Class: 2014 Winter Accelerator
StorytoSong Project is an experience. Our company brings the stories of life into song. We offer workshops and consulting sessions to build songs from spoken stories and experiences, celebrating people's lives through collaborative songwriting. Our products help our cutomers to reach beyond commercial music to the real stories of life. Our mission is to help communities hear the musical voices of their own people and to help each person create a song from their own life. Our products include (but are not limited to): 1. Special Event Songwriting 2. Songwriting Workshop or Demonstration 3. Gift of Song 4. Personalized Song 5. Story-to-Song Performance 6. Custom Orders
Singing the songs of the people
I grew up in a small town in eastern Massachusetts on the south shore. Throughout my childhood and into college, music was my identity. I played and performed classical piano; I was first chair for the clarinet in the school band; I listened to any and all music I could find. I started plucking around with a guitar and singing harmonies with women friends in high school and studied piano with the artist in residence during my first year of undergraduate school.
Do you ever look in the mirror and wonder at the person looking back at you?
I feel as if much of my life, I have been looking at a stranger in my reflection. There was the person on the inside, an identity I shared with very few people. Then, there was person I shared with the outside world. The two were often at odds and acquaintances at best.
My inner self asked deep life questions on a regular basis:
Who am I?
Who do I want to be?
What do I want to do?
How can I make the world a better place?
I knew that I wanted to do something important and meaningful with my life, but I was not sure what I could do as one individual being.
My outer self wanted to fit in to a social and cultural world where the parameters for acceptance ran counter to the desires and values of my inner self. I compared my self to other people my age. The results were never positive. I could match their exceptional qualities of beauty, intelligence, popularity, or skill.
I was not smart or pretty enough. I played piano too musically.
What I learned from comparison was that my real self was not adequate and therefore did not matter. I was of little consequence in a big world. I was not of value. I was not important. And I was afraid to share my raw, unfiltered identity for fear of judgment and possible rejection.
After graduating high school, I moved to Maine for college and spent most of my time studying overseas in foreign countries. I learned new languages and ways of living. I met people who wanted to learn about me. I tried on different identities and different names.
In Hungary, I was vegetarian.
In Mali, I was Nandi Koné.
I cut my hair, let it grow, and cut it all off again.
By the end of college, my connection to music was in listening only. Disenchanted with the stringent culture of classical music, I had given up the piano. My high school guitar lay in a case gathering dust in my parents’ basement.
When I graduated, I headed for the west coast, vowing never to return to New England. Life there was too fast-paced, and I wanted a change. I wanted adventure. I wanted to create my own life and identity, free from the attached strings of my childhood.
For more than a decade, I lived around the world, moving from one community to the next. I felt rootless and transient, my identity never seeming to quite meet my expectations and hopes.
I gained and lost weight.
I got a nose piercing, took it out, and then pierced it again.
I grew restless for change, to recreate my identity. When this happened, I would think about getting a tattoo, packing up my car, and driving somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Music had long since faded into the background of my transient life.
I have made plans, and they have changed.
I lived in the Pacific Northwest, France, Alaska, Arizona. I lived one reality in my mind, another on paper, and another still in practice.
I got married, and then I got divorced.
I moved seven times in two years.
Somewhere amidst the moving and changing, I started listening less to the voices of expectation and judgment from the outside world and more to my inner self.
I began to realize that I found comfort in accepting and valuing the part of me that I generally kept hidden. I began to blend my inner and outer selves and found that I had a stronger sense of confidence and purpose when I shared the real me with people in my community. Rather than trying to meet the unrealistic, unhealthy expectations of cultural peers and managers, I was creating a more sustainable path just by being myself. I breathed more easily and experienced less anxiety by being honest and real.
The more I listened, the more I realized I was leading a double life, and the more unhealthy effect this life was having on me.
My life shifted from planning to practice. It became my practice to live in ways that nourished my inner self and true spirit.
The practice of being my self was not easy and not always accepted by the outer world.
For this reason, while it was never part of any of my plans to move back to New England, I left the wilderness of bush Alaska for a gritty city in Massachusetts.
Lowell, Massachusetts. Factory town. Long-forgotten wilderness.
I moved all of my belongings with me, and then spent two years selling and giving them away.
I immersed my self in music and began writing the songs of people.
