Inside Kohala Elementary School teacher Donovan Aiona’s classroom, the words on the board looked like poetry.

Surfing on a sunset sea
Sky as red as rubies
Waves barreling over me
Watching the clouds fade
On a lazy day
Waiting for the green flash
Reflected in the turquoise sea

Paul Reisler and Heather Mae of Kid Pan Alley put rhythm and music to a song created by Kohala Elementary School fourth-graders in Donovan Aiona’s class. BELOW: Reisler listens to a lyric suggestion from the students. BRAD BALLESTEROS/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY

Voices resonate to the tune of a humming guitar. Strumming, Kid Pan Alley founder and artistic director Paul Reisler listens to the work in progress while vocalist Heather Mae sings along with 23 fourth-graders verse by verse.

They decide to tweak how the last lyrics are sung, changing the pace and rhythm. Like surfing, music is all about the flow.

Kid Pan Alley founder and artistic director Paul Reisler instructs students on how to craft memorable melodies. BRAD BALLESTEROS/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY

Wednesday morning, the group proved songwriting was in fact elementary and it’s something anyone can do. In 30 minutes, the students wrote a song rich in imagery, alliteration and metaphor. The process fueled their imagination while highlighting the use of literary devices such as asyndeton, onomatopoeia, syllabication, rhyme and simile. Grammar was also spotlighted.

“Besides incredible music exposure, they’re basically getting a great English lesson,” Aiona said.

Kid Pan Alley is a nonprofit inspiring children to become creators of their own music and striving to rekindle creativity as a core value in education. It provides children with the opportunity to collaboratively write their own songs, with music and lyrics, as well as perform them before their school and community.

Kid Pan Alley founder and artistic director Paul Reisler listens to a lyric suggestion from Kohala Elementary School students in Donovan Aiona’s class. Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today

“We live in a creative economy and it needs creative people,” Reisler said. “But in today’s schools, students are sort of forced to take tests and think more linearly and logically. They’re not necessarily encouraged to be creative and use their imaginations. So, it’s our job to inspire the creative thinking and expression in kids by engaging them in a not logical, but fun process that fosters teamwork and self-confidence. By doing this, we’re giving them the power to create something unique, lasting and completely their own.”

Reisler is considered one of the foremost songwriting teachers in North America, but is best known as a founding member of the folk group Trapezoid. Since creating Virginia-based Kid Pan Alley in 1999, he has written more than 2,500 songs with more than 35,000 children. Some of these songs have been recorded by artists including Amy Grant, Sissy Spacek, Delbert McClinton and Cracker.

Over the past week, Reisler and Mae have been songwriting with Kohala Elementary students in third through fifth grade. This residency was made possible, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the North Kohala Cultural Enrichment Program, Russell Family Foundation, and Dorrance Family Foundation. This is the school’s second time participating in a Kid Pan Alley songwriting program.

Principal Danny Garcia said Kohala Elementary values music as a critical learning tool that keeps students engaged in school and results in positive behavior, as well as helps develop well-rounded individuals who are self-directed learners. He believes music education enhances learning in core subjects and improves skills, both academic and social.

Garcia said bringing in a high-quality music program like Kid Pan Alley made sense, particularly considering Kohala’s strong musical roots and history. What he likes most about the experience is how it allows students to contribute something meaningful in their own style and showcases their talents.

The process Wednesday began with asking the students what they wanted to write about. At Kohala Elementary, Reisler said students tend to draw upon their love of family, culture and nature. From there, they come up with the melodies and lyrics often by brainstorming or improvisational singing. The direction is decided through voting by a show of hands.

Kohala Elementary School students in Donovan Aiona’s class visualize the scene for their song. Brad Ballesteros/Special to West Hawaii Today

While most students don’t know chords, they do know what sounds good. Reisler explained the best melodies are “like a walk on the mountain.” He added, “Some notes go up, some go along level and some go down. Give it a little more shape and it gets the pitch on it.”

Students in various classes will perform nine original songs during a special concert at 6 p.m. tonight in the school’s cafeteria. The public is invited to attend. Garcia thanked Show Systems Hawaii for providing the audio system and lights for the event.

Nine-year-old Cyan Batha said the songwriting project made him feel more creative and excited about music. He said it was fun creating lyrics with his classmates and the Kid Pan Alley folks. The verse, “Waves barreling over me,” was his favorite because he loves surfing. He thinks listeners will get the same anticipation and stoked feeling as surfing because of the song’s clear vision and fun rhythm.

Ten-year-old Alex Rodriguez called the song her class wrote awesome and radio-worthy. Rodriguez, who wants to be an actor, said it would be amazing if the song is eventually sung by big names in the industry. She thinks it can reach the same notoriety as one of Bob Marley’s tunes, complete with cheering, adoring fans.

Other Big Island schools participating in Kid Pan Alley programs are Waimea Elementary (March 3 to 7) and Hawaii Preparatory Academy (March 10 and 11).

Reisler and Mae will also perform a benefit concert for Kid Pan Alley at 5 p.m. March 8 at Kamau Barn on Honoipu-Puuhue Road in Hawi. A potluck will follow. Tickets are $5 for children and $18 to $25 for adults, depending on when purchased at

For more information, contact Reisler at (615) 473-4111 or or visit

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By Carolyn Lucas-Zenk
West Hawaii Today