Music Business Monday is an opportunity for us all to think about the breadth and depth of our collective community. Through individual stories, we highlight the different paths of today’s children’s musicians with hopes that you find nuggets of inspiration to help with your own pursuits. Today on Music Business Monday I am honored to share an interview with CMN member, Dorothy Cresswell.
From her website: “As a wife, mother, grandmother, retired kindergarten teacher and concerned citizen, Dorothy hopes that the magic of music will continue to support our energy to keep creating the world we want to see.”
Tim: Dorothy, we met a few years back when you first came to a CMN New England regional event. You eagerly jumped into the fold and have quickly made an impact in our community. But, from day one, it was clear that you had a history and expertise in children’s music. Can you tell me about an individual who shaped your children’s music career? What specifics made this relationship special?
Dorothy: The first “individual” who shaped my music career is the collective 30+ years of children and families who kept asking for recordings of the original songs I wrote while teaching kindergarten.
It was my first goal in retirement. Actually making, holding, and sharing that CD and songbook, “Curious Songs for Curious Kids,” helped me transition from identifying as a kindergarten teacher to calling myself a children’s musician.
Then Mary Wheelan really took me under her wing and helped me believe that others beyond my school community would want to hear my music. Mary is the creator and host of “The Song,” a community TV show in South Deerfield, MA that highlights singer/songwriters and their original music. When she heard the CD she invited me on the show. On the show I mentioned that I host an open mic in Amherst once a month, and she decided to come. Our friendship grew. When the idea of having my own show with meaningful music for children took shape, Mary Wheelan was my sounding board when I had questions. Once my show started in Amherst, she asked her station in South Deerfield to carry it. I’m not sure who shared it with Northampton, but it has gradually spread to wider audiences. It was Mary who told me about the ACM Video Awards (Alliance for Community Media) and encouraged us to submit the show. Amazingly, we won first place in the Northeast for 2017! So Mary planted the seed, I watered it and nurtured the program over time, and she is the reason I can say we have an award-winning program!
Tim: You are talking about The Curious Giraffe Show. On the show you celebrate the differences in our world and the importance of giving individuals the space to share who they are. This is such an important message for our children as well as a reminder for adults. Could you share the process from the start to the current day?
Dorothy: Soon after I retired I woke up with the idea for “The Curious Giraffe Song” floating around in my head. I made up a few verses. Before I knew it, I was back in the classroom (the person who replaced me got pregnant and they needed a longterm sub who was certified.) I brought in the song, and they instantly wanted to add more verses. They loved thinking up more things to ask about and more answers that could rhyme.
I never ever thought of having a TV show until after I retired the second time! It was one of those ideas that sneaks up on you when you’re just waking up in the morning. And then another morning, and then another! It wouldn’t go away. There was a community TV station the next town over from mine and I wrote to them about my idea, confessing I knew NOTHING about how to make it happen, but explaining what I was hoping to do. They were very excited because they didn’t have any programming for children at that time. This studio is a training facility to community and college students. They provided the technical work and I organized the children and the content. I was so excited but felt completely awkward too. The children and I learned to be more comfortable in front of the cameras and it’s still a work in progress. One of my learnings has been that the age range was too broad. I started with 5-12 year olds. They learned the songs on the spot each time. Now I keep it to 5-10 year olds. Here is a link to an early show – episode 2:
The hardest part was fitting the children’s schedules to the TV studio schedule. Families are so busy these days! Initially we had no schedule and each time it was left up to whenever I could get them together. That was truly frustrating and I was ready to quit last spring. Why do all that effort? I was not getting paid a nickel and it took a lot of work! But then the studio wanted me to keep going, so I said I needed a schedule I could count on so that families could plan and I could plan. I actually held interview auditions and started with a brand new “curious crew” that made the time commitment. Now I have consistent attendance and can provide the music to them ahead of time. This makes a huge difference! Here is one of episode 23.
I don’t get paid, but the program established me as a professional children’s entertainer. My music is getting out and I get more gigs because of the show. I have just produced my second CD “More Songs for Curious Kids” with more story-songs, many which were written for the show. So one thing feeds the other. It’s like a plant bearing fruit. The seed of the song grew the show, that grows more songs, that grows more show opportunities that grows my business!
We’ve recorded 31 shows so far, with 26 up and on the air, and a few more waiting to be aired. Every single show has a new verse for the new theme of the day. But we always return to the chorus: “We’re different and we know it but we still get along, ‘cause we can all share, and we can all care, we’re different but we all belong.” We also have had occasional guests, including Fran Friedman and Jackson Gillman!
Tim: I love that you have taken an important idea like celebrating differences and found a way to share it with a larger community. It sounds like it took a lot of work and a bit of uncertainty. Fran and Jackson are pillars in the CMN community, especially here in New England. They have been singing and performing for years. But you retired after a long career as a kindergarten teacher. What advice do you have for others traveling down this same road?
Dorothy: Basically, I took some time off and then chose to find ways to continue doing what I had loved best about teaching. For me that was creating that belonging feeling when everyone is singing. By selecting songs with quality lyrics and appealing melodies those songs stimulated discussions. I loved nurturing the experiences of speaking and listening and responding, affirming each child’s ideas. How could I keep on doing this when I didn’t have a ready-made classroom of children?
