The Background of a Memoir, Perspective by Leah Wells, Part 1 — Free Book Giveaway

by Matilda Butler on January 26, 2016

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #221 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler


Leah Wells and her publisher have selected three winners to receive a free copy of her memoir. Each of you wrote intriguing and meaningful comments. Consequently, there are three winners instead of the promised two. And the winners are:

Johnine Simpson
Carol D’Agostino
Sara Eigen-Baker

We thank you all for your comments and invite you to participate in future comment contests at

Note: Be sure to leave a comment below to enter the book giveaway. One person will be chosen to receive a free copy of Leah Wells’ new memoir in which she journeys farther into the Bronx and deeper into herself than she’d ever been–all in the pursuit of a job.

We thank Leah Wells and her publisher, Heliotrope Books, for this generous gift.

NOTE: Don’t forget there is a Part 2 from Leah Wells where she describes her experiences with publishing her memoir. Here’s the link to the second article by Leah Wells. And remember, you can enter the her comment contest in both Part 1 and Part 2. The contests are still open.

Life Experiences Lead to New Memoir

Memoirs cover topics from A-Z. We choose the ones to read based on those that peak our interest, those that offer us a window into a different world, those that provide insights that may be useful in our own lives. When I look back on all the memoirs I’ve read, I realize that it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to create an organized list of why I chose many of the ones that have graced my lap and then my bookshelves. Even when I don’t know the reason, I recognize the ways I’ve been touched by all the stories.

But sometimes, I immediately know the link. And such is the case with Leah Wells’ new memoir: On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start

I have my own history with Project Head Start. My dissertation advisor and one of my fellow graduate students both spent part of their professional careers engaged in Project Head Start evaluations–what worked, what didn’t, timeline trajectories of student outcomes, and more. And although I never had a child in Head Start, I seriously considered it for one of my sons when I was in graduate school.

So when I saw that Wells had written about her experiences as a musical troubadour for Head Start, I was immediately intrigued. I felt a connection. In this first article from Leah Wells, she explores the sense of her job, the context, and range of frustrations she felt. Next week, in Part 2, she shares with us her experiences in getting the memoir written and then finding a publisher. Be sure to stop back here on Tuesday to read the conclusion of the making of her memoir.

How I Came to Write On Another Note: Making Music in Head Start
By Leah Wells

It must have been the guitar on my back and my bag of colorful supplies that pegged me as a Head Start troubadour, walking cornucopia of musical games.

“Oh, you’re a music teacher,” my fellow New York subway riders exclaimed. “What do you do with kids? My sister-in-law teaches kindergarten in North Carolina. She’d love some new ideas.”

Beyond the occasional Freeze Tag or Simon Says, many teachers have little experience leading physical games for their classes, and often no experience at all with musical activities. On the subway or at parties—wherever I met them—teachers would ask my advice: Their school yard was undergoing construction and they were stuck inside with third graders for an ambitious forty-five minutes of vigorous exercise. What could they do with students in a classroom? Or how might they fulfill the new city-wide mandate that an hour of “structured physical activity” be incorporated into a sedentary school day?

When I started teaching at Head Start centers, I too had wondered how best to fill the music and movement time. Developing a viable program took years of trial and error. I researched beloved books from my childhood like American Folk Songs for Children (Oak Publications) and Gryphon Houses’ 101 Activities series, and invented new games with my sons—who were five and seven. Fifteen years ago there were fewer resources online, like,, or, to name a few. Even YouTube didn’t offer the array of children’s songs and games that are currently available. Where could I hope to find safe, fun, educational, and musical entertainment for restless preschoolers?

At the time I was meeting regularly with a friend and neighbor, Loyan Beausoleil, who eventually became my co-author of Games That Sing: 25 Activities to Keep Children on Their Toes (Heritage Music Press). Loyan (then a teacher and now the director of University Plaza Nursery School) was also approached by teachers who were desperately seeking musical activities for young students. Over the years Loyan and I mined our classroom experiences and compared notes. Eventually we compiled our most popular activities and routines with tips for presenting and implementing them effectively. In 2011 Games That Sing was published, with our instructions, sheet music, and a companion CD I created with a friend whose goofy vocal effects children adore.

While Games That Sing bridged a gap between newcomers and music teachers with more training, I found there was more to say. We do not teach in a bubble, but in a context—a particular institution, neighborhood, region—each with its own culture. We teach in tandem with other individuals, often complete strangers. Succeeding in the classroom meant winning over children and bonding with teachers. Often the greatest obstacles came from administrators who were unsympathetic and removed, unrealistic in their expectations and clueless about actual classroom dynamics. I was criticized for not participating in programs of which I’d had no knowledge, and called names like “deficient”and “disorganized” by administrators who seemed inexperienced with live music.

Leading music and movement activities with children is highly interactive, and demands close, vital collaboration with other staff members. Their fondness and support were felt as keenly as hostility and bullying. Nefarious mind games and power plays on the part of administrators threatened my job security. I saw each day as an adventure and wanted to take other people on the climb.

So I started scribbling notes about what happened, what was said, how I felt—on napkins, flyers, the insides of books. I stashed them all in my son’s Spiderman backpack at home. Jotting down those notes lifted my mood, when I was many subway tunnels away from home, in a dauntingly different neighborhood, jumping into a new profession. Even as I purchased my café con leche and hiked from train stations to the schools, I confronted severe poverty in which the children I taught were growing up. I had to learn where it was safe to walk alone and eat lunch. Writing made me feel more secure.

The year at Head Start that I chronicle in my memoir was a time of high drama and heavy stakes, both personally and financially. My husband had just been laid off from his job without severance pay. Between music sessions, I worried about our finances and fretted over my ability to succeed at Head Start—which produced our only household income while my husband strived to replace his job.

Between raising our boys and the long subway commute from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx Head Start centers, I was often sleep-deprived. I had to set my alarm for 5:30 AM in order to guarantee standing room on the train for my guitar and me. My schedule demanded as many as five consecutive classes. I had no sick or personal days in my contract. I had perpetually swollen glands, which I referred to as “consultant’s throat.” Sometimes I played guitar blinded by migraine headaches, or sang when I’d lost my voice. Even on unafflicted days I had to generate the stamina, enthusiasm, and fresh ideas to continually justify my value to the program. The pressure was on!
I am glad that I wrote my impressions on the spot, and that I sketched musical activities to test and develop. That first encounter with teaching and the South Bronx is captured in On Another Note.

Leah Wells memoir authorLeah Wells is a writer, teacher, performing musician and singer. For over 20 years she has studied and taught stringed instrument techniques, from flamenco guitar to bluegrass banjo. Leah performs regularly in the tri-state area, with The Linemen and other folk ensembles. In 2011, she performed at Lincoln Center’s Library for The Performing Arts in a special tribute to Irish music.

Leah has taught music and movement to preschoolers in Head Start Centers, YMCAs, summer camps and private schools since 2003. The mother of two sons, Haskell and Simon, she brings her understanding of children and empathy with music educators to her original classroom material.

Her memoir On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start was published earlier this month and is available through Amazon.

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