Reaching a High Note with Musical Education
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:25
Ben Gundersheimer
Ben Gundersheimer ‘89 has always loved playing music, and he is best known for his children’s music performances as Mister G.

Every aspiring musician dreams of playing in front of a screaming crowd. But not every musician has to worry about a member of the crowd screaming because he spilled his juice.

For Ben Gundersheimer, playing to sold-out crowds of kids is just part of a day’s work.

Gundersheimer, known to his fans as Mister G, is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. His albums for young children have received Latin Grammy nominations along with impressive recognition from parenting magazines and foundations.

Early Life

Gundersheimer started playing guitar when he was 9 years old, but his interest in music was evident even earlier. “I was really captivated by music all along,” he said. “Apparently I was pretty musical when I was preverbal, always drumming on things or banging on pots and pans.”

Being a musician wasn’t the only career path that Gundersheimer considered when he was growing up. An avid baseball player, his junior high decision to study Spanish was born from a desire to be able to communicate with his teammates as a future major league baseball player. The sport is also partially what drew him to Amherst. He played in the program for four years, captaining the team for one of them, and says that it was this athletic aspect of his college experience that had the greatest impact on his later career.

“One thing that helped lay the groundwork for where I ended up professionally was having to compete and persevere, which I learned through playing baseball at Amherst,” he said. Persistence “has served me well in the music business, where there are lots of ups and downs.”

After College

After graduating from Amherst with an English degree in 1989, Gundersheimer moved to the Washington, D.C. area with a friend and played gigs around there for a few years. Before long, he found himself back in school, this time at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Although “a completely opposite experience” from Amherst, Berklee — where Gundersheimer remembers himself as being just one of thousands of guitar players —was nevertheless a valuable and exciting time that figured prominently in his trajectory to becoming a musician.

“I came face to face with so many talented people, virtuosic musicians … It was intimidating but also inspiring,” he said. “Ever since, I’ve wanted to both surround myself with the best players that I can and push to improve as a writer, player, producer and engineer.”

He left Berklee after several semesters and formed an indie rock group called the “Ben Swift Band” with a few of his classmates. He toured nationally, both as the bandleader and as an independent singer-songwriter, for 15 years.

It was thanks to this band that he had his first foray into the world of children’s music.

“We created an educational performing alter ego called the “Roots Music Collective” where we would just go and do assemblies on the roots of American music,” he said.

The group had “this sort of funny, weird double life,” he said. “Sometimes we’d be performing at a club until two o’clock in the morning, and then a few hours later, we would be under the fluorescent lights of a cafeteria playing for some kids at an elementary school.”

The energy and enthusiasm the young audience demonstrated in response to these shows was nothing short of exhilarating for Gundersheimer, who said he was “getting a little burned out and jaded” on his then-career track. He’d previously entertained the thought of becoming a teacher, a backup plan in case becoming a musician (or a baseball player) didn’t work out, and this watershed moment was enough to convince Gundersheimer to leave the music scene and pursue his interest in education.

“When I had that exposure to those kids, I got so much from their energy, their enthusiasm for music and I thought that perhaps what I would do was transition to becoming an elementary school teacher and doing music on the side,” Gundersheimer said. “I just thought it was a healthy energy to be around day to day.”

This new path took him to Smith College, where he enrolled in the school’s Master of Education program and graduated in 2008 with a degree in elementary education and the rare distinction of being both an Amherst and Smith alum. He taught at the Smith College Campus School as a graduate student, and it was in these classrooms that he witnessed what happened when his two interests, music and children’s education, collided.

In a sense, Gundersheimer discovered his passion for writing music for children somewhat by accident: “When I had a little autonomy in the classroom, I would write songs with the kids,” he said. “Honestly, at that point, it was because I didn’t know how to teach them, but I did know how to write songs.”

However, this initiative elicited a surprisingly warm and enthusiastic response from the children, and Gundersheimer quickly came to see the potential of using music as a learning tool.

“The kids were so responsive to [writing songs and performing]; it was wonderful to see how engaged they became,” he said. “The degree of engagement I would see in the kids between taking more of a conventional worksheet approach to learning versus bringing music and creativity into it, like creating a catchy song to help kids learn something … was astonishing.”

