Friday, December 29, 2006

Kids Make the Darnedest Audience

I've already posted about how I got into doing kids' music, and I mentioned in that post that I would write about kids as an audience at some point. Well, I suppose that now is "some point", so here goes...

When I started doing kids music I thought it would be pretty easy and almost effortless to engage them in live performances. When I would play shows for adults at coffeeshops and they would bring their kids, I would play a song or two for the kids... something I happened to know already like "Scooby Doo" or "If I Only Had a Brain"... and they would usually respond very well, with big smiles and big laughs. It was their reaction which turned out to be a big part of the impetus for me to do music just for kids.

But in retrospect, its no wonder they responded so well to that, because otherwise at those coffeehouse gigs I'd been playing original singer/songwriter acoustic pop songs about relationships or drug addiction or media satire or whatever... stuff their parents could appreciate, but not them. And the covers I did were things like John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd (and not the kid-friendly Pink Floyd songs... wink). So it's no wonder that kids would really perk up and have a big reaction when I would take a few minutes to play a couple of silly tunes that they were familiar with and focus my attention directly towards them.

What I quickly found out once I started doing a few shows specifically for kids is that they have a different expectation entirely when they know that they are the focus of the entertainment, and you may not even keep their attention for five minutes if you're not really engaging them in some way. After I had listened to all of the kids' music CDs from the Buffalo libraries when I was first getting into doing kids' music, I learned a number of the songs that I really liked to form a set list for my first few shows at day cares. I figured, these songs are so incredibly charming that any group of kids will just melt and giggle and purr with joy as I sing them. What a piece of cake!

Well, I found that there's sometimes a big difference between what I might find incredibly charming in a kids' song, what a kid might find incredibly charming when listening to a CD, and what a kid might find incredibly charming during a live show. Merely singing what would seem to be an enjoyable kids' song to a group of kids doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to respond to it or want to pay attention to it.

In that sense, an audience of kids isn't all that different from adults... In a live situation, they often need something a little bit beyond what is merely just a song. A good song can be heard and enjoyed just fine on the CD player at home. But a live performance is expected to be something a little more than that. For artists whose music you are already familiar with, sure, you might enjoy just seeing them in person singing the songs you love... although the odds are that if you've heard of someone's music, they are probably also very good performers, as there are very few "recording artist only" success stories in the music business.

I'm not at all suggesting that an audience (kids or adults) needs video screens or costume characters or giant inflatables or a stage full of dancers or lasers or fog machines or super energetic stage antics or non-stop participation or any of that stuff... Certainly, there are many examples of people who are great about performing with just a guitar or piano and their voice (or even just the instrument in some cases), and bands like The Grateful Dead who pretty much just stood there and played their songs, without even introducing them.

But most audiences, and I think especially kids audiences, need something else as part of the live performances. And that can be as simple as the words or stories you say to set up the song, or a certain kind of way that you bop your head while you sing, or even just the way you look or dress (not to take away from his music at all, but I think Dan Zanes has an instant advantage with an audience of kids because he just looks so cool in a very unique way, so even his appearance is entertaining for kids). Sometimes it's a matter of pacing the songs right... A theater director that I worked with in Buffalo told me that she tries to direct shows with a push-and-pull or roller coaster feel to them, to keep the audience's perception of their experience in constant motion.

To Bounce or Not to Bounce

One thing that I think sets a kids audience apart is a particular need for participation. Yes, older audiences like to clap and sing along and hold up lighters and sway their arms and do "the wave" and mosh and crowd surf and all that, and in some cases it is those shared moments among the audience that really make the concert experience special, as in a U2 show where Bono can stop singing entirely and the whole crowd fills in perfectly for him. But most adult concerts don't absolutely need participation to be enjoyed by their audience, whereas kids' concerts usually do need at least some participation, if not quite a lot. Most kids have a strong desire to be an active part of whatever is going on, and want to have a lot of fun, and want to feel like they are helping in some way.

