Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How I got into kids' music... in more ways than one.

Life is full of many possible paths. It seems that a lot of people who currently do kids' music full-time didn't start off doing that at all, including Ralph's World, Dan Zanes and Justin Roberts. In fact, I wonder how many notable kids' music artists there are, if any, who chose right from the start to make that their focus. (??) I certainly never thought I'd be doing kids' music full-time, but I'm very happy it's turned out that way. Here's how it happened for me...

My background musically was playing for several years in bands on the Western New York music scene, most notably with Ember, a progressive rock 'n' roll trio (I preferred that term to 'progressive rock' because although we had the chops of prog bands like Rush and King Crimson we used them within more accessible rock 'n' roll songs that were more like The Who), and The Infydels, a very popular jam rock band (Dead, Phish, Allmans, etc.). Both bands had some success in the area and might have gone further but for the usual dysfunctional traits that tend to destroy most bands. I was just a temporary replacement in The Infydels for several months during some down time from Ember, and that band had several members, so I can't really be blamed for any of their dysfunction, but I was certainly a significant part of the Ember dysfunction. We were encouraged to tour more out of the Buffalo area, and we had some interest from labels including Polydor and some national press in magazines like Relix. But we never followed up on our opportunities for various reasons. It was disappointing when we finally split up, especially as I think our second CD would have been a killer within the genre, but in retrospect I was glad for a change. I ended up doing solo acoustic work and became a fixture on the regional acoustic scene for several years, sometimes performing with my friend Sideshow Jim in a "Simon and Garfunkel meets Weird Al" kind of act, and then after getting married in 2000 performing a lot as a duo with my wife Roseann singing harmonies.

But the coffeeshop scene kind of wore on after a while and I felt in a rut. I had been doing some live theater here and there on the side and ended up co-producing a musical I had written about my customer service day job. The show run ended up being very successful and very well received and it was a great experience to be a part of, but although there was interest to continue working on the show to have it produced elsewhere, and although I had already written most of another musical, I just didn't feel the energy or impetus to get behind that kind of thing again by the time the production was over.

In the meantime, while the musical production was getting underway, there were a few different and completely unrelated plugs by people encouraging me to do music for kids. One was my brother-in-law, who is a gym teacher at an elementary school. He had seen several acts come in to do assemblies and said something to the effect that I could do that as well and probably make a decent living at it. There were also people at some of my coffeeshop shows who would bring their kids along, and they noticed that even though I typically wasn't playing anything kid-related (a mix of original singer/songwriter material and various covers), when kids were in the crowd I felt compelled to try to keep them entertained as well, performing something that I happened to know that they might appreciate (The Peanuts theme, "If I Only Had a Brain", "Scooby Doo", etc.). They noticed how well the kids responded and some commented that I should do some performing particularly for kids.

It was also around that time my wife and I came across... quite by accident... the website of children's music performer Eddie Coker (he'll be featured here soon) and noticed that he seemed to have an interesting kind of job. We ended up calling him and he graciously talked to us for quite a while about his life and work, and he encouraged me to consider doing it myself.

Being someone who has always believed in the phenomenon of 'synchronicity' (and a fan of both Police songs by that name), I took this convergent encouragement about performing for kids as a sign that I should look into the idea. It didn't hurt that my wife Roseann had expressed an interest in working on creative projects for kids when we had first met. She hadn't really pressed me to do anything like that since, always being supportive of whatever I was working on, but once I expressed a possible interest in doing kids' music she was all for that.

So we decided to give it a try, and it was at this time that I did my heretofore mentioned Buffalo library kids' music CD and video search. I really had no idea what anyone was doing in terms of kids' music and never really listened to "kids' music" as a kid, other than the odd thing like Schoolhouse Rock (also to be featured here soon), and so it was enlightening to see and hear so many different things within the genre and to sort of 'discover' kids' music for the first time (as a 33 year old!). Of course, in the last few years with the "kindie rock explosion" there have been even more different things represented (some of which I hope to catch up with here eventually), but even waaaaay back in 2002 there was quite a diversity of kids' music available.

