Using Music: Jonathan Menjivar For This American Life

Intro from Jay Allison: No radio show has had more influence on the blending of narrative and music than "This American Life." Recently, TAL offered Transom their in-house memo on music production tips, as written by producer Jonathan Menjivar. This piece really breaks it down--when to use music, for how long, mapping it to story--with a fully deconstructed example and Pro Tools screen shots. This isn't to say everyone should do what they do, but it's great to have these insights into their logic and motivation.

This is part of our series, "Using Music." You can find other how-tos here:

All The Secrets

These are all the secrets. Everything you need to know about how and why we use music to score stories on This American Life.

Recently Ira asked me to put this guide together because we’d never had anything like it before. We worked the way a lot of shops work — someone would show you how to mix and score a story, explain a few fundamentals, and then you’d run off on your own and try it.

Jonathan’s notes on scoring when he was trained by Julie Snyder.
Jonathan’s notes on scoring when he was trained by Julie Snyder.

The real learning came in making mistakes. I became a good mixer at This American Life because I made scoring choices that Ira wasn’t into — choices that interrupted the flow of the story or turned dramatic moments into melodrama. And Ira let me know it. Which you know, kind of makes you want to never make those mistakes again.

This guide then is a way to share the institutional knowledge that’s come from decades of producers at the show going through this same process and then passing their wisdom down. It seemed like a shame to leave this stuff lingering in old notebooks and haunting us in our sleep.

Generally, we don’t use music at This American Life to create a mood in a story or make things sound pretty. Instead, it’s there to help you make your point. We spend a lot of hours structuring stories and cutting tape and writing around that tape and editing and editing and editing. And sure, we’re doing that to make sure the story is interesting and entertaining and surprising, but we’re also doing all that work so the story is really clear. We’re trying to point out what you should be listening for in the tape so you get the same joy or sorrow out of a story that we’re feeling. And we use music the same way — it’s a little flashlight that helps us get our ideas across.

So below are basic guidelines that’ll give you some ground to stand on if you’re just learning how to score stories. Like any rules, they’re meant to be broken once and awhile. This is not a recipe. Your cake will taste bad if you follow these instructions exactly. Listen to your story. You are Dr. Frankenstein and you’ve just created a very alive thing that will tell you what it needs.

Some General Guidelines

When To Use Music

We often use music to propel a story forward. When there’s rising action in the story there’s probably going to be music. Usually it starts in the middle of the rising action. So in this passage, you wouldn’t start the music during the first sentence. That would be wasting the extra momentum you can get from a music entrance. Wasting its power. Better to start it under “yelling at you” or “call your name” or “yelling my social.”

So they bus us to the Navy boot camp in Great Lakes. And we get off the bus, and it’s the middle of the night. It’s cold, and they’re yelling at you to stand against the wall, and why can’t you stand still? And when I call your name, yell out your social. And I’m standing there yelling my social security number. They’re telling me I’m not doing it loud enough. And I’m thinking, what did I do? What am I doing here? It’s 5:00. Gosh, this day is so clear. It’s 5:00 in the morning. And it’s like you’re looking at a stranger, and you understand everything they’re feeling. That was one of the few moments where you look at somebody, and you’re like, I know exactly what you’re thinking. And I know what you’re feeling, because I do too.

  • Another place you could start the music in the passage above is at the end of the line “And I’m thinking, what did I do?” Doing it there would underline the shift from action to the interviewee’s feelings about the action. In general, a music entrance or exit will signal a shift in the story. Either a new scene is starting or a scene is ending, or you’re shifting from plot to a moment of reflection, or some idea you want to underline.
  • Don’t slowly fade up music. Choose a spot and start it there. Almost always, that’s how we do it. That makes more of a statement than sneaking it in.
  • Some music entrances are purely to underline the drama of a certain moment. These can be very old-fashioned showbiz sort of entrances. For instance, you might start music after the last word of this story’s opening block of script, to punctuate the surprise and indicate “now the drama begins”:

When Joe was in elementary school, his favorite part of working on the ship was night watch. That’s when all the rest of the crew was asleep. Joe was only six years old, little Navy hat on his head, peering over the side, watching for any incoming threat. The ship that he worked on, it was not at sea. It was not moving. It was stationed in the driveway of their house in suburban Chicago.

