An Interview with Phil Galdston, Steinhardt’s Songwriter-in-Residence, on Songs for Kids Facing Social Challenges

Songwriter-in-Residence Phil Galdston, co-author of the Vanessa Williams hit “Save the Best for Last,” has written or produced songs on 13 albums that won or were nominated for GRAMMY awards. Over the course of his career, he’s worked with stars from from Beyoncé to Chicago, Celine Dion to Sheryl Crow, Aaron Neville to Esperanza Spalding—and has even produced comedy albums for Robert Klein and Robin Williams.

But for his latest songwriting project, he turned to a different set of collaborators— family-friendly crooner Tom Chapin and the group of child development experts behind Social Thinking, an educational curriculum geared toward children struggling to learn the nuances of communication. Together, Galdston and Chapin developed a CD to accompany a storybook series for 4-to-7-year-olds called The Incredible Flexible You (one of the story authors happens to be Galdston’s wife, Nancy Tarshis). With catchy tunes in styles ranging from reggae to funk to folk, the music drives home lessons about reading facial expressions, dealing with emotions, and working in a group. The Parents’ Choice foundation honored the album with its gold award, praising its “witty lyrics, stellar musicianship,” and “positive instruction in social interaction and critical thinking.”

Galdston sat down with NYU Stories to talk about his recent foray into the educational arena—and explained why songwriters needn’t condescend to kids.

How is writing children’s music different from penning a top-40 hit?

The Incredible Flexible You isn’t children’s music! It’s for families. And, by and large, it’s not different at all. First and foremost, the songs still have to communicate.

How did you make sure the songs aligned with the educational principles of the Social Thinking program?

Pretty often we would come to a crossroads when writing the lyrics, and that’s when we’d call and ask, “Are we going off the rails here?” We got invaluable feedback from all of the authors of the books. At one point we had a very interesting conversation with [Social Thinking founder] Michelle Garcia Winner, who was concerned that we were using some vocabulary that might be beyond the initial target audience: children with social–cognitive challenges. There was great give-and-take, where she pointed out how certain ideas could be misconstrued, and we did make some of the lyrics simpler. But Tom and I were able to show her that even though some lyrics may sail over the heads of little kids, that doesn’t mean they won’t get the song.

What does it mean for a child to “get” a song?

When my son Jesse was about three years old, I came into the living room to find this child who’d been weaned on Peter, Paul and Mary children’s records dancing wildly to James Brown. I stared at him and a light bulb went on. Did Jesse understand “Hot Pants”? No, he did not. But did he dig “Hot Pants”? Oh yeah.

Songs like “You Can Bend” and “The Incredible Flexible You” celebrate going with the flow, while “The Plan” stresses the importance of sticking to a group strategy. Do the two ideas conflict with each other?

That’s exactly the tension faced by children with social-cognitive challenges. It’s also the tension that any of us who walk into a situation with a plan face. We set out to make something for high-functioning kids on the autism spectrum, and we have learned that we’ve created a project for a general audience. We’re thrilled to have done so.

When you write collaboratively with someone like Tom Chapin, does one person tackle the lyrics, while another works on the music?

For me, there are no rules: I’ve written only lyrics, only music, both simultaneously—you name it. In this case, we were given the 10 lessons by the authors of the books, and we had to illustrate them in song. For many of them, Tom walked in with some fabulous idea already, for both music and lyrics, and my job was to be editor, saying, “We need another section here, so about this?” or “Why don’t we try this structure?” There are 12 songs on the record, and we wrote them in about 13 sessions, which anyone who’s worked with me knows is highly unusual. I’ve won the nitpicker award many times.

There’s a line from “Size of the Problem”—“I can go ask for help / if it’s worrying me”—that sounds like advice even adults need to hear sometimes. How did you arrive upon the mellow mood for that song?

I’ve been surprised and fascinated by how many people have gravitated toward that song. People say, “It’s very soothing, it cools me out, it calms me down.” Having worked with recording studios with a lot on the line, I’m a veteran of many high-priced and high-pressure situations, and the one thing I’ve learned is you don’t get anywhere by letting the anxiety rule the process. “Size of the Problem” is kind of born out of that. The vast majority of people facing social-cognitive challenges are incredibly bright. It’s not as though they don’t know what’s happening—it’s just that anxiety can well up.

Why do you think The Incredible Flexible You has been so well received among parents?

We all fear for our children in some ways: Here we have a generation of people spending more time with screens than with the faces of their peers. To think that The Incredible Flexible You can contribute to a better social balance is really satisfying. Every time you write a song, it’s born with the idea that it’s going to touch somebody—and when you’ve reached a lot people, that’s about as rewarding as it gets. It’s an utter thrill to feel that we’re sending a message with real significance.

This post appears in the following categories: Faculty, music