The coolest thing was to realize that I didn't necessarily have to play xylophones and write sing-songy nursery rhyme tunes... I could do just about whatever I wanted musically, within reason, as long as the lyrics either reflected or spoke to a kid's sensibility. In fact, this was particularly exciting for me because it meant that I could really explore a very wide range of musical approaches and sounds and styles and they could all equally co-exist on the same album and fit within the overreaching genre of "children's music". In the past, it was sometimes hard to have too many songs with divergent approaches on the same album and still label the package in a succinct way to work as "singer/songwriter" or "progressive rock" or whatever.

From everything I heard and liked, I learned a basic set list of kids' songs, and Roseann and I accidentally wrote "The Elephant Song" (the 'accidentally' of that is explained here), and decided to see how a little concert for kids might work out. I scheduled a Saturday afternoon at one of the coffeeshops where I regularly played and invited a few friends and family to bring their kids. There ended up being about a dozen kids there, ranging from about 2-10 in age. I played through my set list and it generally went very well. I instantly felt what a joy it is to entertain an audience of children and what a great audience they could be (something I'm going to elaborate on in a future post). And I also learned some important things right away, mainly that you have to keep kids engaged and involved at every turn. I only had a few songs that weren't participatory in some way, but by the end of some of those songs I had essentially lost the kids' attention. The most pleasant surprise was how much they liked "The Elephant Song". I honestly had no idea when we created that whether kids would like it and play along with it or whether they would just think I was an idiot. But they really responded well to that, and we didn't even realize the extent of that until I tried it again at a day care where a much larger group of kids went absolutely berserk during that song.

So for the next few months I played at more day cares and I did a school assembly, which was another great learning experience, and we worked on more songs for an album,
The Kid in the Mirror, which came out in November of 2003. Again, I wasn't sure what the reaction would be to the album. I thought some kids might like some songs and some others, and that parents might tolerate it okay, but I didn't know if it would really work as an album. Thankfully, the reaction was incredibly positive. There were some standout favorites, including "The Elephant Song" and "There's a Monster in My House", but many people told me that their kids were playing the whole album from start to finish over and over again and knew every song by heart. And the parents said that they were so glad to have something that they didn't mind listening to along with their kids. The album quickly became a better seller than any of the other CDs I had been a part of and I thought, hmmm, maybe I should keep doing this kids' music thing. :o)

At this point, I have to acknowledge the enormous contribution of my wife, Roseann, to my current career choice. How many struggling musicians' wives would encourage them to quit their full-time day job... you know, with the regular paycheck, medical benefits, 401K... and pursue music full-time? She believed in me more than I did in myself and that was a tremendous buoy to my spirit at the time when we made that decision in 2004. And she was right... I'm much happier doing this than I was pushing paperwork around at my last job, and though it's been a tremendous amount of work we're now making more than I did at that last job, which is really cool. It definitely helps that Roseann is a great support to what I do in many respects, having a background in early childhood development, television and stage production, experience working alongside professional musical acts, and a great overall artistic ear and eye. We love each other very much and really enjoy working together and travelling together with our family, which certainly makes it all so much better.

Another thing that helped me to quit the old day job and follow my wife's encouragement to make kids' music my career was reading the following quote by Mark Twain: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." I'm not usually so swayed by 'motivational quotes', but that one hit me at just the right time and I really felt the spirit of it inspire me. And the fact that the coffeeshop that I was still playing at most regularly was called The Comfort Zone wasn't lost on me in that moment. I knew I had to leave my comfort zone and throw off the bowlines if I wanted to be happier and more successful in my life. It wasn't that I was unhappy, by any means... I had the best job I had ever had up to that point and a wonderful wife and baby daughter, and I really enjoyed the different music and theatre projects I'd been able to be involved with... but in an overreaching sense I felt very unfulfilled, particularly to be spending 8-10 hours every day not working on music in some way. And I think most people who make music for a living know that it is next to impossible to get that train rolling while also riding another train full-time.

What I've produced and how I perform for kids has changed somewhat since those early days, and I may elaborate more on how and why those changes came about in future posts, but that was how it all started for me. I'm exploring, dreaming and discovering like never before, and I'm very glad that things fell into place the way they did and that I listened and followed up with the encouragement I was getting to pursue this path. Sing it, Sting- "With one breath, with one flow, you will know... synchronicity."

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