Monday, November 23, 2009

Music for Kids, Not Children’s Music

Our home and car are filled with music. It’s a democratic mélange of genres, generations, and genders. We segue from the Lovin’ Spoonful to Feist to the Sippy Cups to Weezer to Renee & Jeremy. And enjoy them all.

When people ask what we’re into, I don’t call it children’s music, because I’m not a child. Well, at least not according to the state. The terms “children’s music” and “family friendly” bristle. For many adults, “family friendly” music conjures up thoughts of Raffi, the Wiggles, and endless Sesame Street CDs. We listen to all music (and yes, this includes classical selections). While I enjoy many Putamayo world music compilations, there are some I could do without my son selecting for rotational play. But in a musical democracy, the individual makes sacrifices for the good of the community.

Early on, with a very young child, it was understood that talk radio and modern rock stations were not going to cut it. By the same token, why limit the selections to a strict regimen of 4 or 5 traditional recordings? When Ben, before age 2, began to anticipate certain songs or videos (a smile appearing in the two-second pause between tracks), we dug into our records and CDs to rediscover the past and investigate new possibilities.

Sure enough, the Beatles have charmed anew. Split Enz have never sounded so fresh. It’s amusing to watch commuter reactions as Ben breaks into a chorus of “Rock Lobster” on the morning train – after all, it’s a 30-year-old novelty song.

We’ve learned that it’s good to expose a child to a variety of music. Don’t be timid. Know the consequences. If you only listen to country and western, your kid may grow up with an affinity for southern rock. But he may also grow up abhorring it and look for alternatives. A good mix is always preferable.

By the same token, don’t play cutesy or coy. If you play “Orchestral Nine Inch Nails” or “Megadeth for Toddlers,” don’t be surprised if little Todd becomes a headbanger after seeking out the original versions of the tunes. “Weird Al” Yankovic made a career out of spoofing pop songs and styles and subverting them into parodies. There is nothing wrong with playing selected songs of an act meant for adults. I’ve played a number of Ramones songs. “Now I’m Gonna Sniff Some Glue” was not one of them. There are limits. Scan the lyrics if you can. If you can’t, sometimes the titles will suffice. You don’t really want the kids running around the playground singing, “Pinhead, pinhead.”

Both my wife and I have musical backgrounds. My first day at college, I made a beeline for the campus radio station and spent hours on the air as a DJ and in the production studio, editing recorded bits and commercials. When Joan Armatrading performed at the University, the woman assembling the original advertisement was such a big fan that she mastered a 3:45 spot – and refused to edit her masterpiece. In desperation, the general manager asked me to whittle it down to 55 seconds. I watched with grim irony as the woman then played (my) version for the student programming staff (who thought she had produced it). They loved it.

My wife, Andrea, took acoustic guitar lessons in junior high school. Her snare drum expertise helped her make the cut for the All [New York] City Marching Band. As a professional writer, she had articles published in TV Guide and CD reviews in Rolling Stone, where she later worked in their book publishing division.

The Rolling Stone connection proved to be a touchstone in our music listening evolution. Her boss, had married a musician, Robert Burke Warren, who started recording children’s music as Uncle Rock. We purchased his first CD, and it was a big hit with Ben. The next summer, in 2006, Robert alerted people that a song from the CD would be played on a Saturday morning radio show that spotlighted music for kids – not necessarily children’s music, but music that children could listen to with their parents.

We did not live in listening range of the radio station, but “Spare the Rock” could be downloaded as a podcast through its Web site or through iTunes. Hosted by Bill Childs and his children Ella and Liam, the broadcast resonated from the first week. Looking back, the show introduced us to a whole world of “kindie” (i.e., children’s independent) artists. Performers on the first podcast we heard included Eric Herman, ScribbleMonster, and Monty Harper.

The real breakthrough came later that summer. I downloaded an earlier podcast to bring on a long car trip. We watched Ben listen intently to every song and ask us, “Who’s singing?” And then came Roger Day, singing “It's a No-No to Kiss a Rhino.” A big smile turned into out-and-out laughter. I turned to Andrea and said, “Mark that song.” When we got home, we bought the song online. And we’ve continued that pattern every week for the past four years.

Despite the variety of genres, we are mostly a rock-oriented family. There are bands that play a “grown-up” rocking style for youngsters – such as the Jimmies, the Hipwaders, and AudraRox. There are also groups that moonlight as kids’ artists – most notably They Might Be Giants – who have an adult sensibility to their material. “Here Comes Science” may not be the most appropriate music for a two-year-old, but it’s a whole lot more palatable than “Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits.”

When I heard one mother tell me with pride, “We’ve never played children’s music in our car,” my first (unsaid) response was, “Why not?” Making primarily yourself happy leads to diminishing returns. I can only imagine how tiresome it must be for a child to know that her choices on a long car trip are a Bob Dylan bootleg concert tape, Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same,” and Sonic Youth – any Sonic Youth.

In contrast, the “kindie” music movement delivers a spectrum of choices to parents and their offspring. Most of the artists are locally-based and use the Internet to spread the word about their bands, their performance schedules, and their CDs and DVDs.

We took up Robert Warren’s offer and trekked into Manhattan for an Uncle Rock “in-store” performance at a downtown book store. True to form, Ben did not want to leave during the break. We had a snack and stayed through both sets. Friends will mention they’ve seen U2 in concert “a dozen times.” I respond in kind, about Dan Zanes. With those concerts come the post-show autograph sessions. Ben became so familiar with musicians that he didn’t flinch (much) when Tom Chapin hoisted him onto his lap for a picture.

In 2008, we went “through the looking glass” and were invited by Bill Childs to a showcase of kindie musicians in Brooklyn. As a frequent concertgoer, Ben wasn’t cowed in the presence of numerous musicians and was more than happy to sit front row center as a string of talented performers sang less than 10 feet away. He even commented to a couple of them, asking what they were going to sing next.

In four years our music experiment has come full circle. We no longer choose CDs for the car, Ben does. I muttered something about never wanting to hear a certain classical CD again and Andrea reminded me that if we had a few more symphonic releases, Ben wouldn’t be limited in that genre.

Every Friday afternoon, I hand Ben the playlist for the next morning’s “Spare the Rock” podcast. He notes the They Might Be Giants songs that begin and end every episode. He checks for songs that he knows. Weekends, when we play the broadcast, Ben tells us which songs he wants to save for later replay.

Weeknights, Ben clicks through his iTunes library to create a morning playlist. Every few months, I troll through the master directory and remove selections that have not been heard in over a year. Many tunes are played once, twice, then are forgotten or ignored.

Ben’s unpredictability is the only constant. He rediscovers songs that remind him of past experiences. He requests more songs from his favorite artists. He looks at album cover art and asks if we have any music from those records in iTunes.

And what has this attention to music spawned? After 26 months of piano lessons, Ben figures out the melodies for songs he likes. We smile when he hums an unfamiliar tune or warbles a lyric and declares, “This is a new song,” and it’s his own original creation.

Music may not be a life choice or career for Ben, but he has benefited from the exposure to a gamut of material. Music is as important to him as it remains important to us. Teaching Ben about music has brought us closer together as a family and gives him a knowledge base that transcends the label “children’s music.”

One of Ben’s young cousins recently asked him, “What do you listen to in the car?” She persisted when he didn’t answer. “Sesame Street? Yo Gabba Gabba? The Wiggles?” He quickly barked, “No! I listen to the White Stripes!” Although we did not explicitly set out to create one, our eight-year-old has turned into a kindie music snob. And that’s fine with us.
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