(Editor's Note: Before Steve Roslonek --aka SteveSongs -- joined the lineup on PBS Kids, he was busy visiting classrooms and engaging students in singing and songwriting. Now his filming and touring schedules don't leave him time for school visits.)
For years, singing and songwriting were Steve Roslonek's passions. Now they are his profession, and thousands of children, their parents, and teachers are thrilled with the choice he made.
Roslonek, through his Boston-based organization SteveSongs, performs original songs for children on the guitar and offers songwriting workshops for students in third through fifth grades. A concert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Roslonek's alma mater, was packed with parents and children, most under age 5, many of whom were Steve fans. The energetic, engaging songs involved the audience in digging for treasure, swaying with a pirate ship, and "getting down" with gravity.
Some fans called out requests for Steve hits. "That's your favorite song!" one mother said to her toddler, when Roslonek launched into a tune.
Roslonek has been pursuing music fulltime since 1999, after leaving a job as a business and technology consultant. He had written some children's songs for friends and, with their encouragement, he contacted some musician friends who helped him record an album. He now has released four CD's, all of which have won national awards, including a Parents Choice Gold Award for the CD On A Flying Guitar.
"I had always loved kids, and had always loved music, but it wasn't until I put the two together that I found the absolute coolest job in the world," he told Education World.
|Steve and fans at a recent concert.|
Steve Roslonek: I was at a school in Fairfield, Connecticut, a few years ago doing assembly programs for the kindergarten through second graders. I had a break between assemblies, so I went into the music room. Some fourth graders came into the room about ten minutes before their class, and I remember thinking, "I wonder what fourth graders are learning about in school these days." So I asked them. They told me that they were learning about Christopher Columbus and his travels. Then one of the kids noticed my guitar and asked, "Can you play that thing?" I said, "Sure" and proceeded to play some chords and sing some made up lines about Christopher Columbus. I started searching for rhymes and the kids helped me find them. I asked them more about Columbus and we continued the song. We had a full verse and the beginning of a chorus done by the time the music teacher came in. She let us continue writing the song and that was my first songwriting workshop.
EW: What do you do in your workshops with students?
Steve: Each workshop usually is one hour. I work with second through fifth graders, writing one original song per class. I spend the first five to seven minutes discussing song structure, some writing terms and techniques, and the importance of communicating with a listening audience. I then play an original song, asking the students to identify those techniques in the piece. Then we're ready to start.
We work with two writing boards; an Idea Board and a Song Board. On the Idea Board we list 1) the subject, 2) the setting, 3) facts/details and 4) the moral. There are a couple of interesting ways that we can start writing the actual song. Sometimes phrases from the list of facts and details will have a nice rhythm and we'll start there. If it's a song about a story, we can start by coming up with phrases that quickly bring the listener up to speed on what the story's about.
If we have a great moral that sounds catchy, we can start with the chorus or bridge. Sometimes, the students will come up with the melody associated with these phrases. I then accompany that melody on the guitar. Usually, though, in the one-hour sessions, I come up with a guitar chord progression and melody that I think will fit. We also use the idea board for fleshing out the rhymes. If we have a phrase we like, we write down the phrase's last word, then list as many of its rhymes as we can. If that doesn't yield any good second phrases, we can use synonyms or try changing the order of words to come up with a new phrase. And the song board, of course, is where we write the lyrics to the song. Using a chalk or white erase board is important, because sometimes editing is necessary.
Occasionally, I offer an extended songwriting workshop for students who play an instrument or are specifically interested in the music-writing facet of songwriting, but 95 percent of the workshops I do are dedicated more to the language arts or lyric writing component.
EW: How do you get students involved in writing songs?
Steve: Songwriting is my passion and kids are my favorite people. When I go into a classroom, I'm genuinely excited about sharing the process of songwriting with those kids. But the moment of truth for most students is usually when the first two phrases come together. When those two phrases, from the facts/details list that they came up with, rhyme and fit together with the guitar chords and melody -- and sound like the beginning of a real song -- you can see it in their eyes. And sometimes they even say out loud: "This is so cool!"
It's amazing to see different kids get excited about different components of the workshop. There are some who are really interested in the topic, whether it's math or science or the class's favorite short story. There are some who love rhyming or finding synonyms, others who enjoy editing or finding what doesn't sound quite right, some who love singing, and still others who have ideas about what props and outfits should be used if the song were to be performed on MTV.
Steve: Students are able to practice a number of valuable writing techniques, such as using synonyms, metaphors, similes, capturing a listener's attention, rhyming, and alliteration, as well as musical concepts like song structure and learning what the verse and chorus can do.
EW: How do you integrate lessons or skills on which the classroom teachers are focusing?
Steve: I make sure that the song topic is one that the kids are learning about in class. If it's something the whole class is being taught or exploring, then everyone can contribute to the content of the song. I've done workshops where kids will come up to me afterwards, like in the lunchroom, holding their textbook and pointing out more information that they've found about our song topic.
EW: What are the benefits of students practicing song-writing skills?
Steve: That's a good way of phrasing that question. I believe it's the practice of a skill -- not just learning about it -- that makes it a skill. The end goal for the students is not to learn about synonyms or metaphors; it's simply to write a good, "cool" song. So synonyms and metaphors become tools that, if applied correctly, help them achieve their goal. In addition, finding creative ways to convey content that is being learned -- whether that content is Helen Keller, solids and liquids, or the silent e -- reinforces lessons from other disciplines in a unique and powerful way. The most important lesson of all, though, may be the realization that anybody can write a song. An awareness like that can break down barriers and empower young writers.
EW: What feedback do you get from teachers after the workshops?
Steve: The feedback has been excellent -- most teachers are amazed at how engaged the students (and the teachers themselves) become. They're usually quite impressed with the process, the ideas that the kids come up with, and the quality of the final product.
This is what one educator, Dr. Susan Elliot, a former elementary school principal, who is now a professor of education at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, wrote:
"I have never seen all the teachers so excited about any one artist and I have never seen so much accomplished in one day. All of the children, even those with shorter attention spans, were totally engaged and involved in the learning. Visiting parents were so impressed and are excited about funding your return in the fall to work with the children at each grade level. You truly gave us a wonderful, fun, and productive day. And we wrote the best songs!!"
In most of the schools that I visit to do songwriting workshops, we finish with an all-school assembly, where the students from each class get to perform their song for the rest of the school. In some schools, we've written songs about kindness, friendship, and community, and those songs have become the class or school anthem. Before I finish my residence at a school, I usually leave a tape with a rough recording of each class singing its song.
Back in 2002, my friend and producer, Anand Nayak, and I spent a whole week at a school in Monroe, Connecticut, and we wrote a musical with the kids. Anand and I spent almost three hours each with eight classes over the course of 4 days. It was an exhausting but exhilarating week. We wrote songs inspired by an old picture book called The King, the Mice and the Cheese by Eric and Nancy Gurney (one of my favorites as a kid). The project was such a success that the school put on a production of the play the following year. The school had three separate casts of 100 kids. Anand and I thought the songs were so great that we added a narrative in rhyming verses and recorded an audio CD with the help of some great musician friends. We got permission to use the story from Lance Gurney (the author's son). One of my proudest moments was hearing how thrilled Lance was with the final product.
This e-interview with Steve Roslonek is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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