Your Weekly Listen for the week of 9/22/14 is Emi Sunshine, a remarkable nine-year-old country singer and ukelele player. Here she is on the Today Show:
A note about the music: this song is actually called “Little Weeping Willow”. not “Blue Yodel #6”. If you listen closely, you’ll hear her quickly making that correction before the song starts. “Little Weeping Willow” is an original song by her band, and it’s on her most recent album “Black Sunday’35”. The “Blue Yodels” are a series of songs written and recorded by Jimmie Rodgers.
Now before everyone starts ooh-ing and aah-ing about her “natural born talent”, I’m gonna stop you right there. As far as her musical chops (that’s music slang for skill level), what she’s doing here is not at all beyond what any average nine-year-old kid could do with the right kind of support and encouragement. I’ve taught kids for 10 years, and if your nine-year-old can apply herself and practice, I could certainly teach her to sing and play this song. It isn’t hard, just a few simple chords and notes on a ukelele (which is the easiest stringed instrument to play and a great one for kids to start on). The melody is simple too.
What’s impressive about Emi is her great sense of rhythm, confident command of her voice, and a ton of personal style and showmanship. All these qualities come of playing a lot and being in an environment where she hears people making music around her. Her dad, brother and uncle are all musicians, and two of her grandmothers were gospel singers. I’m sure her house is full of music pretty much all the time. She’s been listening since she was a baby, and as soon as she could talk, she was probably encouraged to participate in sing-a-longs and jam sessions in her own living room. Of course, the most essential element that will determine a child’s musical ability is his or her own passion for music. There is much parents and teachers can do to cultivate and support a child’s own initiative, but perhaps what I love best about watching and listening to Emi is the sense of joy she imparts through her performance. I get the feeling that she is the driving force behind her own music, and kudos to her family for supporting and encouraging her!
Parents, this seems like a great opportunity to remind you that you don’t have to be a great musician to be a great musical role model. If you can sing a song and put your heart into it, if you can strum or plunk out even a couple of chords on the guitar or piano and stomp your foot along in something resembling a steady beat, you’ll be sending your kids the message that singing and playing music is fun, and they can do it, too. Too many kids grow up hiding and suppressing their voices because they see their parents doing the same thing. They internalize messages like “I can’t sing” or “I don’t have a good voice”. Sure, Emi Sunshine had two great gospel-singing grandmothers singing her to sleep as a baby. But you don’t need to be a gospel singer for your baby to love hearing a lullaby. I imagine that the biggest musical gift Emi gets from her family is the message that making music is easy and natural. When you hear her sing, it’s clear that this child doesn’t even understand the concept of being ashamed or embarrassed about her voice. That’s an idea she’s never been exposed to – and that I wish no child had ever been exposed to! Contrary to popular belief, great singers are great because they are liberated from fear and shame about their voices, not the other way around. Of course, mastering your voice, or any instrument, still requires practice, but you’ll find that practice goes about 1000 times more easily when you’re not burdened by emotional baggage about the sounds you’re making.
Let’s take a look at Emi’s musical influences. The Dolly Parton influence is obvious (if you don’t know who Dolly Parton is, kids, definitely look her up.) Emi also mentions Mac Ferris and Buddy Miller. Here’s Buddy Miller performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I was quite taken both with the song (“All My Tears”, written by his wife Julie Miller) and his performance of it. I definitely hear the same kind of unreserved, raw feeling in his singing style that Emi conveys so well.
Til next week – Keep Listening – and Keep Singing!