Playing for Kids is Not Unlike Playing for Drunk People
I've always seen myself as this heady, angsty, funny, important powerhouse of a performer, who writes for super-smart audiences of adults who go on to change the world—I’m nothing if not accurate in self-reflection—but here I was taking gigs at elementary schools, singing songs in which the point was to count. Or tip toe. Or share a toy.
My ego would’ve taken a bigger hit if we hadn’t needed the money so badly. We’d been touring for ten years (200+ shows a year) when our twins were born, and those tiny individuals were powerful enough to halt the entire tour bus. We released the humans in January, and then released an album in April.
They tell you that nursing is a lovely, lifegiving experience. The truth is it’s the messiest ridiculousness on Earth. I’d show up to TV appearances with spit-up on my clothes, and, yeah, sometimes in my hair. Ew. Honestly, I was doing well to make it through a day without weeping—culture shock, life-altering crazy.
We prayed. A lot. And we even tried to get real jobs (which we do periodically, when living as creatives suddenly seems irresponsible or dangerous). As usual, though, we kept being led back into writing and performing—this time, because of kids’ author-musician Eric Litwin (think Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes). Eric is one of those people who’s doing what he was put on this planet to do. He’s taught me a ton. He was too busy to keep up with his own commercial success, so he hired me to help. That turned into taking the kids’ gigs he was too busy for.
And that turned in to writing a kids’ album and picture book. And that turned into working for the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, as a Teaching Artist in the local school systems.
Let’s take a quick step back. As a performer you learn tricks: how to pace the setlist; how to deal with hecklers; how to tell someone it makes you uncomfortable to discuss them making love to your songs; how to key in on the folks whose heart-felt stories, shared in the post-show feeling of intimacy, mean that they’re actually asking for help. Turns out, playing for kids is not unlike playing for everybody else, but it’s especially similar to playing for drunk people. They have no filters. They’re self absorbed. They’re loud. They put their whole body into it when they dance. They share a lot of superfluous information.
Here are ten things I’ve learned from writing, teaching, and performing for children.
The good news is, as a performer, you still get to be a smart-ass on stage. Sometimes it’s required. If you ask what body part we should ‘shake our shaker next to,’ you should be prepared for suggestions like ‘penis.’ It’s going to happen. And it’s hilarious. You have to be thinking ahead to handle it, though (again, like when you play for drunk people).
Kids need songs and stories written in concrete, linear language. This has informed my own naturally abstract and circular style of writing. The practice of simplifying, concretizing, and focusing in on one thing, has made me a stronger writer.
When kids can predict what’s coming next, they can take ownership of the material. This has special significance for those who require a lot of structure and safety in order to process information. We give them the power to participate when we employ fun tools such as call-and-response, visual cues, repetition, rhythm, and rhyme.
The vehicle of learning is play. Kids repeat the things that are fun to do (and so practice the skills they need to learn). As a performer, you can’t take yourself too seriously while performing a punk rock game of Simon Says screaming, “Simon did not say to do that!” I’ve found myself playing more in my adult relationships too, and even allowing the characters in my novels to be whimsical. It’s really nice. It allows for connection.
Which brings me to the art of anticipation. “I have a box. The box has a top. Open the top and….” The kids are dying to know what you’ve got in that box. The thrill of the reveal is better than whatever the object actually is. And when you take your time to oooooopen the lid—only to slam it shut—you get amazing belly laughs. We forget to build anticipation in our relationships. I don’t know why. We’re tired. We’re selfish. We feel like we don’t have time. But it’s a glorious part of the stories we write—and a good way to seduce someone (especially if you’ve been married for decades).
Kids think you’re pretty even when you look really bad. They like your shoes. They like your hair. They like the way your eyes smile. It’s a real boost. Kids are also gross. They lick the stage while waiting for photo ops. They sometimes lick you. They need tissues. I know it’s immature to find this funny, but I do. Enjoying people at their grossest has a gritty charm to it. I hope someone’s around to find me charming when I get old and start inappropriate licking.
People want to be acknowledged (and smiled at and waved to). Kids light the heck up when you merely notice them from stage. In that moment, they are worthy of someone’s attention. Sometimes we forget just how powerful it is to be looked at by someone who is pleased with what they see. When I have hundreds of energetic kids in front of me, I have to circumvent too much individual attention by saying, “Raise your hand if…you have a guitar.” Or a piano, or a cat, or a dolphin, or a birthday. You’d be surprised how many kids have backyard dolphins, but no birthdays.
Move. You almost have to don’t you? You’re in the grocery store and that old Whitney Houston song comes on. You do wanna dance with somebody. Kids have to move, and they integrate learning better when they do. But we have to control the energy level, so that no one gets punched in the face. This is a skill that requires experience. I give whole keynotes on this one. But it can be as simple as asking kids to pat their knees to a steady beat, and then making it fun for them to freeze. When they use their bodies, they develop strength, balance, flexibility—and don’t forget those fine motor exercises they need in order to master a pencil!
Likewise, you can’t do music without doing language and science and math. It’s sneaky, but offering music-and-movement develops better cognitive skills. Patterning, phrasing, vocabulary, auditory discrimination, matching pitch, measuring intervals and rhythm—it’s a lot of mental work to play so hard.
By mimicking children, we learn how to take hold of heaven. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3) Really? You want us to act like drunk people? Maybe.
Right after that, he said, “Whoever welcomes one child in my name, welcomes me.”
I guess my ego was misinformed about what is intrinsically valuable to the Creator. And any art that I can make, if it’s going to welcome God, should serve children.
And drunk people.