I recently attempted Story-to-Song (STS) in a new forum. I had spent a week learning about an education technique called Facilitated Dialogue, a new realm the National Park Service is exploring for expanding beyond the formal interpretation techniques that have been employed for many years. Rather than the park ranger speaking as the authority on why a national park should be preserved and protected for future generation, the park ranger now takes on the role of facilitator in engaging visitors to share their own perspectives and ideas with each other.
The training experience was both fascinating and uncomfortable. I was stretched, offended, humbled, and inspired at different moments and sometimes at the same time. I am regularly reminded of how very different each person’s life experiences and values can be from my own. I am also continually amazed at how easily a conversation can become emotionally charged, even when discussing a subject that most people at the table can agree to support—education.
The final project was to work collaboratively in small groups to create a Facilitated Dialogue program on a specific subject. My group was tasked with creating a program on the theme of immigration. We worked for hours, fleshing out ideas, talking through different possibilities, and coming to consensus through quite amicable conversation. A group member who I work with at Lowell National Historical Park suggested that I incorporate STS at the end of the program as a way of synthesizing ideas from the participants.
I was both honored and intimidated. Each time I have the opportunity to try STS in a new venue that is out of my comfort zone, I worry that I might fail. To this point, this fear has not inhibited me from trying, but it certainly keeps me humble, as does the feedback I receive. This new format was to write a song collaboratively with a group of adults.
Try I did. I introduced the exercise to the group and asked folks to share their thoughts on a concept my group members and I had broached at the beginning of the program—the term “Island.”
And people shared their thoughts. They went for it. It was a beautiful thing to behold. Phrases perfect for singing were expressed. A fellow group member even ventured a beginning melody that was beautiful and then a second offered the next line to the melodic arc.
We sang. I strummed. I found a way to facilitated the creation of a song in less than 15 minutes. It was not easy or comfortable, but I did it.
Then came the debrief. Many spoke enthusiastically about the experience but not all were in agreement. One participant was hurt that words had been changed. Even though the person who had originally spoken the words was asked and agreed to the change, this other participant had not agreed.
As a facilitator, I wondered if I had not paid close enough attention to the cues from the participants. Had I paid closer attention would I have noticed this participant disengaging from the process?
In a more ideal STS songwriting session there would be more than 15 minutes. Perhaps, if I had not been so rushed I might have remembered to ask the group if everyone was ok with that particular change.
In the end, I am humbled and hope this participant does not think less of me for my mistakes. I learn by doing, and each new way I employ STS is a tremendous learning experience. From this experience, I learned that it can be difficult to write a song from the stories of many. This session involved songwriting with adults in a setting where we were each accustomed to sharing our feelings. It has helped me reflect and remember how important it is that I check in with each participant throughout the process. I might need to check and then double check when working with adults and with youth to ensure their voices are heard.
Would I still call it a success? I think so. I was honored that participants shared their unique experiences, both the comfortable and uncomfortable moments. Participants shared their voices. Many sang. I never require that people sing. Those that chose not to sing told me that they were thankful I did not ask them to sing and that their silence was not in protest but just their way of being present in a way that was comfortable for them. Success can be defined in many ways. It can be comfortable and uncomfortable.
A song was created that did not exist before. Voices and spirits rose in song together. For me, that is success.