I felt like a stranger and befriended the ghosts of factory workers, who shared their stories with me and helped me feel less alone.
I sang their stories and felt a renewed sense of purpose.
Recently, an appointment for my day job as a park ranger brought me into Boston and through a security line. Wearing my civilian coat and hat, it was business as usual. Remove your laptop from your bag, and take everything out of your pockets. When I took off my coat, the men staffing the security line saw that I was in uniform. My identity in uniform was more acceptable.
“Where is your ID?” one man asked me.
“I am here to get one,” I said.
“Well, then you should practice saying, ‘I have an id. I am important,’” he informed me.
I looked at him. Did he really just say that?
“I am important, with or without an ID.”
The words came out before I could stop them. I was not just speaking for me. I was speaking for every person who might otherwise appear invisible.
I went to the fifth floor and down a narrow, windowless corridor lined with green doors with small, numbered signs at uniform height on the upper left side.
The door to Room #560 was open.
I went inside.
A man sat at a desk.
“Your nametag, it says Interpreter français,” he said.
“You speak French? Vous parlez français?”
I nodded. “Oui. Je parle français.”
We conducted the remainder of the appointment in a mix of French and English. I learned that he was from Senegal and had spent the past 24 years in the United States. I told him that I had lived in Mali.
At the end of the appointment, he said that I must come back and visit so we could speak French together. I invited him to Lowell and told him that I played the ukulele and wrote songs from people’s spoken stories.
“You are a griot,” he told me. “Do you know what is a griot?”
I did know. A griot is a person in West Africa who walks from village to village singing the songs of the people.
I left with buoyed spirits.
It did not matter what clothing I was wearing. I mattered, and what I was doing mattered.
I was important. I was singing the songs of the people.
Pivot and Pitch and Pivot--Repeat!
I stood up last night in front of a group of entrepreneurs and pitched my business. I had just come up with a new idea for a way to package my product the night before. This shift is what I have heard referred to in my class as a pivot—a change in business plan, product, etc. I am familiar with changing plans, and this seemed like a shift that could bring in my first paying customer.
It did not occur to me that I had pivoted until one of my classmates raised her hand during the question and answer portion of the presentation and noted how much she had witnessed me change from the start of the class to now. My own inner critic had been doing such a good job of assuring me that I was never doing enough and that everyone else in the class was accelerating at a faster pace than me that I had not taken a moment to step back to look at what I had accomplished.
It was not easy to get up in what our teacher called the “hot seat.” I was a little surprised at how nervous I was and extremely thankful for my neighbor, who repeatedly assured me that I would do just fine and taught me a mantra to help me relax.
I have been speaking in front of audiences of all sizes for more than a decade. I can still remember my first time standing up in front of a large group of visitors at a forest service site in Washington State. It seemed like there were at least 300 people, but I am sure that time and memory has embellished those numbers.
It took years before I was able to stand up in front of a group without feeling nervous. And that was for my day job.
I grew up playing and performing classical piano. I don’t think I ever got over my nerves and butterflies. I would hide behind the security of the piano, close my eyes, and play. Performance required putting myself into an almost meditative state. If I ever started thinking about the audience or what I was doing, I risked losing my place in the piece, faltering, and being judged. In the classical world, I never felt safe, secure, or confident.
When I first began performing at the local open mic in Gustavus, Alaska, I was a nervous wreck. I could hardly eat the day of a performance. There was no piano to hide behind. I felt completely vulnerable and exposed sitting up there holding a guitar and singing. I had never performed like this before. I did not know what I was doing. I did not possess the skill on a guitar that I had spent years learning and crafting on a piano. I was a foreigner in an unknown, musical land. I did not yet speak the language.
Even in front of the most supportive audience in the world, I would shake through the entire set and immediately hear from my inner critic after the performance, going through a litany of mistakes I had made, ridiculous things I might have said, etc.
After six months of performing at open mic and playing at local gatherings in Gustavus, I had gained some comfort and confidence. I was beginning to write and perform my own music. And most importantly, I had met an instrument that I felt comfortable playing—the ukulele. I still did not possess much skill beyond basic strumming, but I no longer feel like a tiny impostor trying to play an enormous guitar.
When I first began performing at a local venue in Lowell, Massachusetts, it felt a bit like starting over but with some practice under my belt. I was shaky at first and unsure of my self. But I was soon welcomed into the music and art community. With each performance, I could feel myself standing a little taller and singing with more confidence and joy.
