MARTINEZ -- Like magic, John Muir Elementary School fifth-graders wrote and recorded a lively new song about New York City in 30 minutes.
Actually, classes from every grade level did the same thing last week with help from a trio of TuneLittle professionals.
"They make sure that the song comes from the kids' input," said Amanda Tamo, a Parent Teacher Association volunteer." It unfolds naturally."
Thanks to a grant from the Martinez Community Foundation and John Muir Elementary School PTA funding, students discovered some of the secrets of songwriting and the creative, collaborative process.
Board president Stuart McCallough said there is not enough state money available to meet basic (education) obligations.
"We're trying to fill in for things that we took for granted growing up in Martinez," he said
"We believe the paradigm of music brings a sense of joy that comes when your voice is part of a larger group creating harmony and music," McCallough added.
Students did seem joyful as they left the final recording session. Kaydn Brown said, "I liked that we got to actually write a song."
"I enjoy songwriting," chimed in classmate Carlee Palmer. "Being in a group makes it easier."
At the beginning, kids looked curious as they sat on the carpeted floor of Room 15 where microphones, a recorder, a videographer, songwriters and a singer with an acoustic guitar stood in front of a wall covered with big blank pieces of paper.
Artist, singer and guitarist Loni Martinez started by asking students to decide which of a couple of melodies they like best. Then students brainstormed for a lyric subject.
John Muir teacher Mona Kolodzie and Deborah Falconer, a model and actress, helped facilitate the discussion.
The three professional songwriters founded TuneLittle based on Martinez' prior songwriting success with special education students, and their 1980s resolution to go into business together after establishing careers and family.
Students sing out their ideas -- the Raiders, the 49ers, pickles, cats and Mrs. Edmunds. They finally settle on New York City and begin to talk about what one might encounter in a visit to New York.
Martinez encourages kids to call out possible lyrics. She reminds them, "All ideas are good ideas." Students sing along as she recants previous lines and adds new ones.
Meanwhile, Kolodzie writes new phrases on the white paper as they are created. At times, the sound of new line does not fit. Then the class figures something new, and Kolodzie makes changes.
The Statue of Liberty, seeing a show and horse carriages were typical suggestions, but one student says that he heard that New Yorkers could be rude.
In the age of political correctness, teachers wince, but students vote to leave it in the song which, when finished, could pass for a professional jingle about New York.
The children's faces reflect intense concentration, as if they are contemplating a puzzle or observing a new phenomenon.
Kolodzie, Falconer and Martinez keep the questions coming until the kids find words they can agree upon.
"Songs are just patterns," Martinez explained.
When the song is complete, even the most shy or distracted youngsters are engaged and singing.
That is when Falconer explained the sensitivity of the microphones and a need for quiet during the recording session.
"Stand up, get your wiggle on ... exhale, inhale, relax ... body straight, aim the sound at the microphone."
On a visual signal, students sing out, seemingly oblivious to videographer Sam Slovick, who slowly circles them, recording from various angles.
Classmates seem surprised that they were able to write a song in just 30 minutes, but Falconer smiled and said, "It always works."
Confirming was fifth-grader Amy Hall. "Recording and singing was easy!"
After each class composed a song, the entire student body met to entertain each other with their new original music. The newly recorded songs are made into a CD, which the Parent Teacher Association can sell as a fundraiser to benefit the school.
TuneLittle conducted a similar workshop at Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall where the songwriting experience was apparently transformational for some kids.
"One kid who was in there left his previous associates and moved to Florida where he is learning more about music and songwriting," Falconer said.
Martinez, Falconer and Kolodzie are in the process of creating a nonprofit organization called TuneUp specifically for the purpose of working with at-risk kids.
Reach Dana Guzzetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.