Using Music To Highlight An Idea Or Moment

  • To underline some idea in the story, pull the music out right before it. You can do this by fading out the music or editing it so you can use some breakdown in the song or maybe its end. We do this a lot, to highlight moments in the narration or quotes.
  • In case this isn’t obvious: we edit and loop music as needed. Sometimes we’ll edit out a section of a song that’s distracting or doesn’t go with the story. Other times we’ll edit music so it ends exactly where we want.
  • The other way we’ll underline some idea or feeling in a story is to create a music post: we’ll let the music play without any talking for a few seconds. A typical post will last 4 to 7 seconds, but they can be as short as 2 or 3 seconds and as long as 10 or 12. To state the obvious: this gives the listener time to absorb what’s just been said before moving on. Often music will start underneath a quote and then we usually edit the music, or position it, so there’s a change in the song right at the moment the voice ends and the music is in the clear. So maybe a new instrument kicks in or the melody starts. That’ll be your post. Here are a couple examples of what that looked like in recent stories on the show.
 This is from the top of a recent show where we wanted the post to go to an earlier part of a song.
This is from the top of a recent show where we wanted the post to go to an earlier part of a song.
Listen to “Heart Wants”
This is from our recent show on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I wanted the post to be that note that occurs at about 1:19 in the screenshot. But the music didn’t actually go there naturally. So I pasted the note there and then pulled the music back to make that edit you see at about 1:07 in the screenshot. It’s actually a really janky edit that’s masked by Dan Ephron’s narration.
This is from our recent show on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I wanted the post to be that note that occurs at about 1:19 in the screenshot. But the music didn’t actually go there naturally. So I pasted the note there and then pulled the music back to make that edit you see at about 1:07 in the screenshot. It’s actually a really janky edit that’s masked by Dan Ephron’s narration.

Here’s what that bad edit sounds like if you’re just listening to the music isolated.

Listen to “A Rope For The Traitors – janky edit”

Here’s what it sounded like on the radio.

Listen to “A Rope For The Traitors – radio edit”
  • If a quote ends on a funny beat, with the interviewee and interviewer laughing, we’ll typically start the music near the end of the quote, usually AFTER the punch line, so it doesn’t step on or telegraph the joke. Ideally the interviewer and interviewee continue riffing and the music sits under their riffing. When the quote ends, the music comes up in the clear for a post. If the quote ends on laughter, we’ll have the music fade up and overtake the laughter.
  • All of that said, be aware that you don’t want to be too obvious about where music starts and stops. Start at the exact beginning of a scene and it’ll get in the way of what’s being said. Sometimes an end that’s too obvious feels like a corny rimshot.

Duration Of Music And Pacing

  • Once music starts, it’s usually in for about a minute, or maybe a minute and half. Sometimes it’s longer — up to 2:30. Sometimes it’s shorter — as brief as :40 or :45. We’ll bring in music for even less than :40 now and then, but it’s pretty rare. If you’re going longer or shorter, ask yourself why.
  • Once you’ve finished a piece of music, don’t bring another in too quickly. Stories need room to breathe. It’s hard to generalize about how long to go without music before your next cue. A rule of thumb is that you’ll go as long without music as you did with music, but really this depends on the pacing and content of the story. Some super-intense, emotional material can go for minutes with no scoring. Sometimes scenes are fast and changing quickly and you want to underline the shifts with music entrances and exits.
  • Vary the way you start music so the rhythm of the piece isn’t predictable and boring. Start some music in the middle of a long stretch of talking, other music in the clear, other music :03 or :08 or :12 from the end of a stretch of talking.
  • If you start a scene with music, and it goes away because the scene shifts, and you return to the same scene or subject later, sometimes it can be nice to reuse the same piece of music — the way film composers use leitmotifs. Bringing back the same piece of music can also keep a story from feeling too busy because you’re not introducing the listener to a bunch of new cues. You’re just returning to something they’ve already heard. Here’s an example of that from a story I did recently about the documentary (T)ERROR.
The music initially starts to punctuate the joke from the previous scene, but then hopefully establishes itself as a little theme about the access the filmmakers got. I thought it was distracting under the clip from the film of the informant talking to his FBI handlers. But after that cut when I start talking about what the filmmakers were able to demonstrate with their access, that same piece of music starts up again.
The music initially starts to punctuate the joke from the previous scene, but then hopefully establishes itself as a little theme about the access the filmmakers got. I thought it was distracting under the clip from the film of the informant talking to his FBI handlers. But after that cut when I start talking about what the filmmakers were able to demonstrate with their access, that same piece of music starts up again.
Listen to “(T)ERROR leitmotif example”

Mapping The Music In One Story

So that was a bunch of guidelines. But to give you a sense of how we actually use these principles, I notated this transcript of a story I mixed and explain all the scoring choices. It’s a story our producer Chana Joffe-Walt reported – Act Three of episode 538 “Is This Working?”

