“Without You” easily rivals the best of any Disney theme music. In my mind, I’ve already cast it as the intro to a new TV show. Maybe a “dramedy,” spilling over with friendship and laughter and confident young girls exploring the ups and downs of their world. In a real way.

 

The Blue Bike Chronicles is a love letter to the tender “in-between” stage. Join the ride and receive a free download of “Without You” by subscribing to The Blue Bike Chronicles. Starting today, for $20 you will become a VIP Blue Bike member eligible to receive a new song a month for 8 months – between now and end of school year (“8” for Becca’s age, too). The bonus: a free album containing all of the singles at the end of your adventure in Summer 2016.

Be sure to check out Kalafatas’ other efforts, like award-winning children’s music by Karen K and the Jitterbugs, and her  collaboration with Mista Cookie Jar.

Singled Out: “Pretty Little World” – Michael and the Rockness Monsters

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You know when you hear a song and think “Wow, I really like that!” Say hello to “Pretty Little World,” a refreshing little tune that breathes a heaping spoonful of sunshine into the air. Er, I just realized the artwork features sunshine and a rainbow and well, air, after I wrote the description in the previous sentence. But, as you can see, the image justifiably represents the song!

This sweet little tune encourages us to embrace the little happenings. “I wanted to convey that the slightest things can offer life-changing joy.  The song is a reminder (without being pushy)  to not overlook the simple beauty in every day life. Also at the end  there is a caveat – there are also difficult happenings in the world – the positive and negative balance each other out – we need to accentuate the positive and celebrate the simple beauty of this life.”

“Pretty Little World” is from the upcoming Michael and the Rockness Monsters self-titled debut album (due out February 2016). The soothing voice you’ll hear is Michael Napolitano, also known as the founder of Preschool of Rock, a music and enrichment program for young children (babies and toddlers).

“Pretty Little World” is also available via iTunes and Amazon.

 

Interview: Matt Baron of Future Hits

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In general, I think people consider learning through music as a fun way to learn, and often frivolous. I don’t want to look at what I’m doing with my students always as fun exercises. I think it’s inherently fun because it’s getting the kids to think by using songs as a springboard for a lesson, but the meatiness of the corresponding lessons really challenge and ignite the kids’ thinking.

Matthew Baron (the one in the middle of the bottom row) is a Chicago Public School ESL Resource teacher and the founder of Future Hits, a Chicago-based Kindie band and educational project that enhances learning through meaningful songs for children and their families, as well as elementary aged students.

At a time where education has come under much scrutiny due to the complexity of the new Common Core standards, Baron has combined his talent as a musician and an educator to produce over 50 songs to date, all of which have served as crucial aids in the classroom.

Future Hits’ most recent album, Today is Forever, contains a collection of songs – in English and Spanish – whose educational nature will go unnoticed at first. When I initially played the CD, I was taken by Baron’s voice, which is very similar to Stephen Malkmus’. The lyrics are relatable and I felt an instant connection to the indie sounds of the music. There was no indication that the songs were crafted to encourage proper pronunciation, literacy, phonics and many other divisions of Language Arts and Reading.

I have always wanted to be an educator and love hearing about creative ways to use music as a teaching resource. So when Today is Forever crossed my path, I was moved to learn more. I had a great conversation with Baron who goes deeper into Future Hits, as a project and a band while also explaining the many fascinating ways he integrates his songs in the classroom. He also touches upon how Dave Matthews Band encouraged singing, the new album and new curriculum he is working on that will be available online as a .PDF and mp3.

Whether you are an educator or parent, or if English or Spanish (or both) is spoken in your home, I highly recommend giving Future Hits a spin.

Today is Forever is available through Bandcamp, iTunes, and CDBaby.


KCG: Tell us about Future Hits?

Matthew Baron: Sure! I am an ESL Resource teacher, and Future Hits is a project I started as a way for me to come up with lessons that meet the needs of all types of learners.

In March 2011, I was in an alternative Masters Program for Education, and one of my key assessments was based on an in-classroom assessment. A first grade teacher who had a group of ESL students in her classroom gave me her class’s spelling words for the upcoming week, which contained long “o” words featuring “oa” and “ow” spelling patterns. With 10-12 feature words in front of me, I decided to write a song called “Yellow Boat,” which ended up being on our first album, Songs for Learning. During my assessment, I brought the song and a lyric sheet to the classroom, and gave the kids a spelling quiz. It was a smash! My assessor loved it, the teacher loved it, my administration loved it, and they all encouraged me to continue to do similar songs and exercises.

As time went on, I developed the lessons more fully. I don’t always work with spelling words; sometimes it’s vocabulary, or writing strategies like persuasive writing, “if/then” statements, or compound words. I also come up with different exercises like finding adjectives or underlining nouns, and other anchor activities like word sorts and charades. Each song’s content can shift into higher order of thinking questions, which I label as “Brain Teasers.”

At times I let kids illustrate their comprehension. So if a kid is young or has writing challenges or doesn’t know English yet, they can draw what they hear from the song first as opposed to writing it. This is an effective and joyful modification for diverse learners and English-language learners.

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KCG: How did you decide on the name Today is Forever for your second album?

Today is Forever comes from something one of my student’s said. One day after school, I overheard a seven year-old boy say to his mom when he got picked that “today is forever.” I just thought that was such a great phrase. It’s very profound, simple, and open to interpretation

KCG: Your previous career was in Sales. Going from Sales to Teaching, how would you describe your experience as an educator? 