I have to say "most kids", because one thing I had to learn is that not every kid wants to participate at a live concert, and that's okay. I would have thought that surely every kid would want to "Bounce and Flap and Twist" or "Dance Like An Animal", right? It used to bother me if I ever saw a kid at one of my shows who wasn't participating. And then I met Alex.

Alex was a little boy who came with his mother to a show in Seattle. Try as I might, I just could not get Alex to participate with anything during the show. It was a smaller audience at a library, and so he really stood out (or sat out, I should say) among the other kids who were dancing and responding to everything, and I remembered him very well because once I learned his name I kept trying to coax him to participate ("Come on, Alex!"), to no avail... And then a couple weeks later I was playing another concert near Seattle and while I was setting up I noticed that Alex had joined the audience. I went out to say "hi" and his father said something like, "Alex loved your show so much that he had to come back again. He's been listening to your songs on your website and watching the videos. He's your biggest fan!"

The impact of that was very powerful, and I realized that hey, whaddya know, kids are different. And just because a certain kid may not feel comfortable acting silly like the other kids, it doesn't mean that they aren't having fun and enjoying the show in their own way. One of my nieces is a perfect example of that kind of thing... super shy and reserved at my concerts, but at home she's bouncing off the walls and singing my songs at the top of her lungs. So now when I'm doing concerts I encourage all of the kids to participate, and if I see a kid who isn't then I might make one gesture for them to participate (because some kids do need that personal encouragement to get them going), but if they don't respond to that then I don't worry about it.

Drawing the Line in the Sand/Floor/Grass

Another thing I learned early on is that kids need boundaries and expectations, and that if you provide them ahead of time, they are really great about respecting them. I recall an early show where I was singing a song without my guitar, and a sneaky kid kept creeping around the side of me to go and mess with my guitar on its stand. I kept saying, "No no no", and gently shooing him away, but he kept returning. I observed other seasoned kids' performers like Kenn Nesbitt and Glenn Colton who did such a great job with crowd control, and tried to figure out what they were doing that I wasn't. My wife pointed out that it's important that I be on top of that kind of thing and make it clear the first time it happens that it's not acceptable, or better yet, set that expectation from the beginning.

I hated to seem at all like "the bad guy" when I'm supposed to be the one initiating a fun experience for the kids. But I learned that if we set the rule ahead of time that they cannot come up past a certain point (I have my stage manager, Zeke, tell them that in a fun way before he introduces me), then it is just a matter of my enforcing that, should any kid try to test that boundary. And I've found that they rarely do try to test that boundary if it has already been set. Of course, you'll get the Wandering Infant now and then, who couldn't understand that rule and can be very hard to deflect away from the stage area without their parents help. But by and large, kids are great at respecting the expectations they've been given for their behavior during the show.

We Interrupt this Show for an Important Announcement...

One thing about kids audiences is that you never know when you're going to get unexpected interruptions. Actually, they wouldn't be unexpected interruptions if you knew when they were going to happen. But anyway... Some kids are very outgoing and really want you to know what's going on with them, and so if you sing a song that mentions a dog you might have a kid who comes up during that song yelling, "I have a dog named Cowgirl! I have a dog named Cowgirl!" And about the only thing you can do is to either ignore them or acknowledge them. If possible, acknowledging them is usually better because that's what they really want at that point, to know that you heard them and recognize them. So I may have to try hard to squeeze into the song, "That's great! You have a dog named Cowgirl. How cool!"

And one thing to watch out for is that there may be a smarty-pants among the older range of kids who must announce as loudly as possible that he's aware of something that the other kids aren't. For example, at a recent show I played "There's a Monster in My House", and my set-up for that song is to say that I'm going to tell the kids a story next, and you can tell stories with songs, and would they like to hear kind of a scary story, etc. But this particular time I forgot to say the part that you can tell a story with a song. And wouldn't you know it, there was a kid who starts yelling, several times during the song, "This isn't a story! It's a song!" Arrrrrgggghhhh. I kept looking for an opportunity when I could quickly blurt out, "Youcantellastorywithasong!" But I couldn't get it in there smoothly, and I knew that it was my fault for missing the crucial part of the setup.

