Friday, December 7, 2001
Music to grow by: Singing with Suzanne Scheniman
Just last week, USA Today recommended an award-winning children's book, Remmy and the Brain Train, by Dr. James B. Maas. Tucked inside the front cover of that book is a CD by Carlisle's own Suzanne Scheniman. Suzanne set the text of Remmy to music, and not only does it include her voice and composition, but also the voices of a number of members of the Carlisle community. On Tuesday of this week, Dr. Maas was scheduled to launch his book and Suzanne's music on the Today Show, bringing nationwide attention to a story and song about a little boy who needs a good night's sleep.
Suzanne Niles Scheniman is already a familiar face to many Carlisleans, but most of them are under four feet tall. Every Monday and Thursday, Suzanne performs during Music Time at the Red Balloon nursery school, singing about sandwiches, a "Brand New Baby," ladybugs, Daisy's, the Swap Shed, "Duck Math," and colors. To the Red Ballooners, she's the lady with the guitar; to their parents, she's the composer and lyricist of many of the songs the children learn to sing. Some of us also know her as the creator of the award-winning Sea Songs, a book and CD about marine creatures, designed to educate and entertain small children.
Teaching herself to make music
Suzanne uses every spare moment to compose. In her files, she has over 200 songs waiting to be recorded. She says she's quite unable to stop writing, and she certainly has no shortage of subjects: Beanie Babies , "Cool Cretaceous Creatures," Manatees, and even the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge at the Big Dig. Her latest project is a book and CD similar to Sea Songs called Singa-Songa-Saurus, dealing with dinosaurs.
It would seem that the understanding and composition of children's music would require a degree in early childhood education, or at least a background in music, but what makes Suzanne extraordinary is that her skills are entirely self-taught. She was a liberal arts major at Wellesley College, but found that she preferred mathematics to the arts disciplines. As she puts it, she has "an explainer's heart" and she loves the process of "making order out of chaos." She transferred to M.I.T., earned a degree in computer engineering, and found work in a software firm after graduation. Marriage and children followed, and Suzanne settled into becoming a full-time, pro-active Mom.
Suzanne became interested in music for children when her own two sons were small. She and her boys would sing along with tapes while driving in the car, and she began to wonder what it was that makes a good children's song "click." She learned a little basic keyboard harmony from a friend, and then bought herself a guitar and taught herself to play it. She credits the music of Raffi and Anne Murray ("The Hippo in the Tub") with being influences on her own work. Si mplicity, repetition, and "singability" are, of course, criteria for good children's songs, but Suzanne also believes that quick, attention-getting openings, and words and sounds that are fun to say are integral to a song's success. If she's performing live, she adds to that formula interaction: children supply sounds and physical actions, which are both aids to learning rhythm, melody, and lyrical concepts.
Creating a recording studio
Before long, she had put her computer engineer's skills to work establishing a home recording studio, Songwaves, and began using a synthesizer to create background for her songs. Her husband Bill, whose avocations also include the guitar and working as a recording engineer at the Blue Jay Studio here in Carlisle, gets credit for contributions to her recordings as well. As technology became more sophisticated, the Schenimans put Songwaves on a website (www.Songwaves.com), where children and their parents can meet Suzanne and learn about her songs. In addition, Suzanne always includes a glossary of terms in her songbooks. This, she says, allows her to "use big words" and strengthen the educational value of her work.
Sea Songs and Dr. James Maas
Time passed, the Schenimans' sons grew up, and Sea Songs brought Suzanne her first public recognition. It won the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval, a Parent's Choice Silver Honor, and Dr. Stevanne Auerbach's ("Dr. Toy") listing on the 100 best children's products of 1998 and in the ten best audio-video tapes of 1998. And just recently, it brought her an exciting assignment. A friend of her eldest son's took the CD off to Cornell with him and brought it into a Psychology 101 lecture taught by Dr. James Maas, who recently achieved a good deal of fame for his bestselling book, Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program that Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. Dr. Maas is an authority on sleep study. Power Sleep outlines the relationship between sleep and performance in human beings, and the research yields some very sobering conclusions. In an interview with
U.S. A. Today published on November 29, Maas insisted that sleep should be "as important to everybody's radar screen as nutrition and exercise." College students, long recognized as among society's most sleep-deprived people, need 9.25 hours of sleep a night, but according to Maas, they average about 6.1 hours, accounting for their performance "crashes" and their susceptibility to illness. Although adults need less sleep than children do, the relentless demands of our society, not to mention the non-resting passivity of watching television, have created a serious problem. As Maas put it in U.S. A. Today, "Sleep deprivation makes you stupid, lowers productivity, ruins your health and may well shorten your life."
Maas usually has music playing as his students come into class, and when he clicked the Sea Songs CD into his player, he was impressed by what he called the "bounce and dance" of the music. He sent Suzanne a copy of Power Sleep inscribed, "Let's work together! I love your songs!" A follow-up phone call revealed that Maas had written a children's book in rhyme. It was about a little boy, Remmy, whose name comes from the R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. Remmy is tired all the time and unable to think, eat, or play well until a character named Dr. Zeez comes into his life. Dr. Zeez takes him for a ride on the "brain train" so he can learn about all the good things that happen to his body when he gets a good night's sleep. Taking his message to young children, James Maas had created Remmy and the Brain Train, and he asked Suzanne to set the book's poetry to music. The collaboration resulted in the CD that accompanies the book.
Carlisle contributes to Remmy's song
Suzanne wrote a glossary for the book's web page, persuaded Maas to read the part of Dr. Zeez on the CD, and then recorded not only the music, but also the voices of some local residents for sound effects. Kimball Farm's Dorset lambs, Tyler and Star, provide voices that enable children to "count sheep", and their barnmate Elton the rooster provides the wake-up sound. In addition, you can hear a local dog, a horse, a cat, ducks, and even a Carlislean cricket on the recording. Local children contribute cheers when, after a good night's sleep, Remmy hits a home run for his team.
Remmy and the Brain Train has won the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval and a place on Dr. Toy's list of 100 best children's products for this year. The National Parenting Center describes Suzanne's CD as "full of life and well produced. It features great sound effects that are engaging and entertaining." "Engaging and entertaining" are certainly two criteria for making a children's song "click." So are computers, math, music, and a little of Suzanne's own magic. As she says, "If you do what you love to do and put your heart into it, maybe somebody else will like it too."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito