On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes composer, conductor and author Rob Kapilow to the show on Monday, March 8 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
When Rob Kapilow told his son he was a composer, the then six-year-old looked puzzled and replied: “Daddy, daddy, you can’t be a composer. You’re not dead!”
Kapilow understood why his son believed this. Many kids’ idea of a composer is a guy who wrote music centuries ago, music that is often hard for kids to appreciate.
It was this moment of misunderstanding that inspired Kapilow to begin writing music for kids, music that respects their intelligence but also appeals to their young ears. He put beloved children’s books to music, including The Polar Express, Green Eggs and Ham and Gertrude McFuzz. Now known as “the pied piper of classical music,” his FamilyMusik program has brought live music to kids at concert halls across the nation.
He’s also the author of acclaimed books on music, including the newly released “Listening For America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim.”
We welcome him to the show, and also the students of Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. We’re eager to hear their questions for Rob Kapilow, and yours too — if you’re a kid.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 23 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Robert Kapilow Composer, Conductor, Author, "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers;" @RobKapilow
KOJO NNAMDIIf you've never heard that before, it's music to a book many kids love, called "The Polar Express." Our guest today wrote that music and many other pieces for kids and adults. Rob Kapilow joins us today to talk about listening to music, creating it, and understanding why great music sounds, well, great.
KOJO NNAMDIWe also welcome the students of Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. We're sure they have questions for Rob Kapilow, but we want to hear your questions, too, but only if you're a kid. Adults are welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, it's kid callers only. Rob Kapilow is a conductor and composer who writes music for adults and children, including one choral symphony about Washington, D.C. Rob, great to talk to you again.
ROBERT KAPILOWIt's so great to talk to you again, Kojo. (laugh)
KAPILOWIt's been a while.
NNAMDIIt has been a while. We'll get to the music in just a minute, but first, tell us, Rob, what was it like when you were a kid? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
KAPILOWWell, I was actually born in New York City, but then quickly moved to Alaska, though I have very little memory of it. And then grew up sort of outside of New York City in a little suburb of New York, and started music at a really young age.
KAPILOWWell, when I was four years old, my mother played the piano all the time, and she was a terrible piano player. And so, I vowed I would kick her off the piano as soon as possible. And so, I really started the piano at four to try to get my mother to stop playing. And either sadly or gladly, I was a complete success. So, I started playing the piano when I was about four years old, and then progressed to a bunch of other instruments and played violin and flute and electric guitar, and grew my hair down to my shoulders and played in rock bands and did everything I possibly could to get in trouble musically in as many different kinds of ways as I could think of.
NNAMDIDid you ever actually tell your mother that she was a terrible piano player?
KAPILOW(laugh) No. I just thought if I just went and sort of gave her an example of what it should sound like, that she would get the message. You know, she used to just play this horrible version of "Basin Street Blues," and it's still in my head to this very -- this very clunky (plays piano). And, you know, somehow, I just couldn't bear it. So, even at the age of four, I just made the executive decision. (laugh)
NNAMDII knew you're reproduce it for us. You have said that you were really bored with the music that your teachers gave you when you were a kid. Can you give us an example of what did they make you play, and what might have been a more creative way of teaching you?
KAPILOWYeah, absolutely. You know, I mean, everybody knows this tune, right. (plays piano) I mean, everyone knows it. So, the way they would give it to you when you're about five years old is with this really boring accompaniment, sort of like this. (plays piano) I mean, that's just unbearable. So, the first thing I would do is I would try to put, like, some more interesting chords. So, maybe I would make it spooky like this. (plays piano)
KAPILOWOr then I might just take a little part of it, I might take the (plays piano) "my fair lady," and speed it up, and make it, (plays piano) then decorate it. (plays piano) Then play with the "London bridge is falling down" and do it fast, (plays piano) do it in a different key, put it up here, just for the London bridge part, (plays piano) then make some different accompaniments, play around here, change the ending. And, suddenly, it was my music, and not somebody else's music. So, that's the kind of thing I used to do and get in trouble with.
NNAMDII wouldn't recognize Rob Kapilow if he didn't have his keyboard with him. How did you get more into music as you got older? Did you learn to play other instruments? Did you play in a band?
KAPILOWYeah, I did everything. First of all, you know, nowadays, each kind of music is in its own little box. You know, classical music is you wear certain kind of clothes and like certain kind of people. And jazz is a whole different thing, and you talk differently and wear different clothes and don't talk to the people who like classical music. But to me, it was just all music. I didn't really know there was anything different.
KAPILOWYou know, Duke Ellington, one of my favorite folks, he says there's only two kinds of music: good music and the other kind. And that's really how I felt. So, I play jazz, and "Downbeat" magazine was my favorite stuff. And, you know, I was (plays piano). But then another week, I would be playing Beethoven symphonies, you know, or Beethoven (plays piano).
KAPILOWSo, I did everything. I played in orchestras, I played jazz and trios. I played in a rock band. And to me, it was just all music. Only much later did I learn that, you know, you were not supposed to associate with people from the other side of the aisle. But to me, it was just all music, and I played everywhere. I played chamber music, I played in orchestras, I played in rock bands, I played in jazz trios. You know, later, when I was, you know, late teenager or early college I would play, you know, in bars and play cocktail music (plays piano). To me, it was just all music, you know. Now, I've learned that, of course, each one is its own separate thing.
NNAMDIPlay it again, Sam. (laugh) 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Rob Kapilow. He's a conductor and composer who writes music for adults and children. And we're talking with a lot of young people who are from Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington. I know many of you have called already. Just hold on so I can sneak in a few more questions with Rob, and then it'll be your turn.
NNAMDIRob, you're a conductor, composer and an author. Let's start with the conducting part. What does a conductor do? To many of us, it looks like somebody who's just waving their arms around a lot. But we know it has to be more than that.
KAPILOWNo, that is pretty much what it is. Mostly, you wave your arms and take credit and bow at the end as if you're the one who made all the notes. (laugh) Like, you know, I mean, I always think a conductor's a little bit like a manager in baseball, in the same sort of way. People have no idea what they do, either. I mean, your job is to really, in my opinion, just bring out the best in people, is to make people want to play. Because, in a way, of course, you're the only person on stage not making a sound, but your job is to sort of give them the overall vision and allow them to hear each other.
KAPILOWBecause, you know, it's interesting, most people think -- I've been very fortunate to conduct some of the best orchestras in the world, your orchestra, the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, you know, great orchestras, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, but also some of the much lower-ranked orchestras. And people often think that the best orchestras are the ones that have the best players. But the real difference between the really great orchestras is not so much that they play better, but that they listen better.
KAPILOWYou know, when you stand in front of a really great orchestra, like Cleveland Orchestra or the National Symphony, what's amazing is a double bass player on the far end of the stage is acutely sensitively listening to everything that happens on the opposite side of the stage. And what really actually keeps an orchestra together is not the guy waving his hands, but it's that he's allowed them all to listen to each other.
KAPILOWAnd there's a kind of magic that happens when everybody is acutely, sensitively listening to each other, and your job is to just shape what's already out there. Is to take the people who are out there and bring out the best of them and create a kind of environment for listening. And that, to me, is what I think of as the job of a conductor, is to create an environment for listening, in which each person is listening to each other. And then you're creating the overall shape of how the piece goes.
NNAMDIOkay. One more, before I go to the phones. You're also a composer, which means that you create music. When did you first start composing, and what kind of music do you write?
KAPILOWWell, as I say, the first time I started composing was doing just what you heard, was just taking the pieces that they gave me and saying, this is a little boring, can I make it my own. And, by the way, for kids who are studying music, that's my first and biggest suggestion. And it's really the suggestion for my kids, as well. You know, when our kids started playing music, they took the same kind of piano lessons that I did, and they were just as bored as I was. But then I found them a teacher who was actually a composer, as well. And it was as soon as they started composing that they actually got interested in music.
KAPILOWAnd now my son actually teaches people music, and from the very first day when they start piano lessons with him, they start composing. Even if it's just pounding on your keys and you're making something about space invaders, make your own kind of music. So, that's how I started. But then I really was going to be a conductor long before I was going to be a composer. But then, actually -- well, I don't know if you have the time for this story, a quick story.