Of course, most times it wouldn't matter anyway, since the kids would just listen and follow along as expected, but I just happened to have that one smarty-pants kid there that time, and it was the wrong time to give him that opportunity. Usually, it's easy enough to do a quick "shh" for any kids who may be saying something during a song, and so again, it goes back to the idea that kids are great with respecting your expectations when they are aware of them.

Too cute.

Of course, the cuteness factor makes everything so great when performing for kids. They may disrupt a little bit on rare occasions or make a smarty-pants comment, but time and again they will say and do the sweetest things, both during the show and afterwards.

At one of the very first kids' shows I played at a day care in Buffalo, where the show was very much a learning experience for me in many respects, as described above, there was a little girl who came up afterward and said, "Can you come back tomorrow and play?" And it was fun to watch another girl who had initially told me she only liked magicians, and not music, ending up in the front row and practically crawling up my leg by the end of the first song. Nearly every show since has had some kind of cute comment or reaction from the kids, and that is one of the things that is particularly gratifying about live performances for children. Kids appreciation can be so incredibly enthusiastic and jubilant and they can help you to feel the joy that they are feeling from the music and from the fun that they are having.

And that's another thing that is important with any audience, but especially with kids... that your feeling of enjoying what you do comes across to them, because that good feeling can bounce back and forth between the performer and the audience and magnify the enjoyment for all.
And I think that with a kids audience, it's important not to condescend to them in the way you address them, or you might be in trouble, especially with the older kids. I gear the tone of what I say and the bulk of my material towards older kids, because younger kids will still appreciate a lot of that, but it doesn't work nearly as well the other way around. The only exception would be if the audience is entirely comprised of preschoolers, in which case my "inner Barney" might come out just a little bit.

But I think it's also super important to connect with kids on their level and celebrate their "kid-ness". Instead of being an adult performing for kids, I try in some ways to be a kid performing for kids. Part of that is playing around with them with their particular sense of humor (which is much more varied and sophisticated than I was originally aware of) and their innate sense of silliness. It's great to try to expose kids to "the arts" and a variety of different musical approaches, but it helps if it's fun for them while they're learning. As Christopher Noxon reported in his article for the Fids and Kamily blog, a parent at a kids' concert he went to said: "Stop squirming, Montana... Listen, it's a sea shanty. Can you say 'sea shanty'?"
There's only so much that kids can appreciate that isn't fun in some way for them. It doesn't matter so much if that guy in the band is playing a rare dulcimer... that will probably only interest a kid for a half a second. The song and the performance has to connect with them in a fun way.

And that's probably the bottom line for kids as an audience... fun. If someone hasn't updated Cyndi Lauper's song to say "Kids just wanna have fun", then I'm sure that's in the works. Adults go to concerts and can hear the blues or rock epics or classical symphonies or punk anthems and feel things like sadness and romance and power and grandeur and loss and hope and anger. Certainly, kids can pick up on and explore some of those emotions in their own ways, but when they are part of something that is supposed to be an entertaining event for them, there better be something fun involved throughout, because that's what most kids will want to take from the experience. There's plenty of time for kids to grow up and listen to jaded bands lifelessly playing emo in some dank club. But kids are only young once, and may never have the same level of enthusiasm and wonder for the world around them, so I say let them express that and enjoy that while they still can.

I look forward to continuing my own education and experience with entertaining audiences of kids in the coming year, and I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2007! Thank you so much for stopping by.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Maisy is a lovable little mouse (well, actually, she's rather large for a mouse) created by Lucy Cousins as a book series that eventually became an animated show. I had never heard of her before, but my wife noticed one of the Maisy videos at the library and thought it might be good for our daughter, Becca, who was two at the time. To say that Becca took to Maisy right away would be an understatement... She instantly loved everything about Maisy and her world, and her sister Evee has followed suit as she's grown up. It was a big thrill for them to meet Maisy in person at a bookstore earlier this year. And I've become a fan, too. The content of the shows is clearly directed at young kids, though, so for me, the particular hook that keeps me enjoying the repeated viewings are the highly comical sound effects provided by The Umbilical Brothers (their voicings for Charley the crocodile are hilarious), and in particular the great music.

