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Columns | Fall 2017

Music With Older Kids

Ten Top Performing Tips

Children’s Music Network members shared their ONE BEST performing or teaching tip with this writer for a CMN Facebook Live session. These tips were so compelling that I thought they deserved a more permanent resting place. I combined performing and teaching together because performing is like taking your best lesson plan and doing it over and over until you get it absolutely fabulous, whereas teaching is like performing a brand-new show every day! So what works for one usually works for the other.

1) Connect!

The first tip came from Carole Stephens of Macaroni Soup, who said:

CONNECT! Whether in the classroom or the performance venue, make eye contact with your audience, give encouraging nods and smiles, and share developmentally appropriate material that invites participation.

As a performer, I find that tip deceptively simple. It seems obvious at first that you would connect with your students or audience, but I have certainly found myself on stage thinking of things other than the audience right in front of me. David Heitler-Klevans of Two of a Kind provided a similar tip that expands upon Carole’s idea:

I think the #1 thing for me that makes things work in both performing and teaching is to remind myself to be “in the moment,” fully present, and focused on the kids (instead of myself). In a big show, I need to look at kiddos as individual people, not just a crowd, and to focus on individual faces.

2) Prepare

This probably does not need to be said to anyone reading this article. Of course, you prepare, and prepare carefully, but before moving on I will add Sub-Tip 2a: Make sure your equipment is plugged in.

3) Prepare for surprises!

As carefully as you may have planned, remember the wise words of Robert Burns in “To a Mouse”:

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley

On any given day your students, or your audience, may decide to be determinedly individualistic, in which case you must harken back to Tip Number One: connect with your audience and abruptly change course. Joanie Calem advises:   

  • Be ready for surprises, and therefore able to shift gears from your well-thought-out plan to what the moment might be suggesting.
  • Scope out your audience/class: maybe this same song has always worked perfectly everywhere, every time, but today something else is happening and it just won't work…in which case, revert to No. 1!

4) Let your students or audience be the star!

I love this tip. When I perform at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, I always get the children up on stage to sing and dance with me. I plan the first two songs as introductory, and then I get the kids up onstage. I might send them back at some point, just so I can make room for parents onstage, but then I invite them back. BUT—and this is a big BUT—I only do this if I can get ALL the children on stage. You do not want anyone feeling left out.

So how do you make the audience the star if you can’t get them onstage? Involve them in actions and singing. Turn the lights on in the auditorium. Ask questions.

5) Get everyone moving

Movement breaks the ice, increases blood flow to the brain, and thus makes your students and/or audience receptive to new ideas and activities, according to Tina Stone, a singer/storyteller at childcare centers throughout Massachusetts. Tina uses an activity she calls “Rumble.” In Tina’s words:

What's a rumble, you may ask? Why, it’s an opportunity for everyone to play their instrument of choice as loud or fast as they please, but they must STOP when the leader STOPS. I bring a doumbek, and we begin by clapping/patching/tapping as the drum plays, and when it stops they stop.

Then I have children choose an instrument to play; I ask them to put their instrument on the floor right in front of them, hands on knees. I ask them to listen for the word “rumble,” and when they hear it, they may pick up their instrument and play as loudly as they wish. I say, in a drawn out manner, “Everrrrryyyyyyy­booodddddddddyyyyyy RUMBLE.” Then I play my drum and they play their selection until I STOP. You can continue saying “rumble” in different tones/pitches as many more times as you like.

6) Use the power of the pause

Alice Burba of Songs for Teaching uses the “Power of the Pause.” She says,

This is simply the teacher hitting the pause button on the music player (or a performer stopping midstream in a song) and having the kids freeze when the music stops. At that moment, you have a very engaged group of learners. You can ask a question about the content of the lyrics, or the meaning of a word. You can ask them what they are feeling. You can give them a direction (e.g., point to something blue in the room). This can break the learning into smaller chunks for the little ones. It also keeps them on their toes because they don’t know when the next pause is coming. Don’t make the pause too long. You may lose their attention. Once the music starts again, get back to singing and moving.