For a while, writing songs for kids remained just a classroom activity. It wasn’t obvious to Gundersheimer at first that there was a path that led to becoming a children’s musician. But as he started to branch out and play at other local schools, gaining both experience and recognition, his classroom initiative naturally developed into something bigger.

Gundersheimer will be the first to tell you that not everyone will be “on board” with anything new an artist tries to do, but his own transition into children’s songwriting was met with support from his close sources. His parents, for one thing, were “very happy” to see him reconcile his interests in both performing and working with children.

Steffen Hartleib, who attended Berklee with Gundersheimer, was not only supportive of his longtime friend’s decision, but also not surprised by it.

“I couldn’t imagine him settling down, becoming a teacher full-time and giving up performing — he’s too restless and adventurous for that,” Hartleib wrote in an email. “I think writing songs for and with the kids in the classroom gave him a new perspective on music, so switching from indie rock to performing and recording for kids was a very natural progression.”

Indie rock and children’s music, and all genres of music for that matter, all require a serious work ethic, the willingness to put oneself out there and on the road. But aside from that, the two are quite different.

“If I had to pinpoint one thing about what I’m doing now compared to the scene I was in earlier, it’s the fact that with kids’ music there are no limitations, stylistically speaking,” Gundersheimer said. “From an artistic standpoint, it’s really liberating to think I can go in any direction I want.”

Gundersheimer has been able to experiment freely with different artistic styles without compromising the quality of his music. His colleague Emilio Miler, musician and co-producer of the latest Mister G album “Los Animales,” points to this as one of the great things about Gundersheimer’s work.

“You could pick any of these songs, slightly alter the lyrics, and they would fit nicely in any album by another artist,” he said. “The appreciation of his material doesn’t require being filtered by the fact that it’s ‘for kids,’ in the sense of requiring any less of it for that reason.”

The Mister G Project

In some respects, the Mister G project has come a long way from its origins about six years ago. Gundersheimer’s wife Katherine Jamieson, who manages the project, recalled when she had to “cold call schools and libraries” for gigs.

“Now we’re consistently being hired by performing arts centers, major festivals and theaters around the country,” she said. “I think this has a lot to do with the diverse styles and catchiness of the songs, the high level of musicianship on the albums and Ben’s charisma and incredible ability to connect with audiences.”

But in other respects, not much has changed. Six albums and countless concerts later, what originally drew Gundersheimer into first teaching and then writing songs for children has remained the same: the invigorating energy and honesty of their reactions to his music.

“They aren’t responding because Rolling Stone or Pitchfork told them this is the thing to do — if what’s happening in the moment on stage, the whole experience, is captivating for them, they’ll be euphoric and ecstatic with me,” he said. “It’s so refreshing to have that completely honest and open emotional response, which I think sadly many of us can’t access as adults.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Gundersheimer’s music is its bilingual nature. This recent development was inspired by a trip to Colombia in 2010, shortly after Mister G’s first album was released, and was partially derived from a wish to be able to tour in warm Latin America to escape the brutal winters in Gundersheimer’s New England home.

This is not only fun for Gundersheimer, who is able to incorporate his longstanding love of Spanish into his career, but is also appreciated by his Spanish-speaking audience. Miler, who is from Argentina, praises his culturally inclusive approach to bilingual albums.

“Mister G’s songs teach kids who are familiar with either language that they can get together and play the same games, have the same conversations and learn and grow together,” Miler said. “This focus on unity, on developing relationships out of the things we have in common, rather than pointing out whatever may set us apart, is an incredible message to send out to kids everywhere.”

Looking Forward

Gundersheimer is filled with plans for the future and not just for his future as Mister G. Although he reports that an environment-themed album is in the works, he also expressed interest in making music for adults again.

“I think it would be a lot of fun to go into a town and do a kids’ show in the morning and a grownups’ show at night,” he said. “From a performing and writing standpoint, it’d be good to have an outlet that goes back to my roots as a … kind of Americana singer-songwriter … as a contrast to these high-energy kids’ shows.”

But no matter what happens next, he’ll always be Mister G.

“To do the two together a little bit would be a nice combination,” Gundersheimer said. But “I can’t imagine ditching kids’ music entirely,” he said, “because it’s so rewarding on so many levels to do what I’m doing.”