Listen to “Act Three of episode 538 “Is This Working?””

[Editor’s Note: We suggest you hit play and follow along with Jonathan’s annotated script below.]

Act Three. The Talking Cure.

Ira Glass: Act Three, “The Talking Cure.” So after the Texas numbers came out, and then more studies and punishments in schools, lots of educators and policymakers became convinced that a lot of the discipline that schools administer is not working, especially suspensions. So if you don’t want to suspend kids, what do you do instead?

Well, one alternative that’s talked about a lot, that the Obama administration and others are pushing for schools, is something called restorative justice. Now, the model for this comes from the criminal justice system, where offenders and victims will sit down in a mediation, and they basically try to talk it out and find a way to restore the harm done by the crime. That’s why it’s restorative.
So if this is the answer for schools, we wanted to see what it looks like when you try that in a school setting. Chana spent last spring semester at a public school called Lyons Community School in Brooklyn. It’s a small middle and high school founded nearly eight years ago to attempt this approach with kids.

Just a quick note, the kids in this story are minors, and some of the names have been changed. Also, if you’re listening to this on the internet or on podcast, there is cursing that we have not beeped in what you’re about to hear. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, you can get it at our website, OK, here’s Chana. [01:13]

Chana: I was popular at Lyons. It was a problem. Kids would see me walking around with my microphone, international symbol that someone is about to be made famous. And there’d be a scramble.

Male Student 1: Is this an interview?

Chana: Some very quick process of natural selection would take place, a dozen kids would get pushed aside, and I’d be left standing with the champions.

Chana: So you guys are both what grade at Lyons?

Students 1 And 2: Ninth.

Chana: How do you like it?

Students 1 And 2: It’s good.

Chana: Are you going to say everything at the same time?

Students 1 And 2: No. Stop!

01:44 – Music starts under tape to underline the joke…but starts just a couple hairs after so it doesn’t sound like a rimshot or something. Also, the bit of them repeating each other was in the clear for awhile so that scene could establish itself as funny before we point out with the music that it is indeed funny.

Note that the music starts about a half minute into Chana’s story. There’s no solid rule of thumb about where to start music in a story, but it would be unusual to start earlier than 20 or 30 seconds from the top.

Chana: You guys both started this year?

Students 1 And 2: Yeah.

Chana: Having to move a conversation like this into an interview about restorative justice was a little bit of a bummer. Kids at Lyons don’t necessarily know that term, nor do they want to talk about it. But when you ask them what their school is like, they have a lot to say about that, mostly what it feels like here. The teachers listen to you. And we have a voice.

02:10 – Music fades out going into tape. Mostly so the example of restorative justice, the whole idea of the piece, is underlined. Also the music was a little too light-hearted to continue into next bit.

Student 1: In my old middle school, they would just suspend us and whatever, call it a day. But at Lyons, we talk about the problem and stuff like that.

Student 2: I had one little altercation, but me and the girl are friends now.

Student 1: Because we all talked about the situation. It was stupid. After the fight, we all got in a circle, and we just talked about the situation.

Chana: Circles. That’s a big thing here. They sit in circles after a fight. Circles are where conflict is resolved, consequences are discussed, feelings are shared. The kids at Lyons get the message that talking is how you are successful.
A beefy ninth grader named Alex, with an Afro and dimples, walked me through, in detail, how he calms himself down when he gets frustrated in class. And then he told me, “Lyons is what made me.” I ask him what he means by that.

Alex: I wouldn’t think I would talk to you now how I’m talking to you.

Chana: What do you mean, the way that you’re talking to me now?

Alex: Like so friendly, like I could keep on talking and talking. If I would have never been at Lyons, I probably would have never been comfortable talking to you.

Chana: You wouldn’t even be sitting here with me.

Alex No.

03:17 – Music starts under tape.

Chana: You just would have walked away when I asked to talk to you.

Alex: I probably would have, yeah.

Chana: Later, Alex told me, “I wouldn’t have walked away nicely, either.” His teachers confirmed this.

03:28 – Post for :04 seconds to underline the story about Alex. But also because we’re moving from his specific story into a larger description of what this policy looks like at the school. The little bit of piano is enough of a change that it makes for a good post.

Chana: All this talking at Lyons can just look like total chaos. There are kids in the hallway at Lyons all the time, there are fights, there’s random screaming in between classes. Rousseau’s charter school had zero tolerance. Lyons has a tolerance for disruption that rivals a paintball arena.

