As a singer-songwriter, James Hersch is drawn to songs that have a relatable story, not just a dance beat.
The Champlin resident, who has also lived in Nashville and Los Angeles, stresses that not only in his own music, but also in songwriting workshops he leads at schools, camps and other venues across the country.
Now, for the second year in a row, Hersch is bringing that idea to songwriting workshops tailored for the Anoka County Library, several of which are scheduled for July and August at various library branches.
Hersch, 59, whose style can be characterized as American folk, is the library’s musician-in-residence. As such, his four-day workshops, geared for children in grades 3 to 5, take a creative approach to the library’s goals around literacy, the arts and technology.
Also in line with the library’s mission is the fact that the free workshops, which are capped at a dozen participants, offer “a process of discovery for the kids,” said Hersch.
During the 90-minute sessions, Hersch guides children in composing, arranging and recording original music, which they create as a group. It’s a library setting, but “it’s not a place where you have to be silent and people will ‘shush’ you. It’s an alive and vibrant place,” he said.
At the end, the children receive a CD of their songs. That way, “the songs live on longer. They get played in the car and become part of family life.”
To jump-start things, Hersch, with his guitar in tow, first demonstrates “why songs are engaging, why they attract our ears, why we want our imaginations to jump in,” he said.
Then, they brainstorm ideas for a song, something that’s broad enough that everyone can chime in. For example, the children might make up a song about Bunker Beach, hanging out with a new group of friends or about how mosquitoes are “after us.”
Through the week, “I tell them, ‘We need to make three distinctly different kinds of songs,’ ” with a contrasting tempo, pitch, key or style, Hersch said.
The children come up with the subjects themselves. “I don’t say, ‘Let’s write a song about a cat.’ ”
A helper tracks their thoughts on a big flip chart, so the children can see the song take shape. They also individually jot down ideas in a journal. The visual part is key. “They can see a pattern of words, how they look in a song, how the lines are similar in length and where we want something to rhyme,” he said.
Hersch homes in on their vocabulary, what kinds of words they like, what gets their imaginations going.
It might result in a song that’s autobiographical in some way, while another might recount a goofy, made-up tale about a cat’s travels down the Mississippi River.
The songs are a puzzle they’re putting together piece by piece. “We can tell pretty quickly if we’re on the right track,” Hersch said. “There’s a lot of laughter and energy.”
It’s a “wild and chaotic atmosphere,” but it works, as the children have instincts about a song’s direction, he said.
Hersch will play a blues passage or something jazzy or rock ’n’ roll to inspire them, but they pick out what they think fits.
While recording the songs, Hersch keeps it natural, with ambient sounds in the background. The children sing, and some play instruments. On the whole, it “reinforces the magic of how songwriting can be so powerful,” triggering memories, forging bonds and “helping us figure out who we are, identify things that are important to us.”
It encourages him to keep a childlike perspective. “I’m so taken with the lack of clutter in their milieu and their ideas and honesty,” said Hersch, who began his career more than 30 years ago.
A literacy-building activity
Jenn Straumann, community engagement manager for the Anoka County Library, said via e-mail that the workshops are a “creative literacy-building activity.” Children play with the rhythm of language, the mechanics of songwriting and storytelling elements, she said.
That fits the library’s mission to “connect our community with ideas, information and inspiration.” The songwriting workshop also dovetails with its goals to preserve the community’s history, art and culture.
These kinds of experiential learning opportunities, which are made possible through funding from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, allow children to build relationships and “gain a sense of mastery” along the way, she said.
Similarly, they serve as yet another connection to books, online resources and library staff.
It’s something that the library hopes to expand on this fall, with songwriting workshops aimed at older adults, with a focus on preserving memories, Straumann added.
Shannon Melham, manager of the Mississippi branch library in Fridley, has helped out with some workshops. She’s been impressed with the whole process — everything from the wordsmith aspect to the technological.
Hersch is a “phenomenal facilitator” who knows how to get the children pulling together as a team. “It’s not just these kids want to do something about cats and these others want to talk about baseball. He knows how to work through it,” Melham said.
If someone has an idea, they have to figure out how to communicate it to the group, which builds confidence. Additionally, recording the music adds historical significance, “that what they just did is worth publishing in a way,” she said.
Hersch shows the children how the recording, too, goes beyond the music; they can hear the tap of a pencil or their rustling behind the music, Melham said.
It’s rewarding to watch as the children sing and dance to their own songs, which can be heartfelt or silly, she said.
Kickoff in Fridley
Angie Dorn’s daughters, Emma Samudio, 9, and Elisa Samudio, 7, participated in the library’s first workshop of the season last month, held at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts in Fridley. (The center will also host a CD release party on Sept. 19 featuring the songs from each of the workshops this summer.)
The Spring Lake Park resident said her daughters commented that Hersch was so kind and patient, they could tell he loved teaching.
Even now, her children ask every day to listen to the CD they made. They know a couple of songs by heart. Even their little brother, Ezra Samudio, 5, has them down.
Their journals from the workshop are still out on the table, too. They learned to “reflect a little bit … it doesn’t just all come at once,” she said.
Dorn was impressed with the group’s output and also the fact that the workshop “was so age-appropriate.”
“It was spot-on for where they were,” she said. “They were very captivated.”
Elisa said of the workshop, “It was off the top. It was awesome.” Her favorite part? When Hersch sang “My Brother Eats Bugs,” because “he used a funny voice.”
Emma chimed in, saying, “I loved the class, and I want to take it again.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.