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.


GBK Gwyneth said...

Really interesting! I realize that the article is about kids as the audience, but I would add a small point about connecting with the parents at a family concert (maybe not as relevant to a school concert?).

Idaho Dad said...

My son is a non-participant, like the boy you wrote about. When we saw you in concert last fall, he sat there like a lump. I had no idea if he was enjoying himself or not. Later that night when his mom got home, he couldn't stop talking about your show and how great it was.

It's important to me to not have expectations about how my kids should "enjoy" something. They seem to do it in their own special way.

Eric Herman said...

That's a good question, Gwyneth. Speaking for myself, I try to add a lot of humor in my shows for the adults, or humor that works for both the kids and adults on different levels. An example would be "I Am a Robot", which can be heard at this page - - In the show, the kids have fun dancing like robots, and the adults can appreciate some of the references in there like microchips, ones and zeros and William Shatner. And I also do some particular robot dances in between the verses, like Robot John Travolta or Robot Mick Jagger, which gets laughs from the adults. Same thing with "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard", where on one level it's just a story song about pirates, so kids like that, but there are some little jokes and a double entendre that only the older kids and adults are likely to get. Whenever I do things like that I try to keep it so that the adult jokes or references are integrated pretty closely with what's happening already, so it doesn't take away from what the kids are experiencing and enjoying. The kids may not know who Mick Jagger is, but they enjoy trying to dance like him as a robot, so it doesn't really cut into their show if I add that in for the adults.

I also try to get the adults to actively participate on a few songs, like "Bounce and Flap and Twist". We all need exercise, right? And many adults are willing to act silly along with their kids, but of course, some won't, and that's fine, too. To me, the real entertainment for the adults is in watching their kids be crazy and silly and having fun. Think about it... What's the most fun part of Christmas for the parents? Isn't it watching the kids and seeing their reactions? Any event that is directed towards kids should have that same kind of effect. If the kids are having fun, the parents will often be having fun just by being there with them and sharing that experience.

I've said it a number of times now, but I don't think that something meant for kids *must* also be enjoyed by the parents. It's nice for us when we also enjoy it, but some things for kids can be just for kids, right? I mean, I wouldn't take my wife out to see something like Barney on Ice without the kids, but my kids love Barney and would probably love that, so why wouldn't we take them to see that if it came to town? And yes, in that case we would probably spend the majority of the show watching our kids' reactions and enjoying their enthusiasm and being grateful to share that experience with them.

Phil, we look forward to seeing you tomorrow!


GBK Gwyneth said...

Thanks Eric. I appreciate your taking to time to respond to my question!

While I agree that there are some things for kids that we do or take them to that might not be also directed at entertaining us (the parents), I think the added effort of giving the parents something to learn, do, or enjoy on top of enjoying watching their kids have a wonderful experience is something that is greatly appreciated and can increase the value of the experience overall.

Anonymous said...

This is it for me
"we would probably spend the majority of the show watching our kids' reactions and enjoying their enthusiasm and being grateful to share that experience with them."
Making some more mature comments/jokes/references at a show for kids is ok (don't get me started on how I feel about movies and potty humor.) But mainly I love to see my big boy enjoying a show on his level!
Then again, my autistic boy is likely to go to sleep in such a situation, but I can't say for sure he doesn't enjoy that.
Keep on bloggin'.