03:51 – Music fades out under this next piece of script because we’re moving to a specific example. Out by “suck his dick” so the starkness of that moment really plays.

Chana: One day, I found a teacher and dean trying to game out how to approach a student who told a female teacher to suck his dick. The kid said this in class and then walked out.

Chana: Were you mad? Like mad at him?

Female Teacher 3: I just feel so bad for him, that he can’t control himself. Why is he yelling at me? I’ve only ever been on his side. What is up with that? It just makes me so sad. I don’t really have it in me to get mad at him about it.

Chana: Even though he’s telling you, “Suck my dick?”

Female Teacher 3: Well, that was just like a performance. I really didn’t take it personally. I mean, it was really just kind of like–

Male Teacher 4: Like out of the probably about 100 times somebody’s told me to suck their dick, I don’t think they ever meant it personally toward me.

Chana: That’s happened to you 100 times?

Male Teacher 4:

Chana: These two teachers talk about what it means that the student said those words for an hour.

04:48 – Previous piece of music returns. We’re still talking about the same general concept of student behavior before they’ve adapted to the school’s policy. Also moving away from specific “suck my dick” story into a larger idea.

Chana: They then speak with the student for another hour, the student and his mom, the student and other students, the student one-on-one again. It is a thorough investigation into the meaning and effect of the words “Suck my dick” on the kid, on the teacher, and on the class.

Chana: But that’s kind of the idea, that kids are a long-term project, and over time, angry, hard kids become people who can explain themselves. At Lyons, they call this transformation “being Lyonized.” The assistant principal was telling me about this, about how kids get Lyonized.

05:20 – Music starts to fade. Out by the time the tape starts because we’re moving on to a new scene.

Chana: And a ninth grader named Nelson happened to be just sitting with us. So she said, “Like Nelson. In sixth grade–”

Female Assistant Principal: He was constantly talking, constantly throwing things, constantly getting kicked out of class, constantly.

Chana: Nelson is not squirming or grimacing listening to this. The feeling is more of a loving parent teasing a grown child about what an awful teenager he was. But of course, what’s so remarkable is Nelson is still a teenager. And this is not his parent. It’s his principal.

Female Assistant Principal: You didn’t make it through a class, rarely, even when I had you in small group in sixth grade. It was rough.

Chana: Is that true?

Nelson: Some of it.

Female Assistant Principal: You remember. It’s not like you don’t remember.

Nelson: Not in that small group. The small group, I wasn’t bad.

Female Assistant Principal: That’s not true. That’s not true. You have selective memory. It’s not true.

Chana: Nelson tells me, “Just ask Espy what I was like in sixth grade.” Espy is Dan Espinoza, a dean at the school.

Dan Espinoza: Oh, god. As a sixth grader, he was a very, very angry kid. And even through most of his middle school, he’d be a kid that would just wander the halls for hours on end. No one could talk to him. No one could stop him– don’t touch me, get off me. He would be like, “These f-in’ deans. He would always say that.

Chana: One day, a girl said something nasty to Nelson, and he started screaming at her and then chasing her out of the classroom.

Dan Espinoza: Espy stood by the door so Nelson couldn’t run after her. And he looked at me, and he was like, “Dan, I swear to god, I’m about to punch you in the groin right now”– he said that to me– “if you don’t let go of the door.” So I put my foot in the door so that he couldn’t open it. And he knew it, and he stopped it at my foot, and then he just pulled harder. And I was–

Chana: What happened?

Dan Espinoza: It hit me right in the face.

Chana: When I asked him how hard, Espy said, “It didn’t break my jaw or anything.”

07:15 – Music starts in the clear between two lines of script. We’re moving away from the past to what Nelson is like now. New chapter.

Chana: So that was sixth grade. Nelson is in ninth grade now, Lyonized.

Dan Espinoza: I mean, I could tell Nelson, “Nelson, I love you.” He’ll be like, “I love you, too.” And it’s just a very good–

Chana: Oh, really?

Dan Espinoza: Yeah. It’s a very positive relationship at this point. I really don’t worry about Nelson. I don’t worry. I think he’s going to be OK.

07:40 – Post cause we’re moving away from the specific example of Nelson. To a bigger point.

Chana: Schools, like any institution, I guess, tend to attract believers, some more fervent than others.

07:50 – Music kinda drops out here in a not ideal way. Would normally have started fade here and continued through next two sentences. But the drums in this song got too busy.

