Lowry Olafson could not believe what was happening. Suddenly securing a visa for a concert south of the border had become an incredibly complex and drawn-out process. Where doing a gig in the U.S. used to be a relatively straight forward process (get the invite, get the visa, travel to the venue, do the gig, cash the check, go home), this brave new post-9/11 world of tighter border regulations and more stringent visa requirements had changed the equation. It was problematic to the point that he wondered whether concerts in the U.S. were, for a Canadian musician such as himself, a thing of the past.
However, he still had bills to pay and a family to feed.
What, if anything could he – not to mention countless other Canadian musicians – do about it?
In 1992, the Saskatchewan-raised, B.C.-residing Mr. Olafson released his first album, Wind and Rain. The singer-songwriter had a gentle, sensitive style, which drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including fellow Canadian tunesmiths Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. The project was well received; so well, in fact, that he released a second and third album, Good Intentions and Back Again, in 1994 and 1996, respectively.
A bit of a breakthrough happened in 1998, when his fourth album Little Mysteries, was named the number one choice on CBC’s ‘Best of BC Hit List.’ Building on this success, his fifth album, Days That Disappear Too Soon, followed in 2000.
Between recording albums, Mr. Olafson toured extensively. For a number of years, he toured Australia, which sometimes included as many as 34 shows in 35 days. Closer to home, he frequently performed at a variety of folk festivals across the U.S., including such important gathering spots as the legendary campfire sessions at Texas’s Kerrville Folk Festival.
Recently, Mr. Olafson and his wife Shannon started a family. One practical implication was that the economics of touring made bringing along family financially untenable. This had made him increasingly more oriented to performing in geographically closer venues, such as Canada and the United States.
Then 9/11 happened. Two jets hit two towers and the world changed. No longer could musicians like Mr. Olafson cross the border with relative ease. In fact, in some cases, securing a visa could take up to five months.
In 2004, Mr. Olafson began to notice an unconventional trend taking shape in small towns up and down B.C.’s coast. Local arts councils were asking him to come in do a concert. But the sponsor would often want him to also do some sort of ‘local outreach event’.
During one of these events, while performing for children at an elementary school, he discussed the songwriting experience. This led Mr. Olafson to guiding students in writing songs of their own. Suffice it to say, the event was a success: ordinary people plus grassroots creativity equals good music. In a world gone increasingly celebrity and formulaic, the contrast in experiences was very well received.
Was Mr. Olafson on to something? He wondered this aloud in a series of discussions with a music consultant, Jeri Goldstein of Virginia, with whom he had collaborated in the past. The more he kept at it, the more convinced he became; a songwriting workshop for children was a unique and valuable experience.
The basic idea was to go into schools and offer a workshop that helps the kids engage their innate creative potential by writing a song. The format for the event was also rather straightforward: conduct the workshop in the morning, followed by a concert for the whole school after lunch, during which, Mr. Olafson would lead the kids in performing the song they’d written. Given the ease of digitally recording these performances, he also provided each school with a compact disc of the final version of their students’ musical creation.
This all-in-one format, which was typically paid for by the local school district, seemed to deliver great value to all parties involved - especially the children. To date, the experience has been offered to at over 300 schools and has included classes ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
The resulting songs have been diverse and fun, with titles ranging from the contrarian “21 ways to bug your teacher” to the more inspirational “It only takes one to change the world.” Some schools have explicitly requested that the workshop generate a “school song,” which, Mr. Olafson reports, are often sung long after he’s left the building.
He has also launched a variant of his workshop concept involving corporations. The aim is to help business executives write a song about what matters to them and their organization. Not exactly your standard mission statement session. Mr. Olafson ’s objective is to purposefully take people out of their comfort zone – at least for a little while – in order to talk about what is really important and create a song that embodies those values. Recently, he has entertained inquiries from a variety of interested parties, including the finance department of a local civic government.
Finally, Mr. Olafson reports that the U.S. border regulations recently loosened up again, making cross-border performances more likely than in recent years. However, given these new workshop initiatives, he now has at least one more reason to stay on this side of the border.