The music for the Maisy videos was produced by Kick Production, which is a group of composers who have made music for several different animated shows including Sitting Ducks and The Koala Brothers.
Their Maisy songs remind me of the Blues Brothers joke where Elwood asks the lady at the hick bar what kind of music they play at their establishment, and she answers, "Oh, we got both kinds... country and western." Only instead of country and western, in this case "both kinds" means reggae and ska. I love reggae and ska, and the generally bouncy and happy feel of those styles seems a perfect fit for kids, so it's no wonder this show and its music has been a big hit for our family.

The Maisy material includes several original songs as well as reggae/ska treatments of classic kid songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It", "Wheels on the Bus" and "Row Row Row Your Boat". I really love the catchy melodies and grooves of the originals like "Itty Bitty Bug Song", "Poor Poor Panda", "Up Up Down Down", "
Walk Along Charley", "Elastic", "It Wouldn't Go", "Maisy Wore a Red Dress" and the theme song. One time when a Maisy video was on, I picked up my guitar and wanted to learn the chords to some of the songs so I could sing them together with my girls. I was amazed to discover that every one of the songs was completely based around I-IV-V chords, and I think they were all in the same key, even. That may have been intentional, to keep the sound simple and consistent for little ears, but it's always cool to realize how much variety can be found within the same simple chord changes, and also within the same particular musical genre. With some bands or singer/songwriters, a very limited sound with similar chord changes on all songs would start to make them all sound the same and I would lose interest pretty quickly, but Kick Production does a really great job giving each of these songs its own spirit and arranging them vibrantly and creatively. In an instant you know when you hear one of the Maisy songs, but you also know each of them distinctively.

Unfortunately, the only place I can point you to hear something from Maisy is to one of these preview pages (RealAudio - WMA) for the Best of Nick Jr. compilation CD, which includes a sample from the Maisy theme song. The show is currently on Noggin, so if you have that channel, definitely check it out and listen for the musical interludes. I don't believe they have any plans to release a CD with all of the Maisy songs collected together, but if they did I would certainly buy it in a heartbeat.

Maisy Noggin page

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Music

The Lovely Mrs. Davis is one of the main kids' music bloggers to emerge over the past year or so, and she also covers other subjects with great wit and style. She has been having several kids' musicians and bloggers doing guest posts for her site about their favorite Christmas music, and my post was added there today. Click here to read that.

On a completely unrelated note... I'm sorry it's been so long since I've had a new article posted. I've been trying to keep a schedule of posting something at least once a week since being home more over the fall and winter. I'm not going to say that I've been too busy, because I'm pretty much in a perpetual state of "too busy", so that's not really a valid excuse. What I think it is, though, is that I've been getting pretty swamped with people sending in new CDs for me to check out. I'm starting to appreciate how Stefan and Amy and others must get overwhelmed sometimes with everything they receive. I'm grateful to be getting what I am, especially as
there's a lot of really cool kids' music out there... but the problem is that when I get something new I often want to check it out as soon as I can, and so that means that the last thing I was listening to gets pulled out of the CD player. It's kind of been going on like that for the past week or two. I usually want to listen to something in particular at least two or three times before I feel ready to write about it, and that just isn't happening lately. I actually have a back list of kids' artists who I've been meaning to feature here at some point, whose music I'm already aware of, so I should probably just post about one of them. But again, this new music I'm getting is what I'm immersing myself in at the moment, so it's making it hard to focus on anything from that list right now.

Anyway, I hope to be getting to a post about The Hipwaders sometime soon, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, proceed to rock on and such...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Randy Kaplan

Randy Kaplan is a singer/songwriter/performer from Brooklyn. He has released several albums for adults but just released his first album specifically for kids called Five Cent Piece.