Chana: But Lyons is a building of believers. This is the way to do things, and it’s the right way.

You definitely want music out by this spot so we can highlight the core narrative of the story that’s about to happen. A good portion of the scene plays out with no music.

Chana: Which is why I want to tell you about what happened on May 7 last spring, something that threatened to reverse years of progress with Nelson and had lots of teachers in the school questioning what they’re doing here. On May 7, two teachers named Chelsea and Jesse took a group of ninth graders on a field trip. It was an art class. They were going to Manhattan to look at public art. And even on the walk to the train, kids were noticing public artwork.

Jesse: It was a beautiful day. We got on the train. Everything was pleasant and calm. Chelsea’s at one door. I’m at the other. Kids are standing in the aisle. Most of the seats were taken when we got on.

Chelsea: I remember standing with a group of kids around me. And we were all just kind of chatting, who they’re dating or just talking about life. Everything seemed so calm. I think we’re on the train for two stops, and the train doors open. And someone comes from behind Nelson. So Nelson is standing at the middle pole of the train. And someone pushes past him, kind of shoulders him out of the way, and steps off the train.

And Nelson responds by saying, “Say excuse me.” And the man now, who’s outside of the train, turns around and starts cursing at Nelson. I don’t remember exactly what he said, something like, who the fuck are you, or, shut the fuck up, or something very aggressive, very unnecessary.

Nelson didn’t say it in a nice way. He was just like, “Say excuse me.” Definitely not within his place to be speaking to an older man that way, but still, not horrible.

Chana: Chelsea says the man was big.

09:34 – Music starts here in a pause in narration. Don’t want to be too deliberate, but the drama is amping up. Choosing a simple, neutral piece of music keeps it from being too melodramatic. This is a good example of music starting in the middle of rising action, as the story builds.

Chana: Big enough that she wouldn’t have messed with him and big enough that, Nelson says, when he bumped into him, it was a real shove.

Nelson: It’s rude people on the train. They’ll just bump into you without saying excuse me or sorry. I told him, “Say excuse me. You could have said excuse me.”

Chana: And then he said something right back?

Nelson: Said, “Fuck you.” I said, “Fuck you, too.”

09:54 – Post to underline this trigger of the fight.

Chana: There are a lot of versions of what happened next. Some students say the guy reached to grab Nelson, to hit him. Some of them say the guy just stepped forward. Teachers and students, everyone, says, at that point, the kids, a large group of them, moved in on the man.

10:13 – Music out to highlight the escalation of the incident. It could’ve also continued and faded out at 10:42 when Chana says, “but for some reason, the doors did not close” to underline the drama of that moment.

Chelsea: It was kind of like slow motion. And I could see a volcano erupting. And I just immediately put my arms across the door, because he was outside, and they were inside. And I wanted to keep them inside, and I wanted to keep him outside.
The doors were going to close soon. They’re just yelling. They can yell, and then we’ll move on.

Chana: And Chelsea put her arms across the doors to keep the kids behind her inside the train. But for some reason, the doors did not close. The train did not move.

Chelsea: It definitely escalated very quickly. They were trying to hit him over me. They threw a bottle. Somebody spit. I mean, it was really gross.

Chana: Jesse, meanwhile, the other teacher, was at the other end of the train car. So he couldn’t see what was going on. But he stepped out onto the platform, and he sees this man there, screaming.

Jesse: And Chelsea is between him and the students. It appeared that he was reaching over, trying to grab a student. And he’s saying something like, I want this fucking kid, or, give me this fucking kid, something like that.

So I was really concerned that he was mentally unstable. And so I ran. I actually sort of– so I slipped myself between him and Chelsea.

Chelsea: I was facing him. And so I actually saw him reach into his pocket. And I got really– I was like, oh, my god. Does this guy have some sort of weapon?

Jesse: I actually put my hands on his chest to push him away. And right when I did that, we locked eyes, and he said, “I’m a cop. I’m a cop. I’m a cop.”

11:54 – Music starts in the clear to underline this revelation and turn in the story.

Chana: When I asked the kids about this moment later, a bunch of them told me the whole thing was so confusing until right then. The whole time, they were wondering, what’s this random guy doing starting with us? And then, when they found out he’s a cop, it was like, oh, that’s why he’s acting like that.

But Jesse and Chelsea both said this is where they got confused. The man made more sense to them as a crazy guy than as an officer, a plainclothes officer, who was now standing on a subway platform with his badge saying he got hit, and he wanted everyone off the train.

