Rachel Lipson asked a three-year-old student who had just joined one of her songwriting classes if she knew how to compose a song.
"No, but I can write an ocean," the girl replied.
Lipson, founder of Blue Balloon Songwriting for Small People, knew that she had just heard a great lyric. By the end of the lesson, the pupil and two other students had produced an accompanying melody that, Lipson thought, had echoes of Bob Dylan. (The girls responded with blank stares until one of them said she knew a doggy named Dylan.)
Founded in 2010, Blue Balloon—which is based in Brooklyn Heights but holds classes in other neighborhoods according to demand—channels kids' creative energies in private and small-group lessons for preschoolers through middle-school students. From the very first session, Lipson instructs aspiring Joni Mitchells how to play an instrument (usually guitar), compose music and pen lyrics. "I'm teaching kids how to be folk singers from a very early age," says Lipson, a singer and guitarist herself.
But songwriting isn't the only subject here—the kids each build a repertoire, recording and editing their tunes in a studio, and designing artwork for their own album.
Classes culminate in an end-of-year public showcase that gives children a taste of the indie-music experience. This year, some 30 students will perform original material, after which Lipson and her group, the Tip Top Band, will take to the stage for a grand finale.
Students from Blue Balloon Songwriting for Small People and Rachel Lipson & the Tip Top Band perform at the Knitting Factory on May 21.