Sunday, June 26, 2011

You Get What You Pay For

Some people think that Beth and I are expensive. They compare our fee with the competition and come to the conclusion that we cost too much for their school or organization.

In some cases, they may be right. Some folks have tiny budgets and no matter how much they value us, we’re unable to work together because of money. Even in this economy, though, the single biggest block to our working with schools isn't the price. It’s justifying our worth versus our competitors.

Imagine trying to describe your worth right now – your talents and your character, your education and work experience all in thirty seconds. What would you say to a prospective “buyer” that would encourage him or her to give you a job? You better be ready to say something that they’ll remember!

I’ll never forget how a local clothing store made its reputation with the phrase, “an educated consumer is our best customer.”  The reason that this phrase was so successful is that everyone wondered, “Am I an educated consumer?” The store wasn’t just saying we have great clothes and fair prices, they were saying, “Only smart people need come by.” Wow.

Beth and I began playing music in schools in 1993. Back then, we collected everyone’s brochures to learn how the marketing was done. With few exceptions, every act followed the formula that is applied not only in arts-in-education but throughout the world to sell stuff: fabulous quotes, exciting descriptions and photos of happy clients. It seemed like every act had the quote, “They’re the best we’ve ever had in our school!”

So, what’s a cultural arts rep to do? How can you decide which acts are going to please the teachers, students and principal and which ones might be an embarrassment to you? Here’s what we suggest you do to foolproof your cultural arts experience and receive lots of compliments for your efforts:

  • Preview the Performer and/or Contact Their References. You wouldn’t buy a dress without trying it on, would you? Ask their references how it benefited the students and whether the teachers thought it was worth giving up class time. Get specific.
  • Talk, Don’t Email. We know everyone’s busy, but you’ll get much better information from a performer when you communicate via telephone. Your intuition is very important.
  • If the Price is High, Ask Them Why! Our fees are based upon the fact that we’re two performers, we buy and maintain the best sound, sets and costumes, and we often spend a full year developing a new program. Additionally, we are local to New York where the cost of living and doing business are astronomically high. 
  • Go for a Grant. We know how your stomach churns at the thought of researching and writing a grant, but some of them are surprisingly simple. Check to see if a teacher can help you. They often know about local organizations and foundations that are just itching to give money for fantastic programs – like us! Here's a way to get a $500 grant that's easy:
The truth is we are not expensive. Our fees are based upon the actual cost of providing you with the best entertainment we can plus a reasonable profit so that we can stay in business. The value we bring to you, however, far exceeds what you are paying us. Because we are so experienced, dedicated, passionate about music, education and children, you aren’t just contracting for our talent – you’re getting two fellow parents who want the best for your kids. Can that be said of the competition? Ask around. Talk with us. Come see us perform or teach. And here’s what we think you’ll find:

An educated cultural arts representative is our best customer!

Getting Past "No" and Building Healthy PTA-Teacher Relationships

Have you met resistance when you tried to bring a new and exciting workshop or assembly program into you school? Does is sometimes feel as if no one is listening when  you talk about how great this program would be for the kids?

In this article, we’re going to talk about the two reasons why your school might not be greeting your new idea with open arms and what you might do to turn a “no” into a “maybe” or even a “yes”. 

Alright, let's get started. Here’s the two problems:

  • They  might be satisfied with what they’ve got  
  • They might fear change


First of all, let’s give those teachers some respect. Sit them down and ask them a few questions so that you can learn why they are content with their current cultural arts programs. Listen to their answers as if you were an interviewer, not disagreeing with their thoughts and feelings. When they are through, see if you can repeat back to them what they told you. This is called “mirroring” and it’s always a successful way to make sure that both people in any relationship are heard and respected. You may find that you are in agreement with them or that you still think that your program is better. In either case, you’ve opened the door to a better working relationship where both parties can get their needs met. 


Someone who is afraid of change might appear on the outside to be angry or dismissive. So, my first advice is to meet their resistance armed with the opposite of fear: love. In addition to the above mirroring, you should prepare yourself with an extra dose of TLC. Oftentimes, fear of change is in response to an experience where they trusted someone and felt betrayed. This might be another cultural arts representative who didn’t do their homework and brought in a terrible program. In this case, it may have made the teachers feel embarrassed, neglected or angry at the PTA.  When I get a level 10 reaction to a level 1 problem, I am usually in the presence of a trauma, so I try to be extra kind. 


Your spine or main idea is to provide the children and the teachers with arts programming that will support the curriculum and the whole development of the child. Any program that does not meet those standards is not worth the money or the time. In this era of standardized tests, it’s almost impossible to bring in programs just because they’re fun or entertaining.