Jesse: Yeah, he’s like, give me this kid, I want that one, give me the tall one, the short one, who were huddled on the platform. He’s picking– he had one student and was asking for more.

Chelsea: He was very, very, very angry. You know when someone’s so angry that spit is coming out of their mouth? Yeah. When he was talking to us and talking to the kids, he was filled with fury.

Chana: Jesse says the cop pulled aside Nelson, Alex– that kid who told me Lyons made him capable of talking to me– and a boy named Kamani. Jesse tried to stay close to the group.

Jesse: I’m saying, “Wait, why do you want them?” And at some point in there, I made it clear. I said, “I’m their teacher. They’re with me on a class trip. We need to talk about this.”

And he’s saying, “I’m going to get six more officers here in a second.” And he really did. He called, and there were a bunch more plainclothes officers there really quickly.

Chana: Jesse pressed on.

13:34 – Fade starts here. We’re gradually moving on from the specifics of the scene to the idea that Chana comes to in the next sentence. Losing the music underlines the idea.

Chana: And the more he recounted this to me, I realized, oh, he’s trying to do restorative justice with the guy. He was in teacher mode. He’s got 25 of his students standing before him. So without thinking, he does what he knows how to do.

Jesse: You know, let’s talk about this. There must be a way we can work this out. You don’t have to arrest them. I have a whole class here.

Chana: And you thought, I just need to explain to him what’s going on.

Jesse: Yeah, if I could explain to him, we’re on a class trip, and whatever happened must have been some big misunderstanding. Maybe he didn’t know you were a cop. Maybe you shouldn’t have cursed at him right away. Maybe he shouldn’t have said, “Say excuse me,” with that particular tone. And if I can help you two see that right now, then everything can be OK. And he wasn’t trying to hear any of that.

Chana: What was he saying?

Jesse: He actually then threatened me and said that, if I don’t get away, that he was going to arrest me.

Chana: Restorative justice, meet plain old criminal justice. The cop was not about to sit in a circle. He was going to make some arrests.

And the kids geared into action. They shot video, started calling mothers and aunts and girlfriends. Someone made sure to get their backpacks.

Nelson’s classmate Brianna got Nelson’s phone out of his pocket while he was handcuffed. I asked Brianna how she knew to do that when someone was arrested. She was quiet for a couple seconds, like she was trying to figure out what exactly I meant by that question. And then her face cleared up, and she said, oh, I live here. I live in Brooklyn.

Jesse: I immediately got the sense that seeing their friends in handcuffs was nothing new to them at all. And that’s a really scary thought. And it’s something that I know, but to see it in that moment where it’s so clear no one is shocked.

Chana: About what’s happening right there.

Jesse: Yeah. People are angry, but no one is surprised. And seeing how normal it is for some kids is, yeah, that’s scary.

15:31 – Music starts in the middle of the previous sentence so it can post at “scary.” Again, just to underline the revelation that Jesse has come to. Then after the post, we can move back into the narrative.

Chana: The cop arrested Nelson and Kamani. The rest of the kids watched. Nelson was charged with disorderly conduct. Kamani was charged with a felony for assaulting an officer.

The NYPD declined multiple requests for an interview or any kind of response. And the officer– his name is Guillermo Lozano– would not talk to me. He also didn’t show up for Nelson’s court dates. He did provide the courts with a written statement that says, after a heated verbal exchange with Nelson, the officer identified himself. Kamani, the statement says, then punched him in the right eye and yelled, “Fuck that.”

Kamani denies this. But in court, he took a plea deal. All of the witnesses I spoke with say the cop did not identify himself until after the scuffle. Two people said, at that point, he did appear to have a mark on his face. Nelson and Kamani were booked and spent the night in jail. They were both 16.

16:34 – Post to emphasize Chana’s last line and move on from the specifics of the case into what happened next. Music fades out relatively quickly under the next piece of tape. The scene already has so much drama it doesn’t need music. Again, music would probably make it melodramatic.

Nelson: Everybody’s in there for different stuff. So at that point, you just feel like you’ve just got to watch over yourself, because there’s dangerous people in there. You’ve just got to be cool.

Chana: Was this other kids or grownups?

Nelson: Grownups. To me, they was a little crazy, because they’re just doing random shit and crazy stuff.

Chana: Like what?

Nelson: Crazy stuff, like grown people getting caught with guns and stuff. It’s just weird, because you’re just looking at them like, damn. I didn’t sleep.

Chana: Yeah, it seems like it’d be hard to sleep.

Nelson: I was up the whole night.