7) Keep the faith! Your audience will warm up!

Teachers and children’s performers do not have the luxury of a warm-up act. We enter the classroom or auditorium with no idea of what our audience has been experiencing in the last one to five hours, and it truly makes a difference. So I’m certain we have all been faced with a less than receptive venue. But Miss Dylan from Parties by Dylan encourages us to keep the faith! She says,

You know that what you do has made children (and their adults) laugh, sing along, dance, and have fun, so keep your energy positive. Know that something you do WILL break the ice and encourage them to climb out of their fear of being silly or getting playful with you. I usually just focus on making myself laugh if everyone is just quietly watching me at first! If I am amused, that makes other people relax and feel comfortable around me. In other words, when I am having fun, I can feel the audience relax and let themselves play along.

8) Keep the pace going

This, perhaps, harkens back to preparation: in addition to planning what you’re going to do, also think through your pace and how you will move from song to song or topic to topic. A long pause in the classroom or performance arena is sure to break the spell. You can feel your audience drifting away. Andy Zamenes, better known as AndyZ, suggests “moving quickly between songs, or creating entertaining segues via storytelling and/or incorporation of puppets, or movements that will transition the group to the next song. Varying the flow of the show helps—mixing slower songs with upbeat songs, funny songs with soothing songs, etc.—but make sure not to have too many long, slow songs in order to keep the kids engaged.”

9) Give one instruction at a time

This is a very short suggestion, but one that proved invaluable to me at the beginning of both my teaching and performing careers. A young child in the classroom or audience will usually do whatever you ask as long as he or she understands! So “Stand up” works well, but “Stand up and make a circle,” is too confusing. Of course you teachers know this, but some of us need reminding…frequently!

10) Have a clear beginning and ending

As a classroom teacher I found clear beginning and ending exercises invaluable. They give you and your students the opportunity to collect your mind and body and be ready to consciously move on to the next activity or classroom. I find shaking hands at the beginning and end is the easiest way to accomplish that goal. (But do wash your hands often!)

Paul Nye generously shared his way of having a clear beginning and ending in locations where you might not have an emcee:

I used to have a concert host introduce me and give directions to parents to watch their kids because of the sound gear and guitars. It wasn’t too effective, and most hosts don't know how to introduce an artist or presenter effectively and naturally, even though it was written out for them.

So I decided on a different approach. I created a background track of music that I start 15 minutes before the show to help the audience adjust to the sound (not the loudness, but the dynamic difference between music and the spoken word). Then about 2 minutes before the show, as the track music ends, the audience hears a character I call “Silly Bunny.” He has a high goofy voice, and greets the audience, which surprises them. Then he tries to tell them where he is, saying, “I’m over here! Can you see me? No, not over there…I’m over here!” That gets the attention of the audience and the kids start looking around the room. Then Silly Bunny says that he forgot to tell them that he's actually Invisible Silly Bunny. From there, Silly Bunny gives directions about the show to the kids, and asks them to have their mom, dad, or the big person they're with watch them because they’ll want to dance and might get so excited that they’ll want to touch something they shouldn’t (like a guitar, etc.). After the instructions are given, then Silly Bunny introduces me and the show starts. So far, it’s been effective and has given me complete control of how I want to be introduced, as well as a humorous, light way of giving instructions. During the show, I make a couple references to Silly Bunny, and sometimes create a fictitious problem with Silly Bunny that the kids must resolve.

And that is my favorite performing tip...other than just being a goofball and having tons of fun during the show.

Communication, preparation, flexibility, generosity, motion, silence, belief, pacing, clarity, defined beginning and ending rituals and strategies—these, in a nutshell, are the keys to successful teaching and performing. And if I had to add an eleventh, it would be that what works for one person does not necessarily work for another, and nothing, absolutely nothing, trumps experience. Okay, that’s twelve, but you, too, must have your own favorite tips. Please pass them on via the Forum or even a letter to the editor, and keep the conversation going!