Ben Shinabery thought it was funny when a parent donated a “Read with Dick and Jane” book to the toddler day care where he worked. Surely a story designed for grade schoolers was irrelevant to two-year-olds. But when he took it home and started singing the words against his own guitar strums, something clicked.
Shinabery took to singing children’s literature at open mic nights, soon adding some of his own elementary school-era scribbles to the mix. And while he quickly realized he wasn’t cut out to be a musician, his friend Andy Gallagher of folk-rock band Trains Across the Sea encouraged him to run with the concept.
They conceived of a way to help kids to unlock their creative powers while giving local musicians a chance to help out. Plus it allowed Shinabery, who majored in human development and family science at Ohio State, to inspire kids without becoming a teacher in an education system he believes needs to be reformed.
“It was really just like a perfect storm of everything coming together,” Shinabery said.
Gallagher had been volunteering with an after-school program at the Godman Guild, and Shinaberry came along one day in 2010 to introduce an experiment. Kids wrote lyrics, then Gallagher converted them into songs and performed them on the spot. The Dick & Jane Project was born.
Since then, Shinabery has been taking Columbus musicians into area middle schools and letting the students’ minds run wild. He reads them lyrics from top hits like Justin Bieber’s “Baby” (“And I was like baby, baby, baby, oh/ Like baby, baby, baby, no”) and wonders aloud whether the kids could do better.
“I always tell kids, ‘You have the freshest perspective in the world right now. You have what everyone else is trying to get back to,’” Shinabery said. “I drive English teachers nuts. They tell me, ‘These kids are writing pages after pages after pages. How do you do it?’”
Once the students churn out lyrics, musicians from bands like Blastronauts, Way Yes and This Is My Suitcase collaborate with them on music. The songs from each four-to-six-week workshop are professionally recorded and released as albums.
This summer, the Godman Guild’s STEP (Summer Teen Employment Program) at the Jazz Academy provided Dick & Jane with the means for a different sort of workshop.
Shinabery solicited writing from middle schools across Central Ohio. Then a team of high school volunteers pared the submissions down to eight songs by seven authors. Ragtime rockers The DewDroppers then converted the lyrics into demos, which the lyricists were encouraged to critique via Edgecase software Shinabery described as “Facebook for songwriting.”
“I was very picky about what was on the demo,” lyricist Oleysa Tehan said.
High school volunteers handled tasks like graphic design, social media, publicity and assistance for recording engineer Joe Camerlengo. The final product, “Insteption,” will premiere with a concert on the Statehouse lawn this Tuesday at noon, interspersed with speeches by the teens.
Now Shinabery is focusing on fundraising with the hopes of starting more widespread workshops this January.
“We want to work with more kids,” Shinabery said. “I have to say ‘no’ way too many times.”