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Columns | Spring 2019
Photo: concert

Pro Song

Making Your Audience Part of the Show

I once made a bet with a kindergarten music teacher that I could keep her students engaged for ten minutes with one song. Of course, I knew I would win! My song, “Burglar Babysitter,” did the trick, thanks in part to the way it involves the audience with singing, sound effects, and motions.

Audience participation is key to holding the attention of a group of youngsters. Over the years, I’ve learned many ways of making my audience part of the show. Any time I need a new song for performance, I begin the writing process with some form of interaction already in mind.

Here are a few quick examples, touching on types of participation I’m most comfortable using with elementary-aged kids. May it inspire you to write a new song based on your own favorite type of audience participation.

Repeat After Me

I love having my audience be my echo during my opening song. It requires almost no explanation, it’s easy for the kids to do, and it raises their energy level while increasing their focus.

When I sat down to write an opening song for my 2016 summer reading program, themed “on your mark, get set, read,” I decided to incorporate an echo into the chorus:

Ready set read (ready set read)

Picking up speed (picking up speed)

Plenty of practice (plenty of practice)

That’s what you need (that’s what you need)

Say, Ready (ready)

Set (set)

Ready set read (ready set read)

Rhythm is what makes a good echo melody work. Notice I trimmed “on your mark, get set, read” down to “ready, set, read.” This created short lines of three beats each, with a rest on beat 4 to give the audience time for a breath before singing. Each line starts on beat 1 with no difficult-to-copy pickup notes.

Since the verses don’t involve an echo, I needed to let the audience know when to stop repeating. I accomplished this by shortening the cadence in lines 5 and 6 to signal the coming finale. Then line 7 repeats line 1, providing a feeling of completion.

The word “Say” in line 5 is a built-in instruction. The audience (naturally) doesn’t repeat it, but it helps them follow the quickened cadence. I added that “Say” after a few performances let me know it was needed. Which brings up an important general point: always be prepared to make adjustments to your audience participation elements once you’ve tried them on a few actual audiences.

Fill In the Blank

Having your audience supply a missing word also requires little explanation and is easy for kids to do. The key here is to make the missing word super obvious, using both rhyme and meaning as cues.

It was Dave Kinnoin (previous Pro Songs columnist and songwriter extraordinaire) who first introduced me to the songwriting concept of landing your punchline on the rhyme. The meaning of a verse will complete itself simultaneously with the final rhyme. You always hear this in great songwriting, and it’s absolutely essential for a fill-in-the-blank verse.

Here’s an example from my song, “Paws, Claws, Scales, and Tales”:

How ’bout a book about a girl and her big red dog.

He’s a super pet, but there’s one way he’s always differed.

Emily Elizabeth’s dog is bigger than her house.

Check out a book about a dog named: __________________

Line 1 gives a big enough clue for most to guess the answer. If I hadn’t intended this as a fill-in-the-blank participation song, I might have doled out the clues with more subtlety, but subtlety is not your friend if you want 300 kids to simultaneously and spontaneously shout out one particular word!

Note that even while it sets up the final rhyme, the word “differed” is relevant, and leads us into more specific clues in line 3. Line 4 makes it crystal clear when to insert the dog’s name.

Even the rhythm of that final line helps the kids know when to shout out their answer. I used seven eighth notes followed by two quarter notes for “dog” and “named” on beats 1 and 2. The slower cadence grabs their attention, leaving beat 3 crying out for one final word, which the kids provide with confidence. It works every time.

Hand Motions

Movement matched with lyrics actually improves children’s ability to sing along. I learned this the hard way with a song called “Grandma’s House Tonight,” which flopped spectacularly the first time I performed it. Inspired by a CMN workshop on using sign language with songs, I later added in hand motions, and the song became one of my staples for many years.

The first song I wrote specifically with motion in mind is called “The Frog Song.” The first few lines so strongly suggested hand motions that I found myself doing them as I sang, and I became at once excited and terrified about performing it in front of a gym full of kids. Would they follow my lead or leave me hanging?

Here are some key lines, with audience responses in parentheses:

He said I love you (yeah, right) (dismiss with a swipe of the hand)
And then he kissed her (ooh, yuck) (while wiping the kiss away)
So she shoved him (back off!) (pushing hands forward and up)
And then she left him (good-bye) (big wave)

Note how naturally each motion illustrates and is motivated by the accompanying lyric. Adding in the motions as I wrote allowed me to fully integrate them in such a meaningful way. And yes, the kids followed my lead with great enthusiasm the very first time I performed it, and every time since.

Whole-Body Movement

I’ve written several songs for the two-thirds point in my programs, when I often have the kids stand up, stretch, and move around a bit, resetting their attention for the final part of the show.

I wrote the cumulative song, “Wind Energy,” with the idea of turning my audience into a human wind farm. When researching how wind turbines work, I collected possible movements along with possible words and concepts. I perform the song a cappella, asking the kids to stand up and do what I do. There are gross motor movements to go with each and every lyric, and they get a little faster as each verse gets a little longer. It’s a workout—and a crowd pleaser!

Where “Wind Energy” incorporates prescribed motions with feet planted in place, “Roundy Round” has children spinning freely about the room. Inspiration for this song came from the motion itself—my then two-year-old niece loved to go “roundy round.” I just turned her game into a chorus and wrote some verses to go with it.

Suggestions From the Audience

Incorporating suggestions into a song is, I think, one of the most exciting and entertaining ways you can involve the audience. It allows children to see their own ideas reflected back and creates a unique, often hilarious, definitely unpredictable experience for all.

Zipper songs are built for working in quick suggestions. Think “The Wheels on the Bus.” (Or see my column on how to write a zipper song from Fall 2016.)

Having taken a few classes in comedy improv, I’ve started trying to up my zipper song game. For my 2016 summer program I wrote a song called “Sports Ball” about a game with rules that constantly change.

Here’s verse three, as it appears on my lyric sheet:

(This is where rule three fits in the song)

(This is where rule three fits in the song)

(Say something apropos / That shows off all the rhymes you know)

(This is where rule three fits in the song)

(Followed by restating old rule two)

(Followed by restating old rule one)

It’s the wackiest game you’ll ever know

We learned it from a monkey named Sloppy Joe

You make your own rules up as you go

That’s why we love—sports ball!

While the chords, number of beats, and basic melody are all predetermined, the words in italics are improvised based on audience input. (Several great sets of audience-created Sports Ball rules can be found on my Instagram.)

Note that whatever line one turns out to be, I repeat it for lines 2 and 4, while line 3 contains the one and only rhyme. I created this simple pattern to keep the improv doable, so I know I can pull it off every time.

It feels like I’m just scratching the surface. What kind of audience participation do you enjoy? Please feel free to email and chat with me about that, or anything else. And I hope you’re inspired to write a song that makes your audience part of the show!