Zippy Goes to Broadway

A Conversation with Jake Gluckman (SY ’21), Programs Fellow for Hear Your Song 

Ethan Riordan: What is Hear Your Song?
Jake Gluckman: Hear Your Song is a nonprofit organization that empowers children and teens with serious illnesses and complex health needs to make their voices heard through collaborative songwriting. It actually started as a student organization at Yale back in 2014, founded by Dan Rubins (YC ’16) and Rebecca Brudner (YC ’16). Dan felt that there was no mechanism at Yale for composers to collaborate in a really fun way that does some good, so he ended up partnering with the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital and Elizabeth Seton Children’s—a pediatric residence in Yonkers, NY—and started helping kids who are sick write songs. The partnership with Yale-New Haven [Children’s Hospital] has continued for years after Dan and Rebecca left Yale.

ER: Have there been any recent changes since the pandemic? 
JG: In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Dan and Rebecca Brunner both saw a greater need for the Hear Your Song program by virtue of the kids being isolated. So, they decided to expand nationally. They formed virtual partnerships with different nonprofits that work with kids with specific diagnoses. And then it kind of blossomed throughout the pandemic. They worked with 60 to 70 kids just in 2020. And, since then, we’ve officially become a nonprofit 501(c)(3). Now we have worked with over 250 kids in over 26 states, and we have five college chapters: Yale, Smith, Dartmouth, CUNY Hunter, and Wellesley College.

ER: What’s new for Hear Your Song? 
JG: We have just finished our busiest summer yet. We worked with over 100 kids across three different partnerships. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has a series of camps called Camp Oasis. We also worked at a camp called Double H Ranch and at an in-person camp for kids with sickle-cell [anemia] and HIV called Camp AmeriKids. Going forward, we are looking into creating a youth songwriting group for some of our kids who consider themselves experienced songwriters. My own personal goal for my tenure as Programs Fellow is to pilot a program for Hear Your Song that is specifically designed for autistic and neurodivergent kids. 

ER: How does that whole process play out? 
JG: Our model is always a kid-driven process. In our 45-90 minute sessions with the kid, the goal is for them to write a complete lyric and for them to imagine what the song might sound like musically. We then give those lyrics to volunteer composers and musicians who help bring the song to life as a fully produced track. The kids call the shots in terms of genre and instrumentation. So, if they want a tuba, a clarinet, or a harp, we got it covered. We then make a lyric video for each song and, with permission from the kids’ families, publish it on our YouTube channel for the whole world to see and celebrate!

ER: Are there still a lot of Yalies involved in Hear Your Song, or has the volunteer panel shifted significantly?
JG: A large number of our volunteers come from Yale just by virtue of the fact that Hear Your Song started at Yale and there’s fortunately a lot of people from the original 2014 Hear Your Song squad that volunteer with us. We also have a lot of volunteers from our five college chapters. Since the number of songs in our pipeline has increased exponentially over the past few months, we’ve been doing a lot of outreach on social media and to songwriting communities in order to grow our roster of session leaders, composers, and musicians. For example, we recently got an incredible composer from USC to produce a song for one of our kids from Camp Oasis—the song is called “Heartbreak and Healing” and you can check it out on our YouTube channel!—and it’s one of my favorite Hear Your Song songs to date. Going forward, one of our biggest goals for volunteers is for them to feel part of a community of like-minded musicians who want to use their talents to empower kids and teens. Our volunteers do so much for us, and we hope that they get a chance to learn from each other and build connections!

ER: I’m interested in terms of what have you gleaned from college student volunteers in this post-Covid era. What qualities do you think it takes to participate in something like this and to compose an effective song? What makes an effective collaborator? 
JG: The short answer is: anyone can do it! We find that our volunteers have so many different backgrounds and approaches to the work. Some of our volunteers who lead the songwriting sessions are pre-med and they want to get experience working with kids with serious illnesses. Some are musicians who want to find a community of songwriters or who want to find lyrics to set music to. What’s so beautiful about the experience is that talented composers from all over the country are willing to help out kids who they haven’t even met… they get to know the kids based on the lyrics they are given. The fact that the model is kid-driven means that the kid’s personality and ethos is inherently embedded in the final lyric that we give composers. So when a kid writes, “Noodles, they’re just noodles, they are amazing […] rigatoni, mac and cheese, spaghetti, but never ever peas”, the composer knows exactly who that kid is and how to bring their vision and personality to life in the music. That’s where the real collaboration takes place.

ER: Jake, you’re a songwriter. Have you learned anything about yourself that has informed your own songwriting?
JG: When I’m working with a kid in a songwriting session, my favorite moments are when they get carried away talking about something that they love. We recently worked with a girl named Jazlyn who spent an hour with us writing a song from the perspective of a character that she created. In one of our Camp Oasis sessions, we worked with a kid named Angelique who had never written a song before, but when we asked if she wanted to write about her cats, her face lit up. All of a sudden, she knew exactly what she wanted the song to sound like: “‘Paper Rings’ by Taylor Swift,” she said, “with the drum on quarter notes and guitar on the downbeats.” There are moments when we’ll ask kids if they want to write about pets, favorite books, or video games, and they say, “Can I really write a song about that?” In that one question, I fully understand the mission of Hear Your Song — to empower these kids to celebrate the parts of themselves that have nothing to do with their illnesses. While some of them do write about their illnesses, many kids, like Angelique, find happiness and strength in writing about something that just gives her pure joy. That aspect of Hear Your Song helps me, as a songwriter, to remember how songwriting is about giving your full authentic self to the process. 

ER: What is the adventure of Zippy Jr.? 
JG: The Adventure of Zippy Jr. is an eight-minute musical that was written by a 13-year-old kid named Zippy who we worked with last summer at Double H Ranch camp. He wrote a song called “Noodles!” about his love for pasta, and it has since become a staff and volunteer favorite. A couple of months later, he wanted to write another song with us. He had this whole idea about writing a song about a zebra—his favorite animal—who goes to New York to try to find his adoptive father but ends up getting cast in The Lion King on Broadway, and that song turned into an eight-minute musical! The coolest part is that Dan was able to recruit a bunch of the original cast members of The Lion King on Broadway, and a current cast member of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, to record lines for the show. With the help of over 25 volunteers, we ended up turning Zippy’s musical into a full video with Broadway performers, professional orchestrations, and illustrations. This was Hear Your Song’s first foray into doing a huge musical project, and I think it proved to us just how willing people are to help empower these kids. 

ER: That’s amazing. 
JG: By the way, part of the reason Zippy loves zebras is that the zebra is the symbol for rare diseases in the United States, and Zippy has a primary immune deficiency.

ER: What is the relationship like with Hear Your Song to the parents of these kids?
JG: Having a brother with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], I know firsthand how difficult it can be to meet the needs of a child that has either an illness or a neurodivergence, or something that the parents could not have predicted. And one of the most beautiful things about Hear Your Song is to see the parents react to the songs. Whether it be a song about noodles, cats, or a made-up character, I think the parents of these kids are moved by seeing them write about parts of themselves that usually don’t get the spotlight. Zippy’s mom actually wrote us a long letter when we were incorporating into a 501(c)(3) and talked about her experience with Hear Your Song. But we’ve had many parents respond with notes about how their child has really benefited from Hear Your Song and how it’s helped them through really difficult times and it’s been a distraction from any treatments or medical issues. So it’s been really heartwarming to engage parents in that way. We’re hoping to have more events where kids can share their songs with other kids like on zoom, or with other families because I think that will just bolster the community element of Hear Your Song that is so essential to our mission.

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