KAPILOWSo, at first, I was just going to be a conductor. My mother's hero was Leonard Bernstein. There was a picture of him in every single room of our house. He was a really famous conductor, and all my mother wanted me to do is grow up to be Leonard Bernstein, if I wasn't going to be a famous, rich lawyer. (laugh) And then, so I was teaching someone conducting from the University of Scranton. At the time, I was really focusing on conducting. I was very lucky to get a job conducting the Yale Symphony Orchestra at the age of 24, and teaching at Yale. And I was going to be the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, just like my mother always wanted.
KAPILOWAnd then a friend of mine wanted me to come down and guest conduct there, but they only had money for someone to compose a piece, and then come down and conduct. And she said, I know you're mostly a conductor, but would you like to compose a piece of music for us? And then we can bring you down here. And I said, well, I haven't been doing too much of that recently, but sure, I'd love to do it.
KAPILOWAnd so, I composed a piece for 75 wind instruments, and the next thing I know, I was a composer. But I'd always been writing all my life. I'd been writing songs. I'd been writing pop songs. I had been writing all kind of music, forever, but I had been focusing on conducting until that time.
NNAMDIYeah, well, you thought you were a composer, but when your son was very young, you told him you were a composer, and he told you, no way. It's impossible. Why?
KAPILOWYeah, it's true. When my son was seven, you know, by then I had been writing some pieces for adults, and I'd really been focusing on adults. And my son came home from school from music class, and he said, daddy, daddy, you can't be a composer. You're not dead. (laugh) And that really changed my whole thought and my whole thinking about composers, because I realized, you know, to most people and to most kids, composers are dead. You know, at least if it's a classical composer.
KAPILOWAnd so, I decided I had to really start writing some music for kids, not just because I thought it would be important for them to hear music really written for them, because I wanted to be on stage so that kids would see, well, here's a composer, and he's actually alive. (laugh) So, when I actually do do concerts for families, I make it a point -- or for kids -- of staying on stage for half an hour afterwards, so kids can just come up and talk to me, and so they can see that, well, a composer isn't actually dead.
KAPILOWAnd I did this one concert -- well, one of the first pieces I wrote after my son said that to me was "Green Eggs and Ham," because I realized, you know, if I can set "Green Eggs and Ham" to music, a book that everybody knows, they could really see how powerful music is, because everybody knows Sam I Am, I Am Sam, but almost no one had ever heard it set to music. And so, I once I started writing that piece, you know, it was a fantastic way to talk to kids about composing and music.
KAPILOWAnd I put it together on the same concert with a piece by Mozart called "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," and we put the whole concert together as "Green Eggs and Hamadeus." And so, (laugh) you could see that, you know, a composer like Mozart, who was dead, is on the same program as music by this guy Rob, who you're talking to at the edge of the stage. And so that was my longwinded answer to my son who said, you can't be a composer, you're not dead.
NNAMDIAfter all, you're not Mozart. You're not Ellington. You're not Beethoven. You were actually still alive. So...
KAPILOWStill alive, and right here.
NNAMDISo, let's go...
KAPILOWAnd not only that, but you could -- the audience hearing this piece maybe for the first time.
NNAMDILet's start with 10-year-old Annie, who's a student at Long Branch Elementary School. Annie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Annie.
ANNIEHi. So, my question was: Does your music that you write, does it invoke strong emotions in you?
KAPILOWYou know, that's one of the great things about both writing music and also conducting music, is you get to have every kind of emotion that maybe you wouldn't have in real life. And, in fact, I think that's one of the reasons why people love both playing music and listening to music. You know, when I'm a conductor, I might be kind of a boring person, but when I have all this music inside me, I get to be all those people. I get to be Beethoven, (plays piano) I get to be incredibly stern, I get to be incredibly -- (plays piano) -- you get to be all those people. And when you get to write music, everything that you feel inside you get to put into music.
KAPILOWYou know, I don't know if you kids were listening to the program that Kojo was doing right before this, but it as amazingly connected to what I'm doing right now. I was a book about home, and I'm literally writing a piece of music now about the immigrants' experience to America. And the title of the movement I'm working on right now is "Home Was Until it Wasn't."
KAPILOWAnd so, it gives you the opportunity to literally express those feelings that you have inside you. So, (plays piano) when you write a chord like this or a chord like this, these chords are everything you feel inside. So, I think one of the great things about being a composer is it allows you to take those things that you feel inside that you might not have any other place to put them in, and you get to put them into music. So, that's a real thrill for me.