Chana: Did you just sit up the whole night?

Nelson: I had my hoodie over my head, just thinking.

Chana: Were you scared?

Nelson: Not really. I kind of was, but I wasn’t.

Chana: I asked Nelson what he was thinking about all night.

Nelson: If he was a cop, why’d he tell me fuck you? Because he could have said something else if he’s that smart enough to be a cop.

Chana: Like what?

Nelson: I don’t know. Like, sorry, my fault. It just made no sense. He’s a grown-ass man, and I’m a little kid. He should have just kept going.

Chana: When Nelson got out the next morning, he came straight to school. He said he wanted to let his teachers know he was OK.

The principal of Lyons, Taeko Onishi, sends out a weekly email to staff. And that week, it described the arrests and said, “There’s an impending court case, so I won’t get into too much detail. But it was one of those cases of a cop undercover, responding completely inappropriately to our students, our students then responding inappropriately back. Clearly, the cop was in the wrong. But equally clearly, many of our students really struggle to make the best of choices when faced with an emotionally charged situation.”

Of course, Lyons staff discussed the incident exhaustively.

Jesse: I was sick. It’s like your worst nightmare. Assaulting an officer sounds so bad.

Chana: Espy, the dean who tells Nelson he loves him, could not stop imagining Nelson in jail. He imagined Nelson getting his prints taken, standing before a judge, seeing himself as a criminal. And Espy played out the alternate future he could now see for Nelson. Basically, he had the same moment Tunette had with JJ, seeing a path laid out before him, seeing him targeted by strangers who don’t see him for who he is. It made Espy furious.

19:10 – Music starts. We’re shifting gears to the idea that maybe restorative justice doesn’t work. A new idea, signalled by the music entrance.

Chana: But other teachers at Lyons took the news of the arrests differently. Kamani’s English teacher, Cindy Black, said she kept thinking about all the times Kamani acted out in her class, blew up, threw books on the floor. And she kept wondering, is what we’re doing working for the kids?

Cindy Black: And so when I first heard about what had happened, my immediate reaction was, oh, no. It’s our fault. We’ve allowed him to get away with too much. We should have been suspending him more.

We should have been more black and white. We shouldn’t have turned away when he did these outrageous things. We should have held him more accountable.

And we didn’t do any of that stuff. And so it’s our fault he’s done something now. He spent the night in jail. It’s because of us. It’s because of me.

Chana: Here’s Chelsea.

Chelsea: Because maybe if we were a different kind of school, they would not have acted that way on a trip. I don’t know if kids would have felt the freedom to act that way.

Chana: Freedom to say, “excuse me” to a stranger in a rude tone, to throw stuff, and to talk back. It seemed like the cop saw them as rowdy or threatening. What if they’d been more like Rousseau’s students, quiet and in uniforms, doing homework? Maybe this whole thing could’ve been avoided.

20:27 – Music ends under narration by just letting a note end instead of fading out. We’re about to move back to Espy’s POV and the abrupt stop helps with that.

Chana: But Espy reminded everyone, wait, the cop said, “Fuck you.” Kamani only got involved when the cop started with Nelson. We’re going to tell them he should have held back?

Jesse: Are you kidding me? When his friend is getting pulled by a plainclothed guy? How do you– I just don’t– because I know, if I was there, I would be arrested, because if someone’s grabbing Nelson and it’s just a guy, I’m going to– so I would have been arrested.

And this guy clearly had a– everybody around said Nelson said, “You could say excuse me.” That’s the first thing Nelson said, when the first thing the guy says is, “Fuck you.” And this is a kid who we’re trying to teach, be patient, don’t confront somebody. And I thought he did a pretty good job. But once you say, “Fuck you” to Nelson, the restorative justice doesn’t work beyond that point.

Chana: Still, restorative justice is what the school does. So after Jesse and Chelsea got the rest of the class back to school, they set them down in a circle. Here’s Alex.

Alex: Just talking about what happened at that day and what we could have did to stop it.

Chana: What could you guys have done to stop it?

Alex: I don’t know. We can’t stop something like that. The police officer just took them for no reason. We can’t stop– we can’t change his mind as Jesse tried to change his mind. He didn’t want to change his mind.

Chana: So your circle was about what you could do to stop it, but you felt like there was nothing that you could do to stop it?

Alex: Yeah. I didn’t really feel like telling nobody. So I didn’t really feel like talking about it.

Chana: In other words, nothing that we could do, nothing you teachers can do, would have stopped that. I heard this from a lot of kids, the feeling that your funky little system is cool when we’re in school and all, but don’t try and take it and apply it to our world. You’re in over your head.