Your first step to “yes” is to know that teachers are already overwhelmed by students being pulled out of class for specials, individual needs, assemblies and so much more. Therefore, your program had better be worthwhile and you might have to prove it. Here’s what I’d suggest to get that great program approved:

  • Take the long view. You may have to wait 2-3 years before you have developed buy-in on the part of the teachers for a big program. Start small and develop a track record of success
  • Do your homework. Know the learning standards and be able to point to specific areas of the curriculum where the arts program can support the school’s goals.
  • Get testimonials. The artist should be able to provide you with concrete evidence that their program has been “teacher tested and approved”.
  • See the program in action. A good teaching artist will be happy to have you witness a program in progress and a good school will gladly allow you to attend. Just don’t bring your kids!
  •  Choose artists who respect students and teachers. Creating art in a collaborative environment is the brass ring of arts-in-education. Everyone wants the children to be lifetime learners and passionate, creative individuals. The best artists exemplify this in everything they do.
Our two richest programs, Creating a New Hit Song and Creating a New School Song are highly beneficial to schools, but that doesn’t mean that they sell themselves. It takes a dedicated cultural arts representative to champion them to the principal, music teacher, classroom teachers and your fellow PTA members. The payoff, though, is huge. The “School Song” program leaves behind a life-long legacy and “Hit Song” is usually booked for five years or more. 

These workshop programs – and ones like them offered by other artists – can leave a lasting effect on the teachers and the students we all serve. In fact, it might change one or more child’s life forever!  In the end, we believe that’s an additional reason to be persistent, respectful and understanding of everyone’s opinions and needs. Good luck!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Beth & Scott Rehearsing "Happy Holidays Around the World"
a multicultural show performed exclusively in December
featuring songs @ Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lose Weight, Save Money and Experience Happiness…Really!

A couple of days ago, Beth and I were driving home from a school gig. As we crossed the Croton Resevoir, we turned on WBAI and began listening to an interview with Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University professor. Her words made a significant impression on us, so I’d like to share some of her findings.

But first, a little detour…

Lately, we've been researching and writing a new assembly tentatively titled, “Sharing, Spending and Saving”, a musical program about money. We were commissioned by the Newark Library system and PNC Bank to perform the show for young children beginning in September 2011.

In addition to writing songs about currency and counting, we'll also examine relationships and encourage dialogue in the classroom or at home about what we each value. Our belief is that having these discussions will help kids make better choices about managing their money – whether it’s their current allowance or their future paycheck.

But let’s tune back into that radio interview…

As we drove, I learned about new discoveries in brain research that pertain to our work as educators and parents. Dr. McGonigal and her colleagues have been re-evaluating the part of the brain traditionally labeled, “the pleasure center". Together, they have discovered that our brains are even more susceptible to messages than at first thought. (I'm not surprised. Just take a look at those sticky buns in my last post!)

What’s new is that our so-called pleasure centers are not so pleasurable. In reality, it’s a place where wants get magnified, sometimes way out of proportion to our real needs. Instead of just thinking about a bun, for example, we begin looking for bakeries on both sides of the street. Our brains shout out, “STICKY BUNS! NOW!” and we get the message that we had better answer that craving right away. Food, according to Dr. McGonigal, is the number one trigger for this behavior. But it can be about sexuality, alcohol, drug use or my particular weakness, shopping.

How hard is it to hold onto my wallet when I am being told by my brain that it’s an emergency to satisfy a craving? Very hard. In fact, this same part of the brain is responsible for addictive behavior that can literally ruin us, socially and financially. On the other hand, it’s also the part of us that’s responsible for our willpower.


Once we know how the brain works, we can look for ways to stop these episodes of craving before they drive us to ruin. In doing so, we develop a coping strategy and become stronger. The secret is self-compassion, being aware that we can regain control and act with mindfulness.This can be true if your goal is losing weight or saving money - or in my case, both!

Let's say your weakness is new shoes. You might say to yourself, “No, Donna. You don’t need another pair of black pumps." But here's the new twist, Donna can acknowledge that a part of her brain has been triggered to respond to the thought of shoes with a strong craving. If she senses the craving, she can begin to use techniques learned in yoga or meditation to compassionately return her to a better place. This place is a state of being that recognizes that we can take responsibility, stop the suffering and move on without the new shoes, sticky bun or whatever makes us crave . This process, called "detachment", is a big step, but it's certainly one of the most important things that we can do to love ourselves.


All of us can teach kids about willpower and compassion whether the subject is food, peer pressure or tolerance. For us, we will likely add some new dialogue to our character education program, Do the Right Thing, showing how self-compassion precedes compassion for others. Our wellness program, Beth & Scott's Nutrition Mission, will also be made stronger with some straight talk about how the brain sends us mixed signals while we're staring in the refrigerator.