NNAMDIAnnie, thank you very much for your call. Here now is 10-year-old Jackson, also at Long Branch Elementary School. Jackson, it's your turn. Go ahead, please.
JACKSONHello, my name is Jackson. I'm 10 years old, and I go to Long Branch Elementary, and I'm in fourth grade. My question is, do you use any music apps to help make music? If so, which one do you recommend, besides Garage Band?
KAPILOWAh-ha. Well, which ones do you use?
KAPILOWUh-huh. Well, you know, I use Garage Band a lot, myself. If I had known you were going to ask that question, I would've turned to my other computer and showed you some of the stuff I've got on Garage Band. But, yes, I would say I use Garage Band to demonstrate. And, in fact, I'm writing a new piece now that I actually -- well, maybe afterwards, I can put this up on your website. I'll put up a little Garage Band simulation of some things to show you. I use that.
KAPILOWAlso, I use Finale, which is a music notation program, because what you can do there is it's sort of like a musical typewriter. You can put notes and play notes on your keyboard, and they show up, and they become notation. So, I use Finale a lot for my pieces. And when I send them to my publisher, I send them a computer version of them. So, those are the two that I use. You could also use a fancier version of Garage Band, it's Audacity or Logic, and those are good ones to use, as well. And if you have a little bit more money and you're into engineering, Pro Tools is something that you could use.
KAPILOWBut I will say this, though I use those apps, for me, fundamentally, I still write music with a pencil, and I still like playing at an actual keyboard itself and making the sounds myself. So, I do use all those apps, but, at heart, still making music for me is just like it was for Mozart. It's with a pencil, a piece of paper and a keyboard. And I actually love writing it by hand, even though I usually turn it in through the computer. But there's something wonderful about just a pencil and a piece of paper, and you're linked to hundreds of years of history and other composers doing the same thing. So, I use all the modern ones, but I still like that pencil.
NNAMDIJackson, thank you very much for your call. Rob, Eleanor Gold, a third grader at Long Branch Elementary wants to know: What is your favorite type of music, and why? Mine is bluegrass, because I like the rhythm of it, and it makes me want to dance. I'm learning to play bluegrass on my fiddle. I also like Led Zeppelin.
KAPILOWWell, you know, one thing is my favorite kind of music and, you know, it changes at different times. You know, there's certain different times of the day, certain different things you're feeling that make you want to listen to music. So, you know, there's the kind of music you might want to listen to if you're just sort of cooking or cleaning around the house. But then, if something sort of sad happens to you, there might be a different kind of music that you want to listen to.
KAPILOWSo, to me, I don't really make boundaries. To me, you know, that Duke Ellington quote: "There's only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind." I mean, to me, I listen to all kinds of music. And it just depends on what kind of mood I'm in at that time. Certain times it's jazz, certain times it might be pop, certain times it might be classical. So, to me, all musics (sic) are good. The only thing that matters: Is it a good version?
KAPILOWYou know, when I first met Kojo, I was writing a piece with a rapper in Washington, D.C. And, at the time, I really wasn't interested that much in rap. It just didn't really grab me. And the person that was doing this piece with me, I asked him for a mixtape, and he gave me this fantastic mix tape of all these different rappers. And you realize that in every kind of music, there's good music, and the other kind.
KAPILOWSo, to me, I'm open to all kinds of music. And when I write my music, I have all kinds of music in the music I write. I mean, there's classical music. There's blues. There's jazz. I mean, to me it's just all music. And I think the boundaries we make between kinds of music and kinds of people only get in the way between the connections that are really there.
NNAMDIYou also just answered nine-year-old Lucy of Long Branch Elementary's question, who wanted to know what kinds of music do you like to write best. You seem to be saying all kinds.
KAPILOWYeah. I mean, you never know what's going to come out. You know, today, as I say, I'm writing that piece, you know, "Home Was Until it Wasn't," and it's -- (plays piano). That's today's music. But then there's other kinds of music a different day, and sometimes it's jazzy -- (plays piano), you know, in "Green Eggs and Ham." So, there's every kind of music. To me, it's just all the sound universes available. And one of the wonderful things about music today is that you really have access to everything.
NNAMDIHere now is eight-year-old Noah at Long Branch Elementary. Noah, your turn.
