Member Lily Emerson recently interviewed Keynote Speak Melanie DeMore. Part one of their conversation is below, part two will go up this coming Thursday. Be sure to see Ms. DeMore speak at our upcoming conference! Photo by Cryss Clark.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Melanie DeMore, the keynote speaker for the upcoming Children’s Music Network Conference in Los Gatos, California. After picking her brain at length about her history with music and children, her work with body percussion and sound awareness, her thoughts on music as a community building tool and more, I was left feeling incredibly inspired, heart overflowing with a reawakened sense of possibility in regards to the power of music. Selections of our conversation have been compiled in two parts, edited for clarity and length. Please visit melaniedemore.com for more information about Ms. DeMore and her work, and do yourself a favor: make sure you’re there for her keynote speech in October, to get your own dose of heart-rejuvenating inspiration.
On her history with music and working with children:
LE: How did your musical education begin? What brought you into the world of music?
MD: Well, you know my mother and father were both brilliant singers. I was born and raised in the South Bronx, in a really nasty neighborhood in New York City. My mother started me in piano lessons when I was five. It was a real struggle — it was five bucks a lesson, but it was something they had to save up for, for me. So music has always been very much a part of my life.
LE: How did you start working with children?
MD: I’ve been working with kids for a long, long, long, long time. When I lived in Taos, New Mexico, I worked with every kid in Taos, including a lot of kids on the Pueblo. I was the musical director for Taos Community Theatre. I had a choir in Taos that was a women’s choir. The youngest person was three, and the oldest was 80. So I worked with every kid in Taos. I mentored a lot of them, taught classes with them.
LE: So is that where your title as “Child Whisperer” was solidified?
MD: Yeah, kids are. . . I’ve just done a lot of work with them, and I’m the oldest of five.
On Sound Awareness classes and national anthems:
MD: With my 6th graders at St. Paul’s, we had a whole Sound Awareness thing that always went through there. I did a unit with them that’s also under Sound Awareness, about national anthems.
I talked about the power of music, and [asked], “How does your anthem represent you? And what effect does it have on people when they hear it, and when they really listen to the words?”
And so we would talk about that. For instance, one year, I taught the kids the national anthem [of New Zealand]. They’re probably the only kids outside of New Zealand who actually know the national anthem from New Zealand, because the first verse is in Maori. It’s one of the only countries where, when people sing that anthem, it is sung in the indigenous people’s language first, and then in English.
LE: I didn’t know that! That’s amazing.
MD: Yeah! And I talked to them about how anthems present themselves. Like the Star Spangled Banner. First of all, it’s all about bombs, things bursting in air. Now, what does that imply?
Now let’s talk about “O, Canada” — it only talks about the land. And in the Maori one, it is really interesting… it talks about, instead of just “God, protect us from everybody else in the world,” it talks about, essentially, “God, help us to get along with people that are different than we are.”
MD: Yeah, it’s a trip. It’s really a trip, because it’s a country that’s made up of two different peoples, you know? So I talked to them about that… When people hear a certain music, what does it make them think? How does that represent you? I wanted them to be really aware of the things that are in their ears all the time.
On respecting kids’ intellect, in regards to current events:
MD: They know what’s going on! They need to know that just because they’re this big (makes tiny gesture with hands), doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by what’s going on, doesn’t mean that they can’t have an effect on what’s going on. [Music can] give them a voice to express what’s going on around them, which I think is really, really important.
I’m giving you these things, planting these seeds, so that you can call on them whenever you need them. And because music is so powerful, and it imprints on you. If you imprint something that people can use, that they can call on whenever they need it, that’s the most important thing.
…I want to give them something that they can use. With my little kids . . . I would ask them, you know, what do you need to feel safe? Do you know that a little kid in Syria or Iraq or Ghana needs exactly the same thing?
So that when we sing these songs, like a song I wrote called “For All the Children in the World,” you’re getting to sing for people who maybe don’t get to sing. Your song is wrapping somebody else up, so I want to think about that. That what happens to somebody over there affects you. They’re little kids, and they’re like, “We get that. We understand that.” And you know, that’s the thing. It all comes back to tightening the weave of community and connection. If it doesn’t do that, I ain’t interested.