And what about the money show? If we teach audiences that saving is a form of compassion for ourselves, we can help students avoid buying that new toy that they don’t need.  If we can inform them that malls are pumping the smell of vanilla into the clothing stores (no joke) and offering free samples to excite the part of their brain that craves, we'll help them make better choices with their money.

The more important point made by Dr. McGonigal is that we have to start seeing compassion not as something that’s soft and fuzzy, but as a real strength we can use to help ourselves and our children. 

For more information about Kelly McGonigal, PhD. and her explorations into the mind-body connection, please visit her web site,

The Secret Ingredient for Better Assemblies

Have you ever searched for a cultural arts program and found that none of the available options met your needs? It’s frustrating. Unfortunately, this is a common problem for parents and teachers booking programs, so we’d like to offer a solution to make your life easier. The answer you are seeking is much closer than you think.
But first a little story…
Beth grew up in a small, working-class suburb of Philadelphia, a town where fathers went to work and mothers stayed home to raise their children. In Beth’s family there were four daughters and one son. The stories my wife tells our kids reflect a time that was very different from now. When problems or challenges occurred, it was the family that everyone relied upon. And the children witnessed the adults struggling and surviving to meet these challenges with little money and a lot of spirit. Ahhh, the old days!
One year, Beth’s maternal grandmother came to live with the family. Grandma Kuzma, as she was called, was a gentle woman who wore her grey hair pinned up in a bun. She had a well-deserved reputation for cooking chicken soup and other eastern European dishes. But what Beth remembers best is the twinkle in Grandma Kuzma’s eyes. Strangely, one of these eyes had a cloudy spot on it from a childhood accident, but Grandma Kuzma’s eyes remained very pretty and her gaze was always intent as if she was staring into your soul.
Beth’s mom did her food marketing on Fridays and one of the treats she would sometimes buy were sticky buns. The buns came six to a package, so Beth’s mother had to buy two packages for everyone to receive one. This left four additional sticky buns for the kids to fight over.
One day, the kids were discussing how wonderful and tasty the sticky buns were but how annoying it was to not have enough for everyone to get two buns. The loudest complainer in the family was Beth’s youngest sister, Linda, a fireball well-known for speaking her mind. Her complaints about the sticky situation led Grandma Kuzma to say in her thick Hungarian accent, “I can mek ‘em.”  To which Linda replied, “Then do it, Gram!”
When the kids woke up the following Saturday morning, they were greeted by the sweet smell of hot, sticky buns wafting through the house. It was like Christmas morning when they rushed into the kitchen and saw tray after tray, piled high with buns, fresh from the oven. There were dozens of buns, enough for each member of the family to have their own plateful. There was little talk at that point and a lot of “oohing” and “aaahing” as the children began eating their sticky buns. “These are way better than the ones from the supermarket, Gram, “ said Linda.
After the kids had their fill, Beth looked at her smiling grandmother and said, “This is amazing, Grandma. How did you do this?” Very matter-of-factly, Grandma Kuzma replied, “Leenda said, ‘If you can mek ‘em, then mek ‘em.’ So, I mek ‘em.” And now there were no more fights and plenty of breakfast treats for all.
When Beth tells stories, they are usually funny, but they also serve to illustrate a lesson that we want to share with our kids. This is also true of the stories we tell in our concerts. In the case of the sticky bun story, the solution to the problem was easily found by an adult who listened to everyone’s needs and made it happen with her natural talents. The answer was not to be found by searching outside but within their own family.
Like Grandma Kuzma, Beth and I are interested in hearing what you need in your school. Our natural talent is to use the ingredients of music, humor and interactive stories to make learning more delicious and satisfying.  As we say on our web site,, our mission is to educate, entertain and inspire. Oftentimes, we can do this by offering schools the programs that we have already written and performed hundreds of times.
Other times, though, you might be better served by having a conversation with us. An example would be the school in Yonkers who said, “We have so many cultures in our building and we need one holiday assembly program that’s going to cover it all.” That conversation led to “Happy Holidays Around the World” which we perform every December for dozens of schools.
Another PTA representative from Long Island once said, “I remember my school song and all of the great feelings we had when we sang it. I want my kids to have that, too.” That’s when our residency program, “Creating a New School Song” was born.
So, our suggestion to make your life easier is this: check out our offerings online, but also consider what might be a phone call away – two professional Teaching Artists who have a talent for turning your “problems” into programs. As Beth’s Grandma said, ““if we can mek ‘em, we’ll mek ‘em.”
Mmmm, mmmm, good!