You would think that being chosen for an entrepreneur Accelerator program would help build my confidence, but that inner critic continues to voice its concerns about my capabilities. I constantly worry that I am not accelerating fast enough and living up to my own expectations and those of the course instructors.
Giving a business pitch, even in front of a group of fellow entrepreneurs, is a challenge. I am not well versed in the new vocabulary I am learning. Words like minimal viable product, customer segments, variable and fixed costs have not been a part of the language I have been learning through my day job and academic career. I do not possess a business or finance background.
But I am doing it!
I got up there last night and felt clumsy and ungraceful. The moment when I picked up my ukulele, closed my eyes, and began to play was the most natural I felt for the duration of the class. This may seem small, but it was a reminder for me that music is my passion and the path I am following is the right one.
I imagine that in the days, months, and years to come, I will learn more, build my confidence, falter, and pitch, pivot, and pitch over and over and over again. At least, I am not at risk of leading a dull life.
Art takes work
I am fairly certain I have told you before that patience is not a virtue that comes easily for me. I want results, and I want them quickly. In this modern world of social networking, I am thankful to receive a nearly immediate outpouring of love and support from friends, family, and Story-to-Song fans.
Facebook likes are wonderful and uplifting, but I am beginning to realize that success for a startup means money. I have been spending time looking for funding opportunities in the form of grants and fellowships. I am learning how to engage potential customers in conversation about goods and services to figure out how to package and market songwriting into specific products.
My dream is to be able to be a full-time musician, composing songs from stories and performing and recording those songs. I believe in the Story-to-Song method and the importance of sharing as many people’s stories as possible.
I will be sharing my business idea and offering a product demonstration by way of a brief, musical performance at the Merrimack Valley Sandbox on January 21st at 9:00am. Come one, come all!
I keep sending out my intention to the universe, but I know from experience that intention and hope alone may not be sufficient. So, I am doing my best to focus my energies on creating tangible results as well.
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”
~ Emile Zola
Bless and Release
During my time in the Sandbox, my emotions seem to shift as capriciously as the sand in the metaphorical box. At times, I feel like a 10 on the scale of possibility. Just as easily, I can crash to a 3 or 4 and feel completely overwhelmed.
“You are competing against the world,” Sandbox guide and guru David Parker told us yesterday evening during class. We were learning about money—how we feel about it, how to ask for it, Angels and Angel groups, investors who give their own money to business ventures, often startups like mine, and so on.
Starting a business is no easy feat, and it takes a lot of work. Fundraising is a necessary, if not enjoyable, part of it. This is one reason why I am thankful to the in the Winter Accelerator program.
I am in no way comfortable on the subject of money. Sure, I earn money, I pay bills, and I love to buy things, especially ukuleles. But I have a serious guilt complex surrounding the spending and requesting of money.
When people ask me what I charge per hour or per song, I kind of hem and haw and mumble an amount, immediately following with apologies and possibilities for bartering or paying on a sliding scale, etc. etc.
Our presenter, Barrie Atkin, came in with a bundle of energy and wisdom that both overwhelmed and inspired me to carry on even though the statistical odds may very well be against me.
Toward the end of the session, we are all slouching and showing signs of fatigue. At this point, Barrie walked around the room and let us each choose a special marjker, which we placed on a napkin on the table in front of us. She then asked us to stand up, place the marker in our mouth, and jump up and down.
“Seriously,” I thought to myself. But jump I did. Why not?
After, she asked us if our confidence level with regard to money had changed. I was still feeling guilty (learned behaviors are difficult to overcome), so I didn’t answer.
Moments later, she explained how she had overcome her own challenges with finances and money.
“People want to help people,” she told us. “And there are people out there who have already decided that they are going to give their money to someone, so why not let it be you?”
“Investing can be an opportunity to support a person, business, or cause that someone cares about and that matches their interests and passions. Investing can make someone feel good.”
She asked us if we have ever donated money to a cause or business venture and asked us how we felt. I talked about donating money to a company that was creating an app for people to learn how to support humane poultry farming practices in their purchases.
Giving that money felt great, AND I got to pick out pins with chickens on them. I knew I didn't need more stuff, but I used to own chickens and still love, admire, and support them from a distance. Plus, I love chicken paraphernalia.