Randy has one of the most interesting voices I've ever heard, right up there with Justin Roberts for its peculiar quality. ("Peculiar" in both cases meaning distinct and special, not freaky or weird.) He shares some of the nasal twang as singers like Michael Stipe and Arlo Guthrie, and there's also just a bit of grit in there, as if his vocal chords forgot to shake their shoes out after a day at the beach. Most significantly, Randy's voice is incredibly easy-going and welcoming, and you feel like you're sitting next to an old friend on an old couch and he's playing a new tune for you and you know you're already going to be enthralled with it the first time you hear it because, ya know, it's your good friend, Randy.

That's an important quality to have for this material, because Randy is very much in the Arlo Guthrie vein of story-telling through songs, and if he wasn't such a friendly character then some of the songs with a lot of talking might get tiresome. But my kids and I love this CD and are happy to let Randy spin his yarns over and over and knit us up into a warm little mitten.

Much of the CD consists of new renditions of classic songs like "We're in the Same Boat, Brother", "I'm a Little Dinosaur", "Freight Train", "Kids" (from Bye Bye Birdie) and "You Are My Sunshine". All are done in a sweet folky style with smooth fingerstyle guitar as the backbone, and different tracks include some nice accompaniment including trombone, mandolin, violin and accordian. "Over the Rainbow" is one of those songs like "Unchained Melody" or "O Holy Night", where I thought it would need a particularly virtuoso vocalist to pull it off, but Randy's version is one of the most beautiful I've ever heard. The earthy twang of his voice along with the gently rolling guitar may not be in perfect pitch or perfect intonation, and yet it is so "just right" in every deeply soulful way that really matters. It doesn't hurt that the song is so great to begin with, but Randy has made this version truly special.

Randy also does a very funny version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want", where he replaces the Stones' verses with another Arlo styled story about a kid who wants to play all day at the playground and doesn't want to get dressed into his pajamas after his bath and wants to eat nothing but ice cream and... well... you know how the chorus goes. In the third chorus, Randy goes off and provides voices for different family members and a strange menagerie of pets who all sing along on the title phrase. This takes what David Grover and his band did so well with "Where's My Pajamas" and one-ups it. I was laughing out loud when he got to the snake and the horse and the cow. And I love his little interjections between the chorus lines like, "Adapt this as your first mantra!" and "Use it preemptively!" Good advice, indeed. The track is nearly ten minutes long, which might be a bit much for some, but I enjoyed it all. This song also shows off Randy's ability to do funny voices and to be an engaging goof, which is evident on other tracks as well.

Somewhat ironically, the cover song that didn't work for me that well was Randy's take on Arlo Guthrie's "The Motorcycle Song", which kind of felt a bit flat compared to the original, and misses the Arlo witticism of lines like, "Luckily, I didn't go into the mountain... I went over the cliff." I suppose that Randy is so good with his Arlo approach and his sense of humor on other songs that the expectation was particularly high for this.

Randy also offers four original tracks. They're all kind of odd in their own way, which is good. (Again with 'peculiar' meaning special and unique.) I especially liked the first original, which is a song about a shark who invades Randy's bathtub and orders him to "Shampoo me!" I love the phrasing when he sings the title, with his high chirp on the "poo" and the low growl on "me", and the second verse in particular is very funny as the shark counters Randy's complaint about the shark's lack of hair by telling him, "You don't have any, either," and pointing out that he still has a bottle of shampoo nearby, regardless. "Mosquito Song" is a lowdown bluesy number about Randy trying to flick a mosquito away from him. "Roaches" is very pleasant musically, but a bit disturbing as it describes an apartment where roaches are everywhere, even on the bookshelf reading Kafka (of course). The song ends with the roaches singing in a way that sounds almost like a glass bottle slide on an acoustic guitar. "Mostly Yellow" is a sad ballad about how Big Bird, with his Fruit Loop ankles, has never flown anywhere, so he's "mostly yellow, but just a little blue". (Randy might need to update his Sesame Street viewing, though, as he refers to Snuffy as being invisible, which of course is not the case.)