NOAHHello, Mr. Kapilow.
NOAHWhat do animals think about music?
KAPILOWWhat do animals think about music?
KAPILOWWell, you know, we have a dog that really barks a lot, and he barks whenever he thinks there's somebody outside or something outside that he doesn't want to be there. And so, oftentimes, I try to use the keyboard to quiet him down. And if I play just a certain kind of music, I can actually get him to be quiet. It's hard to know. You know, a lot of people think that dogs like Mozart, but I think, you know, like everything else, different dogs and different animals like different things.
KAPILOWBut I did once write a piece, a whole concert about animals and music, as well. And there's a piece I actually did at the Kennedy Center called "And Furthermore They Bite." (laugh) And it's based on a poem that goes: "Always be kind to animals, morning noon, and night, for animals have feelings, too, and furthermore, they bite. (laugh)
NNAMDINoah, thank you very much for your call. Nine...
KAPILOWBut I'll also say -- oh, one other thing. I will say, lots of composers take the sounds of animals and turn that into music. And that's a whole other topic, as well. But the sounds that animals make are a fantastic source of music. That's the thing, for a composer, anything out there is a possibility. That's the great thing about composing.
NNAMDIHere are seven-year-old twins Dillon and Niam from Long Branch Elementary. They have, I think, a comment. Dillon, Niam, are you there?
NNAMDIGo right ahead.
DILLONWell, my question was: How do you feel like when you write music?
KAPILOWHow do I feel? Well, that depends a little on how well it's going. There's some days where it feels really awful, where I just get stuck. I'm sure you've had that experience in school, as well, where it's just not going well, and you just can't come up with an idea. But then, every once in a while, something happens and you get an idea, and it just absolutely flows, and when it just comes to you.
KAPILOWLike when I heard -- I'm writing this piece now, as I was just saying, "Home Was Until it Wasn't." And when I heard that word, "Home Was Until it Wasn't," instantly like this idea, (plays piano) home was, until it wasn't. Home was, until it wasn't. When you get an idea and it just comes to you right away and the feeling just is there and the notes are just there, it's one of the most fantastic feelings in the world.
KAPILOWWhen it isn't, it's one of the most frustrating and horrible experiences in the world. So, you have to ask me that question at different times of the day. But I will say that moment when you just have a line of poetry that you're setting to music, and it just comes to you right away, is one of the most fantastic, thrilling moments you could possibly have.
NNAMDIAnd here's nine-year-old Naya and eight-year-old Devin, in Virginia. Naya and Devin, re you there? Hi, there. Can you hear me? Hi there, Devin. You there? Naya, you there? Oh, they seem to have left the building. Nine-year-old Jordan from Oakridge Elementary -- oh, here they are. Dillon and -- Dillon and Niam, are you there? Oh, I'm sorry, wrong lines, wrong lines, wrong lines. Ryan from Long Branch Elementary wants to know how you became a good musician. We only have about a minute-and-a-half left.
KAPILOWOkay. Well, I will tell you this: I was an undergraduate at Yale, and I had taken all the required courses. And I just somehow felt I was missing, there was more to learn. And so, this famous woman in Paris, her name was Nadia Boulanger, and to my parents' horror, I dropped out of college. I flew to France to study with this woman named Nadia Boulanger, who taught all these famous composers like Stravinsky and Copland and Bernstein. And I dropped out of school, and I lived on almost no money with just a mattress on the floor in Paris for two years. And she was the most fantastic teacher in the world.
KAPILOWAnd everything that I do, to this very day, is due to the incredible teaching, which was brutally difficult and painful and painful. But everything that I learned from Nadia Boulanger is how I became a good musician. She trained me the way Mozart and Beethoven were trained hundreds of years ago, in a way that's almost impossible to really study these days. It was the two years in Paris that made me the musician I am today.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Rob Kapilow, always a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for joining us.
KAPILOWThank so much for having me.
NNAMDIToday's segment on the poet Safia Elhillo was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our Kojo for Kids segment with the amazing Rob Kapilow was produced by Lauren Markoe. Coming up tomorrow, CNN anchor and senior political correspondent Abby Phillip joins us. Plus, ever thought about monetizing your hobby? Whether it's illustrating, baking or balloon twisting, we'll talk about the joys and challenges of making money from your passion. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.