Kid Pan Alley: Empowering Youth through Art, Poetry and Music | Community Idea Stations


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Kid Pan Alley: Empowering Youth through Art, Poetry and Music

The Virginia-based organization Kid Pan Alley has helped thousands of schoolchildren across the country write their own songs. The innovative program fosters creativity, collaboration and self-confidence. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Watch Kid Pan Alley on Virginia Currents TV, listen to more songs written by youth during Kid Pan Alley residencies and find out about Kid Pan Alley news and events.


At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Kid Pan Alley founder Paul Reisler takes a fifth grade class to look at a portrait of acclaimed opera singer Marian Anderson.

Paul Reisler: I’m so glad you choose this piece because I’ve been look at it for the last couple days and I think it’s so cool. Did Jeffrey tell you the story of Marian Anderson? And how they wouldn’t let her sing at Constitution Hall?

Reisler asks the students to trace the lines in the painting and study Anderson’s hands, posture and facial expression.

Reisler: I want you to take your left hand and point it up in the air and I go “I believe.”

Students: I believe...

These Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts students are using Beauford Delaney’s bright yellow painting of Anderson as inspiration for a song. Reisler and songwriter assistant Heather Mae start the creative process by asking the group how Anderson might have felt before her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial:

Student: I’d feel like I just want to do it, do it and say the words and believe in myself.

They ask the youth what she sang about…

Students: Hope, and fairness and equality...

And what she sounded like…

Student: She sung like an angel...

In less than 10 minutes, the students have written the song’s first line.

Students: I believe, I believe in being free, I believe in you, I believe in me.

Then, they begin to develop a melody.

May: Go for it! Sing “I believe.”

They’re a bit shy about singing solo and their voices are barely audible, but Mae listens closely, picks up their pitch and rhythm and sings it back to them.

(Ambient: Mae singing, Reisler playing guitar)

Mae, Reisler: You guys like that one?

By the end of today’s 45 minute session, the students leave with a melody to hum and lyrics to sing. They’ve discussed history and art. They’ve used teamwork to make something. And through creative expression, they’re building confidence.

Reisler: There’s clearly a real pride in what they’ve done, because they know they’ve done something of value.

Since founding Kid Pan Alley about 15 years ago, Reisler says they’ve helped some 35,000 students across the country create 2500 original songs.

Reisler: These kids will know their song perfectly by Friday and they’ll be singing in the hallway and the bathroom all week. And three years from now they’ll be able to sing it and actually now that we’ve been doing this 15 years and I run into a kid from back then, they can still sing their song. It didn’t take them weeks and weeks but that’s because it’s about them, it’s about what they created. It’s not the music of some European who’s been dead for 300 years. It’s their music and they’re really interested in it.

Mae: All children are able to be creative and that’s what Kid Pan Alley is; we want them to all realize creativity is important, it’s not something that’s to be forgotten or swept under test scores and studying.

(Ambient: songwriting session)

Kid Pan Alley works with multiple classes during its school residences. Each class gets two hour-long sessions to develop a song, which doesn’t seem like much time. But Mae says they usually complete two verses, a chorus and sometimes a bridge.

Mae: A lot of times we tell people that we write a full song for Kid Pan Alley and they say “Oh great, you wrote a verse and a chorus.” And we say no, no, no, we wrote a full song, 3 minutes 30 seconds, it could be on the radio and they don’t believe us but kids just don’t have that filter that adults have.

(Ambient: Patrick Henry concert)

All the classes come together for a rehearsal toward the end of the week, culminating in a concert for peers, parents and teachers.

(Ambient: “I Believe”)

Mae: In every child, there’s a song. They always have an ability pull from a place that adults aren’t able to. They look at something that might seem normal or boring to us, but to them, they see colors and lights and words that we never would have actually grabbed on to. But to them, it’s music and they see music in an entirely different way. It’s inspiring to us, that’s why we have become flexible in our own songwriting, because of them.

(Ambient: "Learning to Be Free”)

Adrian Ballard: I’ve tried to write a song before, really, really hard. And it was much easier here with everyone else’s help.

Adrian Ballard and his classmates wrote “Learning to Be Free” inspired by a Mary Cassatt painting.

Ballard: Before Kid Pan Alley, I really did not like singing. But when Kid Pan Alley came, I started to like it more.

Kid Pan Alley’s collaboration with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has taken them to communities across the state. The Museum’s Jeffrey Allison says the youth employ a range of skills that lead to the creation of something meaningful and memorable.

Jeffrey Allison: Each of the paintings is really just a window that starts the students’ exploration of a subject. That combination of the visual, when you work with the written word, then add the music as the third element. So you really have visual art, poetry and music all working together; they create something that is brand new and unique to that group of students. If the same painting is used by 12 different groups, it would be 12 completely different songs. It will make you cry, it will make you laugh, it’s just amazing.

(Ambient: "I'm Just Gonna Smile")

Reisler: Anytime you listen to kids it’s empowering because so much of the time kids don’t get listened to especially when you’re working in an inner city school. There’s a lot to do just to make the school work and the teachers are working really hard to make sure nobody gets hurt and they learn the things they need to learn for their test. And that kind of teaching is give and get, you give and you get. But this is a very different kind of teaching, this is a teaching about creating something and making something up; and we’re not giving it to them, we may be guiding them, so it’s more guiding than giving. I think it’s incredibly empowering for someone to listen on that level, to take their words and turn it into art and take that art and turn it into something larger.

In addition to concerts, Kid Pan Alley has released several CDs featuring the student’s original songs performed by Amy Grant, Sissy Spacek, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and other musicians. The recordings have won awards, including a nomination for a Grammy. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Patrick Henry concert audio courtesy of Kid Pan Alley.