I lived with the question awhile, volunteered at a local preschool, and organized my huge supply of music. Eventually the idea of the show took hold of me. I had no idea how a TV show happened, but I asked the questions, and the resources came.
As teachers we have planned a zillion hours for a zillion children. We have planned endlessly and flown by the seat of our pants sometimes. Those planning and management skills are well-established by the time we retire and are quite transferable to all sorts of new settings.
Those old teaching reflection questions of: “What do I already know? What do I need to learn? And what are the resources I need?” are quite handy when you get the chance to create something new in retirement. We’ve lost the framework of the school and classroom, but we haven’t lost those creative, reflective, and love-of-children skills.
Tim: Reflection and planning are so important when working with children. Actually they are pretty important in most meaningful work. I’m sure that these same qualities are present not just in the aggregate but also in some of the individual songs that you have written. Can you tell me the backstory of one of your songs? Has the way you feel about the song changed since you first wrote it?
Dorothy: Two songs were written after particularly hard experiences and the songs were meant to be cathartic for the ones who had lived through the trauma. I assumed they were so specific that they would just be for that particular time and place.
When the kindergartners’ favorite tree was sprayed with a red X, marked to be cut down, the children grieved for her fate as for a dear friend. Their outrage and tears had to be heard. Here is “Grandmother Tree.”
When my sister fell into the rapids on a whitewater rafting ride, we were shocked and terrified for her in that rushing cold water with all those boulders. My family still sings “Paddle Paddle, Bump and Bink” 34 years later.
I have used both songs through the years with my children’s choruses and on my show. All children identify with the emotion, danger, fear, courage, strength, and relief in the lyrics. Both songs are asked for again and again and are on my first CD.
Tim: Writing about our challenges is a cathartic way to embrace them, learn from them, and move on to a better space. Sharing these challenges is so helpful in letting others know that there is often light at the end of the tunnel. Our humanity is defined by our day to day experiences sprinkled with the highs of our successes and also the challenges that we endure. We all face obstacles in the business of children’s music. How have you dealt with your own challenges?
Dorothy: Self-doubt is my biggest challenge. I still blush at the beginning of every show. Will I be good enough? Will they like my songs? My music is so much simpler than many other musicians, both in melody and in instrumentation. Then I remember the many years of families telling me how much they loved my music, and how they still sing my songs years later. It gives me courage to push through my doubts. To be honest, joining the Children’s Music Network was the very best thing to help me! I have met all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas and styles and abilities. I watch them in awe, doing what they do with such love and joy and open hearts and variety, sharing their particular flavors, and I LOVE it! I wrote a song about that experience at CMN that is on my new album.
Setting and expecting payment is the hardest hurdle for me. You’ve all helped me to get over the self-doubt about getting paid for doing what we love. While teaching, my music fit naturally into my job and I was paid as a professional as a teacher. In “retirement” I don’t get a salary, and need to set my own rates. Learning through your postings on the CMN Forum, applying for Cultural Council grants and school and bookstore programs, I have learned to put a price tag on my shows. If it’s a fundraiser or social justice event/rally, I donate the “time and talent.”
Tim: I think your answer resonates with most professionals in the children’s music world. Our community sings songs with children for so many reasons. But, getting paid for work is an important part of the puzzle for those in the children’s music business community. I am glad that you have found the right balance to meet your needs. I am also glad you mentioned social justice. This interview has come full circle as I once again think of your place in the greater world. You have a strong sense of social justice. Can you reflect on 2017 and share the impact of current events and your singing?
Yes, my new CD has a song I wrote the morning of the Women’s March, January 21st, 2017, “The Kindness March.” I have done this song all year at libraries, summer camps, and music classes, tweaking it until it became an echo song and easier to sing along with. We get physically moving, even the grown-ups, marching out our frustrations and declaring a better way to “play.” “I will not leave another out, so I will stop and look about and make sure there’s not any doubt that everyone belongs, so sing this mighty song!”
“The Human Spirit” speaks of the truth of strangers helping each other out through the numerous climate-related emergencies: hurricanes, floods, fires. “The Kindness Cat” celebrates looking for those kind moments that can be found anywhere. “What Makes a Person a Person?” was written for the show, and celebrates our many different racial backgrounds. “Navigating Friendship” sings about hanging in through the waves by sharing and listening so that we can still be friends. “Deepest Longing” is my personal prayer for all children to be safe and welcome. All of these songs are included on my new CD “More Songs for Curious Kids” which should be available on CDBaby any minute!
Tim: Congratulations on your new CD. Going through this process takes lots of planning, reflection and some uncertainty. The joy of holding the finished product in your hands is priceless as is sharing the songs with a larger community. We look forward to hearing more from you in the near future. It has been a pleasure, learning more about your 2nd career. Do you have any final advice for our readers.
Dorothy: Live with the question, “What’s next?” But when the nudges come and a vision takes shape, then go for it. Learn as you go, like you always wanted the children to do.
“Something’s Calling” is my inner theme song:
“When something’s calling you inside,
Don’t wait around for an easy ride.
You could be waiting around all day,
So take the first step and be on your way!
This is your life to live
And you have your own gifts to give.
What eggs will hatch what seeds will grow?
If you take a deep breath and get up and go!