22:19 – Music starts in the clear because we’re moving away from the specific story to Chana making a more general breakdown of what this whole story has been about. (Music probably should’ve been louder in the few seconds before Chana starts talking again! But you know, I mixed this under a deadline. Oops.)

Chana: Knowing how to talk their way through a conflict might help these kids some day in their jobs, with their friends and their marriages. In all kinds of situations. But it did not keep them from getting arrested on a subway platform. So in that way, Lyons is failing to prepare kids for the world they live in. And if they’re not preparing kids for the world they live in, they’re not doing their job, right? Isn’t that their job? Is that their job?

This is the question I keep coming back to, thinking about all these stories. It’s the same question Rousseau, at his no-excuses charter school, is asking.

What is the point of punishment in school? Is it to teach self-control? To get kids to be quiet so learning can happen? To prepare children to function as grownups in the world? To teach them how to avoid being arrested? If you want to know, is this working for the kids, you have to know what you’re going for, right?

Every year, teachers have 30 or 100 students. A lot of those kids will be disciplined. And getting it wrong, even once, can be haunting. For example, remember Christopher, the kid who ran around the classroom with his teacher’s stapler and Post-It notes coming out of his pockets everywhere? I tried to track Christopher down. I thought it might be interesting to hear what he remembered of the stapler, if he remembered his teacher.

And I found him, just last month in a Manhattan courthouse. He was being sentenced to six months at Rikers Island for burglary. Christopher’s seventh-grade teacher did not cause that. But when I told Ms. Furr, she got really quiet, ended our call kind of abruptly, and then wrote me this.

“I was so heartbroken to hear the news about Christopher’s recent trouble. All the times I talked about behavior with him, I wish I would have talked about how quick that he was at math and how much I liked to hear him read out loud. If you do speak to him, please tell him I’m glad to help in any way possible.”

Katie Furr has no idea if those things would have made any difference, and I don’t either. And I wasn’t able to reach the one person

24:30 – Music shifts slightly. It’s something that happens naturally in the song, but I edited it a bit so the shift would happen at this spot, to underline what follows.

Chana: who might have something to say about that, because he has been removed from the community, something he’s gone through many times before, starting at least as early as seventh grade.

24:41 – Music posts with the piano melody. The almost upbeat swing feel of the music here isn’t because the story ends on an upbeat note…but if we would’ve posted with some part of the music as it had been playing before, the end might’ve rang too sad. This is a little more neutral. Also the music had been on stage for almost 2:30 minutes — we’d pretty much exhausted its possibilities and it’s nice to shift to something new you haven’t heard yet.

Final Note

The last thing I’ll say in all of this is that music is just one element in your story. The spit shine. The garnish. But you can overuse it and make things tacky. Like plastic flowers on a restaurant table. I actually count it as a victory when I can go several minutes in a story without music. It means every single element of the story is firing exactly as it should. But there ain’t no shame in using music either. Even though we’re documenting real life, a story told on the radio is a performance. And people might be more inclined to watch you do your song and dance if there’s music playing.

*Thanks to Seth Lind for the photo of Jonathan at the top of this post.


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  • Michael O’Reilly



    This is really detailed – how, why and when to use music – the only thing that is not detailed is WHAT music to use and god bless ’em, (both TAL and Jonathan) TAL uses the same tired pieces of music over and over! It is the thing that annoys me the most about TAL. I really think that unless you have a good “what” then the how and why and when will take care of themselves.

    • Shannon



      My guess about the reuse of some tunes is licensing… if you’re working on a tight budget you can’t afford the rights to brand new music for every story? (Plus the ones they use are really well suited for the job.) I got to see Ira do a solo talk in VT where he went into some of the details of what makes a good piece of music (all the while walking us through a story while live mixing it on his iPad mini while talking), some are more suited for underlining a point, some help change pace or compliment texture of a piece etc.

      It’s actually really interesting to listen to the full versions of the songs they use a lot… you get to hear what they had to cut out and around, here are their big three in my opinion:

      Love Me Some Walking by Nigel Godrich
      Indie Rock Spock Ears by Dianogah
      Perpetuum Mobile by Penguin Cafe Orchestra

    • Shannon



      I really loved this behind the scenes peek, thanks for the post!… although I’m mainly an illustrator/animator, doing the Transom workshop is on my bucket list… and, I hope to someday be able to work with TAL (but not near Ira’s crazy dog)

      ; P

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