A friend and mentor of mine told me while I was still in my education masters program: “Being a teacher isn’t just about having interesting conversations with students, you have to actually teach to the standards.” I look at my role as an educator as not necessarily doing interesting things with kids as a first priority. My first priority is to teach them what the state and the country standardizes. I think about how I can teach kids in an interesting and impactful way. In general, I think people consider learning through music as a fun way to learn, and often frivolous. I don’t want to look at what I’m doing with my students always as fun exercises. I think it’s inherently fun because it’s getting the kids to think by using songs as a springboard for a lesson, but the meatiness of the corresponding lessons really challenge and ignite the kids’ thinking.

KCG: How do you cover making music for families versus writing for your students? Is it hard to separate the educator part of yourself versus artist/musician?

When I write music for kids, I take a look the focus words (word families and vowel sounds mostly) I get from the general classroom teachers, sometimes there are 10, sometimes 20, I look at them on a page and think “what could this song be about?” For example, a new song on our yet to be released 2017 album is called “Mood Change,” and It teaches about long u (“ue” and “oo”) words. Solely based on the focus words I got prior to writing the song, it occurred to me that this could be a song about a kid who’s feeling depressed after school and what he can do to feel better. So it has a general appeal. It’s one of my favorite Future Hits songs because it’s based my experience as a kid and an adult; it explains how I think negative thoughts, and how I must act to get myself out of that thinking.

KCG: Does that process shift when you write specifically for students, and with the Common Core Standards in mind?

I start as a means of simplicity to help students understand sounds and then work with the focus words. Once I have the first iteration of a song, which incorporates the focus words, I think about how I can write lessons that go along with it, and that can help me teach to Common Core standards. In “Mood Change” I thought through how I could talk about settings that affect a child’s mood, like being at the library,  pool, or zoo, and that wasn’t intentional. My only intention was to talk about double o words, and the short double o sound, which is pronounced “ouhh” as in “look” and “cook.” Then I added in a lot of double o, long o sounds like “oo,” as in “zoo” and “pool”, which allows me to use the song in an expanded way in terms of kids differentiating the sounds that “oo” can make. I always tell them that the English language is very strange, and unlike Spanish, has very few rules, so we must remember why letters sound the way they do in every particular word.

KCG: In addition to encouraging pronunciation, what other Common Core standards do your songs address?

The songs have also worked to support key Common Core areas such as inferences and figurative language. Our song, “On Stormy Mornings,” for example, has literal lyrics (“On stormy mornings /  I get a late start”) and figurative ones (“My room is so dark / I sleep like a rock”). That line is also an idiom, something that is essential for ESL students to learn. Altogether those three things are where I align to different Common Core standards and different writing levels. This is what’s so great about being a resource teacher; I never considered literal or figurative language for “On Stormy Morning” until a teacher said we’re doing literal and figurative language and asked if I had any songs that would work to teach this. 

One day, I did an exercise with my students that I didn’t intend. In “On Stormy Mornings,” the word “parched” appears. The lyric goes, “My mouth is so parched / before it gets wet.” The kids didn’t know what the word “parched” meant, so we broke down the exercise. I only had them read that one line, “My mouth is so parched,” and then we sang it once. I explained to them that if they aren’t familiar with what a word means, a great reading strategy is to read around the word they are not sure about. I told them that to read a little before the word or a little bit after to gain better understanding. Together we then looked at the next line “But before it gets wet, and a girl’s hand shot up and she said “Parched means dry!” I asked how she knew that, and she said “Well, before my mouth gets wet, it’s dry.” So that’s Common Core-aligned strategy, letting kids gain strategies to read text closely to gain richer understanding. This turned out to be a great unexpected lesson.

KCG: SEL (Social Emotional Learning) is also a hot topic. In my daughter’s school they have specialists come in to teach various aspects and scenarios to the kids to encourage better interpersonal (and personal) experiences within the classroom and outside of it, like on the playground for example. Does you also write songs that align to SEL standards?

Each song has an SEL standard affixed to it, and can be used to teach SEL in a real way that aligns to standards. How the SEL standards arise is from working backwards. For example, I don’t say I’m going to write a song about honesty. Instead, I look and see that there is a standard about trust or honesty, and I think about how a particular song I’ve already written can express the meaning of trust. This makes the process more simple, instead of having all of these parameters around how a song must be in order to meet educational goals. I can look at each song and notice at least one SEL theme, and from there I find actual standards and use the songs to teach them.

KCG: Do you consider Future Hits to be an educational band? 

I was very intentional about having Today is Forever straddle both elements of the band’s goals, which is to be an educational band, and also to be a band that people can enjoy whether or not they are tapped into the educational component.

The title of our first album, Songs for Learning, is sort of a wink and homage to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports because I was listening to that album a lot around the time I was working on that album. With Today is Forever, we’re a little less overt with the educational nature of this album. For example, on the back cover of Songs for Learning, there are asterisks that denote how songs are aligned to Common Core and social emotional learning, whereas with Today is Forever, we put the educational charts in the liner notes.  Aligning our songs to educational standards is essential for us, but I wanted to convey that the record can stand alone as an album that people can listen to and not necessarily use just for educational purposes.

KCG: Why do you describe Future Hits as “the heartfelt (yet secretly educational) music project for kids, families and teachers”? It seems like “secretly educational” is a disclaimer to avoid any stigma or disapproval from the general public about what your music might sound like. 

We got a tagline (“fun (yet secretly educational)” from a review in Time Out Chicago a few years ago. We can be fun at times, but fun isn’t how I would describe us.  I do think every thing we do is heartfelt, and so that’s why I substituted that word in there.  I don’t think we need to hide the “secretly educational” piece, it really does just describe what we do. When I explain Future Hits’s music to people, I tell them it’s educational, but it’s not directly instructional like “hey kids we’re gonna learn bout the long “o” sound! Here we go: “oh, oh, oh, oh!” Continue reading

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