It's the little details during his song commentary, the warm and welcoming feeling of the music, and the instantly engaging and friendly nature of Randy's voice and character that makes this such a winning recording. I really enjoy listening to this, and look forward to hearing more music from Randy.

Randy Kaplan website

Eric's review of Randy's 2008 release, Loquat Rooftop

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Goodbye to Greg Wiggle

The big news in the kids' music world right now is that Greg Page, aka "the yellow Wiggle", is retiring from The Wiggles due to health reasons. Here is a video with him explaining why he's retiring and passing the yellow shirt off to his replacement, Sam. Apparently, Greg has a rare heart condition where blood doesn't flow enough when he is active, which would certainly make it impossible to continue as a Wiggle, what with all of the singing and touring and, of course... wiggling.

After we watched that video with our 4 year-old daughter, Becca (a lifelong Wiggle fan), she said she wanted to draw a picture on the Paint program of Greg Wiggle with a Band-Aid over his heart. We'll send that picture on to him, along with our best wishes for his health and our thanks for all he's done with the group.

I've posted here before about how I feel about The Wiggles, but I would like to add a couple of thoughts that weren't mentioned in that article...

First of all, I've been thinking that one reason why some people might be so quick to dismiss The Wiggles is if they have only glimpsed some of their Disney channel shows. Disney tends to repeat the same few shows over and over. I don't think those shows are the best representation of what The Wiggles do to begin with, and especially not if you only see the same songs and segments all the time. But if you check out some of their stand-alone video releases and CDs, there really are many great songs of a wide variety represented. I don't that think anybody else... anybody else... has offered anything comparable to the body of quality music for the younger range of kids (1-5) as The Wiggles have. And as Devon from the Head, Shoulders, Knees and all that blog points out in this post, it's nice that The Wiggles unabashedly make music with just kids in mind.

Also, as I keep reading various articles about the current wave of kids' music emerging in such a big way, with virtually every one of them making some reference to The Wiggles in the sense that the new music coming out is so much cooler and better than theirs and being such a great alternative to them, I can't help but wonder... would there even be any kind of "kids' music explosion" if it weren't for The Wiggles and their huge success? They got millions of parents around the world buying kids' music CDs and videos, which I think had waned quite a bit since Raffi sort of faded away for a while there. Once somebody opens the door to something in the public consciousness, then the public is more aware of that thing in general, and I think that's one of the reasons why there is more attention on kids' music in general right now. I suspect that many others who are having success in the kids' genre now wouldn't have the same visibility if The Wiggles hadn't made such a big splash for the general idea of "kids' music".

And The Wiggles put the idea of creating new and original kids' music with a variety of sounds and styles on the map in a huge way.
Like it was when The Beatles became so big, I imagine that other artists wanted to get in on that action and do the same kind of thing once they saw how huge The Wiggles had become. The Beatles made the idea of being a musician fun and exciting for a whole new wave of up-and-coming musicians in the 60's, and I think The Wiggles have done the same thing for kids' musicians. And as it was in the wake of The Beatles, when we had so much other great music coming out after them, so it is with The Wiggles with a lot of other great kids' music being produced now. But The Beatles were always still very well respected for their huge contribution to their musical genre, and so should The Wiggles be respected for what they've done.

But often they're not respected at all... and worse yet, they're somehow made to seem like the embodiment of everything that good kids' music shouldn't be. What a crock that is. When I hear people in the kids' music industry dismissing or pooh-poohing The Wiggles, it reminds me of the maples in the great Rush parable "The Trees". Why on Earth other people producing kids' music or writing about kids' music would denigrate The Wiggles is really beyond me. They are incredibly talented songwriters, performers and musicians and have produced a huge body of work that kids really love.

Anyway, I'm really glad that Greg will likely be alright, and I wish him and The Wiggles the very best as they continue on.