Toward the end of the session, our presenter offered advice that traveled straight to my heart.
Even if you do not receive money from potential investors, practice “Bless and release.”
“Always be thankful, and don’t burn bridges.”
“Stay true to your passion.”
“Remind yourself of your vision and goals and why you are doing this.”
I drove home elated and feeling like any and everything was possible in this, the best of all possible worlds.
Sandboxers of the Accelerator Collaborate
I find that my own life and endeavors are vastly more rewarding when they involve many minds, bodies, and spirits. In the spirit of symbiosis and collaboration, I have been earning time as a reward for my skills in partnership with the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange (MVTE), whose leader is a member of my Sandbox Cohort in the Merrimack Valley Sandbox Winter Accelerator Program.
Everyone has a story
I recently participated in a Skill Share through the MVTE and wrote a reflection about the experience, which I am sharing in this space as well.
Everyone has a story.
Yes, that means you, too.
This past Friday evening, I performed some original songs and led a songwriting demonstration in downtown Lowell at an artist maker's space called Lowell Makes. It was part of a skill share through a local time bank called the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange (MVTE). One skill I can share is helping someone write a song about their own life.
Joy Mosenfelder, the mastermind behind all things MVTE, gave a heartfelt introduction and offered the words that are dreaded by some:
Who would like to volunteer?
Silence, joined by a few quiet rumblings of protest.
I have a terrible voice.
I don’t have a story.
All lines I have heard before. It was simultaneous rumblings from many inner critics.
As a backup, Joy had offered to volunteer, but we both were not so secretly hoping for a brave soul from the audience to volunteer.
Finally, a young man offered to come up to share his story. I could feel the release of tension in the room. A participant had been chosen. Now, folks could relax.
For me, it was just the beginning. My own inner critic was absent, which was unusual. I was raring to go because I knew I only have about 30 minutes or so to get the chorus started, so I just dove right in.
The participant whispered to me, asking what kind of story would make a good song and wondering what kinds of stories I had already written songs about. I told him that any story could work and that the first song I have written was from a story about when I was in preschool.
“How about a song from when you were little?” I asked him.
He liked this idea and proceeded to share a story about moving to Lowell from the Dominican Republic (his precise words were “from Dominican Republic”) when he was 10 years old.
I often feel waves of electricity and compassion sweep over my body as I listen to a participant share their story. Even in my heightened state and with the adrenalin that comes with this kind of energy and being put on the spot in front of an audience, I felt such love and a desire to make sure to create a beautiful chorus for this beautiful person.
In addition to the adrenalin, I was typing the story on an unfamiliar computer. The spacebar kept sticking, and I would periodically shriek when the story document would disappear and be replaced by a Facebook page or some other application. Not the best conditions for a sensitive process, but my participant stayed close and seemed to be holding his own.
Periodically, I turned to look at him and offer words of encouragement, a shoulder squeeze, and a smile to assure him that he was doing a great job. I would ask the audience to clap with me after each phase of the beginning songwriting process.
The audience can be a support for the participant just by being present. Since it is my job as composing guide to protect the participant and help them feel valued and safe, I often ask people in the audience to stay for the duration of the demonstration because the choice to get up and leave—even if it has nothing to do with the participant or the quality of the story or song—may serve to fuel the participant’s inner critic.
In just under 40 minutes, the beginnings of a song came into the world, one with heart and soul and spirit.
We made it through the spoken story, shaping of the story into a poem, a recording of the participant reading through the words, a recording of the participant singing through the words, and a quick draft of a chorus with melody and groove. The participant had a wonderful rhythm and cadence in his voice. It was a beautiful thing to hear. The second I heard a promising arc of notes and groove, I went for it. I repeated the melody in the exact rhythm I had heard from the participant.
“That is great!” he exclaimed. “See, you are the singer, not me.”
“I just repeated exactly what I heard from you!” I responded. “It was all you.”
We sang through the chorus a couple of times. Then, I asked the audience to join in.
Finally, I made a recording of everyone singing the chorus together.
40 minutes, give or take a few.
The beginnings of a song from a powerful story.
Who will help me bring more songs into the world from their own stories?
I hope it will be you.
To listen to the chorus of the song we wrote, visit my soundcloud channel:
To learn more about Lowell Makes and the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, visit these links: