Let’s have Music – Children and Music

By Sue Barrett

“To Pacific Cascade Records’ northwest USA country and western, pop, some classical and film work, I added children’s albums in about 1969 because I saw how quickly and pleasurably children learn using music as the basic. I was quite fascinated and remained so.

Some of the artists were sheer magic in action. Others wrote such truly “kids’ view” material. The principal challenge was translating the charismatic effect of an artist via recording.

Putting it all together was a very rewarding personal experience which seemed to fill some pretty big gaps for parents and teachers. I had the fortunate opportunity to observe, and make available to others, programs which taught children all sorts of subjects and aided in healthful personal development in a thoroughly enjoyable, effective way through music coupled, at times, with activity and dance.” 

(Joan Lowe, Pacific Cascade Records, Oregon, USA)

It was a tiny, one-teacher primary school in rural Australia – just a single classroom, plus a bicycle shed and pony paddock.

And, like many young Australians, the pupils would gather around the radio for music lessons, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s schools programs.

Over many years, those ABC music programs (including Singing and Listening and Let’s Have Music) introduced young listeners to folk songs from Italy, Chile, Korea and Africa; songs with Indigenous Australian lyrics (including Ted Egan’s ‘Arnhem Land Lullaby’); poetry (Henry Lawson/Banjo Paterson) set to music; songs using classical music (from Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, Offenbach); contemporary and topical songs from Flanders & Swann, Woody Guthrie, Melanie Safka, Ray Parker Junior, Shel Silverstein, John Shortis, Carole King, Shane Howard and Malvina Reynolds; and modern religious songs and carols from Sydney Carter (‘Lord of the Dance’) and John Wheeler & William G James (‘Carol of the Birds’ and ‘Christmas Day’).

Now LEVITY BEET (New Zealand) and AL START (England) tell FolkBlog about making music with, and for, children, in today’s world…

LEVITY BEET (New Zealand)

Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Levity Beet (aka Nick Hollis) was born in Dunedin, at the southern end of New Zealand’s south island, but now lives at the northern end of the south island. As well as teaching music, Levity performs for early childhood and primary school aged audiences, where he is known for playing unusual instruments (including glovepipes, honkytromblastic, fizzunkafone, honkygoosafone, musical chair and xylopump). Levity comes from a musical family, including his uncle Dave Hollis (musician, artist, writer, poet), whose work included the children’s album, EnZed Musical Animals ’nd Things (1980). Levity released his first album for children, Little Blue and the Living Treasure Band in 2008 and is a multiple winner at the APRA/AMCOS New Zealand Children’s Music Awards, winning Children’s Song of the Year with ‘Little Blue’ (2009), ‘Sometimes I Make Mistakes’ (2012), and (with Daniel Stryczek) ‘There’s One in the Bush’ (2015). His latest album is HONKYTROMBLASTIC (2014). Levity Beet hopes to release a 6th studio album early in 2017.

Tell us about some of your childhood memories of music
I remember sing-a-longs at family gatherings with my uncle and dad playing guitar. My sister Zoe and I played in a ukulele / pots and pans band when she was two and I was four. We made up a song about Paddington Bear and recorded it on tape. I thought the song ‘YMCA’ was called ‘Fly monkey man’. My grandparents and parents played in a skiffle band.

How did your experiences of music change as you became a teenager, then an adult?
I studied guitar from thirteen years old. My school friends and I formed a hard rock band. In my late teens I got tired of the volume level and wandered off (literally) hitching around New Zealand with an acoustic guitar and sometimes a mandolin. In my early 20s I started playing with friends in a band called UMEUS. We performed a lot of improvised music for children in schools all over New Zealand. In my late 20s I studied music at university and then focused on song writing and putting myself out there as a solo performer. At the same time I started learning how to record and mix music digitally and begun the production of, to date, five (nearly six) albums of kids and family music.

Are there songs/pieces of music from your childhood that you remember with fondness and/or which you still listen to?
All of my uncle David Hollis’ works. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller. Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads. Music from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins. Musicals like Cats, Les Misérables and Chess.

When did you become aware of music written/performed specifically for children/young people? And how have your feelings about this changed over time?
When my daughter was born, ten years ago, I realised it was important to put energy into discovering what little kids really enjoyed. The first three years shape a human being profoundly so it is an important job to consider carefully production of any kind for them.

How did you become a songwriter? And when and how did you begin writing music for children/young people?
I think having creative and encouraging people around me as a young child naturally brought out my love of expressing life humourously and through music. My uncle Dave Hollis was a big influence.

Why is it important for children/young people to have music in their life?Music, laughter and movement (dance or sport or spontaneous play) form brain connections in an efficient and powerful way. They set us up for understanding, empathy, having fun and thinking creatively. Music can introduce us to new ideas and be a powerful connector of people in friendship through a non-intellectual highly intelligent system of play.

What are you trying to achieve in your music for children/young people?
I’m trying to offer new ways of looking at the world, a bit of fun and lightness, a light hearted perspective on deeper relationship issues. I’m hoping to encourage creativity, experimentation, inventors and kindness.

Tell us about some of your songs for children/young people
The first song I wrote when I decided to have a go at song writing for kids around when my daughter was born is called ‘Little Blue’ (about a penguin). I won the APRA NZ Children’s Song of the Year for it – this really encouraged me to keep going.

I’m working on a song at the moment called ‘Daddy Be Kind’. It’s sung from the perspective of a child who is learning in a virtues program at school and seeing that some of the ways her father and mother behave are contrary to what the virtues program teaches. It’s my first attempt at quite a serious ‘kids/family’ song and I’m working on making it beautiful like a lullaby – hopefully without putting anyone to sleep – and also poignant and a little bit challenging in its lyrical content.

I touched on something like ‘Daddy Be Kind’ in 2012 when I wrote ‘Sometimes I Make Mistakes’ – a song about acknowledging our actions, making it right with others if we need to – and moving on – not holding on to guilt or shame. ‘Sometimes I Make Mistakes’ has more elements of humour in it than my latest experiment, ‘Daddy Be Kind’.

Give us some examples of feedback, both positive and negative, that you have received about your music for children/ young people
Some people have commented that my style is too diverse and doesn’t have a sense of continuity on an album. Some of my music sits far from what parents have expected from something described as ‘kids music’ and so initially been ‘unliked’. These same parents have later commented that they’ve gotten completely hooked – partly because their kids play it again and again.

Some of my earlier audio production is a bit rough – the quality improves over the various CDs I’ve put out but the song writing carries the works well anyway so I can listen to them with some perspective and appreciate what is good about them rather than just hear what I would do differently if I knew then what I know now!

Explain some of the differences between writing/performing/recording music for adult audiences and writing/performing/recording music for children/ young people
There really isn’t ‘adults music’ and ‘kid’s music’. Different music appeals to people of different ages, interests, cultures and people with different life experiences at different times for different reasons. Although I say I write music for kids – I really mainly just make music that entertains a part of me that often resonates with many kids too.

What suggestions do you have for introducing children to music? And how might one go about paving the way for a lifelong connection with music?
Play music. Have instruments in your living space easily reachable. Learn to play listen. Follow kids examples of ways to explore music and instruments. Avoid ‘the right way’ to play anything unless you need to protect an instrument from damage. Children will absorb the musical information they are exposed to. Provide diverse experiences. Go to concerts, gigs, festivals. Sing often. Sing before you eat together. Sing before you go to sleep. Sing gibberish. Enjoy music yourself. Never say you are not musical – there is plenty of scientific / biological evidence to contradict this cultural distress. Seek out people who play musically as much as you would seek out teachers for specific instruments. Who is teaching freedom to explore your innate musicality in your community? Find out who. Cultivate a light and connected attitude to playing music yourself.

Apart from music, what are some of the important things in your life?
My family. Our garden. Wild places. Dance. Art. Science that helps transform our communities into healthier more happy places.

What has been happening in your world over the past year? And what do you have coming up?
I’ve been learning how to make music for film. I’ve been slowly building a treehouse and play area from lots of recycled and found materials for my kids. We’ve been designing a chicken home. I’ve co-produced a song and claymation video called Purple Yeti. Coming up, I am working on a new live performance featuring lots of very small musical inventions. All going well, I’ll release a new CD early in 2017. I’ll be helping my daughter put together a band and mentoring them in how to practice / play together / perform and write material. I’ll be climbing trees and jumping with my son. I’ll be having some laughs with my wife and hopefully doing some music with her when we get a spare moment or three.

AL START (England)

English singer/songwriter Al Start was born in Epsom, Surrey. She began writing songs at the age of twelve and subsequently performed in bands, including When She Calls, Reckless Daughters and Toucan (with her sister Cheryl). After working as a solo performer and touring internationally, Al began writing music for children. In 2015, Al Start established Go Kid Music, a production company specialising in children’s music and theatre. Al’s team comprises singer/songwriter Nicola Bloom (co-writer of the children’s musical theatre shows, A Pirate Adventure, Gorrid the Horrid and Just Right) and puppeteer, puppet maker and writer Fran Malone. Al has just moved to a new studio and taken on three interns to grow the business to the next stage. She writes commissions, plays live as often as possible and is ‘on a mission to inspire children with excellent songs and shows’. Al’s projects over the years have include with the Young Offenders Service, Brighton Dome & Festival, Brighton and Hove Museum and Art Gallery, Glyndebourne Opera House and the children’s music charity, Rhythmix. Al Start’s most recent album for grown-ups, I Heart History (2008), is based on stories from the archives of the Brighton Museum. In October 2016, Al Start released the 4th album in her Excellent Songs for Children series, whose spooky-themed songs include, ‘Dracula & The Dentist’, ‘Creepy Castle’, ‘If I Had No Head’, ‘I’m Not Your Mummy’ and ‘My Pumpkin Won’t Stop Smilin’’.

Tell us about some of your childhood memories of music
I have always been entranced with music. I used to lie in bed at night as a small child, singing endless songs I made up on the spot to my poor sister, who had to comment on how great they were while I launched into another and another! My mum died when I was just six years old and, of the few memories I have of her, I do remember she played the guitar and sang to us as small children, especially Christmas songs. I retrieved her three-quarter size Spanish guitar from the loft when I was eleven, not realising it was even there, and started to teach myself to play. That was the start of my proper journey into song writing – as soon as I knew three chords, I was off!

How did your experiences of music change as you became a teenager, then an adult?
Unfortunately, my dad wasn’t musical at all, and when I asked for a new guitar a year or so later, he insisted if I was to continue I had to ‘learn properly’. To get a new guitar, I had to agree to weekly lessons in classical guitar with a strange man named appropriately Mr. Fowl (foul). I was terrible at it! I couldn’t get my head round reading music, or sitting bolt upright with my foot on a little stool to play ‘Greensleeves’ – it would have killed my love of music if I weren’t so obsessed.

When I was sixteen, I was knocked off my bike on the way home from school. My dad sued the driver, landing me with the princely sum of £300 – a fortune at the time. I declared I wanted to buy a guitar – a NON-classical steel strung one. He refused and said he would take care of the money until my 18th birthday…you can imagine how well that went down! But, true to my obsessive nature, when the day of my 18th birthday arrived, I made him drive me to the music shop and pay for my brand new acoustic guitar – I blew all the money leaving just £40. I chose a rather odd ovation-style round-back guitar the shop keeper thought befitting for a girl. Then the next day discovered a black acoustic advertised in the local newsagent for £40 and couldn’t resist. I still have that guitar to this day (with pick-up now fitted and a million dents!) – and it’s still my favourite.

Are there songs/pieces of music from your childhood that you remember with fondness and/or which you still listen to?

The songs my mum used to sing ‘Little Boxes’ [by Malvina Reynolds], ‘Little Donkey’ and Christmas songs. Funnily enough we had three cassette tapes in the car when I was little – The Stylistics, The Beatles and the Carpenters. Two out of those three have been extremely influential, but I love listening to all three bands. My dad later also got the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which blew my tiny mind with its crazy harmonies and reverbs

I have strong memories of TV theme tunes really affecting me. Early shows in the UK like Andy Pandy had a sad goodbye song with a lovely melody that used to make me cry! I loved Champion the Wonder Horse’s rousing theme – used to belt it out at the TV and then cry again when the Black Beauty theme came on.

When did you become aware of music written/performed specifically for children/young people? And how have your feelings about this changed over time?
As I said, kids’ TV themes were great when I was young – ‘Barnaby the Bear’ was a great song, Sesame Street and The Muppets were really quite sophisticated musically, especially with all their musical guests each week – I loved that. But school music was one big disappointment; dirgy songs about God and boring topics – nothing we really enjoyed singing until I started drama club and sang in musicals such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

As an adult I worked with children in play clubs, creative arts projects and was continually asked if I’d sing with children, but by then my opinion of children’s music was terrible – in the UK, it’s either American film songs, awful kiddie pop or sappy, badly written and produced babyish songs about peace and loving each other (bleagh!) – nothing exciting, edgy or remotely engaging for non-‘girly’ girls or boys.

How did you become a songwriter? And when and how did you begin writing music for children/young people?
I think I was born a songwriter! I honestly have ‘made up’ songs from as soon as I could sing. Song writing has been a constant companion for me through a rough childhood, horrible teens and difficult times in my adult life. It’s given me a focus and outlet for all my woes and happiness and I eat, sleep and breath music. I rarely have headphones on when out and about as I have music constantly playing in my head anyway.

I became a songwriter when I was old enough to play at open mics. From sixteen onwards, I really went for it. But sadly, because I was never encouraged musically by my Dad & step mum, in fact I’d go so far as to say, because I was dissuaded from pursuing music seriously, I didn’t realise it was something I could have chosen as a career path – or at least taken more seriously than my hobby. So I didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ songwriter until I was about 30. I was intimidated by people who were classically trained, could read music and play in orchestras – I lacked the confidence to see what I did as just as valid.

When I was 21, it discovered I had cancer, so just as I left university, I had to embark on nine years of treatment. It was incredibly frustrating, tiresome and depressing. I lost those ‘best years of your life’ everyone talks about and only when I was 30 did I say ‘enough’ to all the treatment. They gave me the ‘you’ll do’ and that’s when I said to myself that I’m going to follow my heart and do what makes me happy from now on – and became a ‘proper songwriter’.
Writing children’s music was something I was coerced into by a school head teacher ten years later. She had no-one to sing with her children, so I stepped up to help her out – not realising it would end up being the making of me!

Why is it important for children/young people to have music in their life?
It is absolutely essential children have music in their lives. I’d go so far as to say it’s a human right. Children love music, love to sing, play, shake things, bang stuff – from the minute they can pick up an object and make a sound. It is a part of being human. I won’t get into all the health/mental health and well-being benefits of making music and singing – nor the positive impact it has on self-confidence, development and communication. Suffice to say, it’s a game-changer! And for any children with additional issues to deal with in their young lives, it can be the saving grace.

What are you trying to achieve in your music for children/young people?
My whole focus is around the quality and range of material. I want children in the UK (and around the globe) to have access to outstanding songs that reflect their lives, interests and culture. So in the UK, instead of singing songs about candy, dollars, and all things American, I want our kids to be able to sing about songs that directly relate to their everyday lives – catching the bus, scooters, cups of tea, watching TV, playing in the park. Songs that are fun, engaging, exciting, musical, challenging, rhythmic, soothing, contemporary. Songs that are well written, imaginative, have interesting themes and ask questions and raise issues, as well as make them laugh or squirm!
I want both boys and girls to enjoy singing, I want them to be inspired to carry on further into their relationship with music and singing as they grow older. To see that they can play instruments whatever their background or ability; that they can write their own songs, create their own style and be confident to just try something and see what happens

I want the music in schools to be packed with great songs that teachers can use to support their topic work and that enhance children’s learning. I want teachers to be able to have access to affordable, fantastic music resources so that they add these into all their teaching and include music and singing in their science or history lessons, and not just save it for a once-a-week activity that they feel a music specialist has to teach.

Tell us about some of your songs for children/young people.
The first ever song I wrote for the school head teacher was ‘Creepy Castle’, which has become the top all-time most requested song, even though I think I got better at writing for children. There is something about it – children love the thrill of something spooky. The ‘risking on purpose’ theme is something I studied as a play specialist over 25 years and have now been able to apply to my song writing. I have worked in play since I was eighteen and use all my play work principles and child-centred approach when writing. I have learned what makes children giggle, tick, cringe, gasp, want to join in, by observing them for years and years and creating exciting, stimulating environments for them to play. I never realised how useful it would be!

As well as writing for fun, I love to write to brief – that is, to write a song for a particular school subject, event in history, time of year, using particular vocabulary etc. This is a great challenge and something I have become good at. I have written songs about Aztecs, Romans, different kinds of families, growing and planting, the Great Fire of London, Harvest Festival, Christmas, the seasons, transport, the continents, space, baking, jungle animals – you name it!

Give us some examples of feedback, both positive and negative, that you have received about your music for children/ young people
Positive feedback is that the parents love it as much as the children – which is one of our USPs at Go Kid Music. I aim to make the songs and music so good that adults can enjoy the songs with their children – why shouldn’t music for children be just as good as ‘adult music’?

Children love the songs, I get stopped in the streets all the time by children calling out ‘Mum…There’s AL!!’ Nice to feel like a celeb sometimes. Feedback about our musical shows is resoundingly positive – we apply the same principles and create shows with integrity, imagination, edge, humour and packed with great songs and music.
Negative…maybe some people feel I ‘cross the line’ sometimes, for example one of my most popular songs is a harvest song and a line in it says ‘when no-one’s looking I try the wine’ and I had to change this for schools as they felt it wasn’t appropriate. I have a song where I kill an imaginary monster – dead – and grown-ups don’t like saying ‘dead’ with kids around, but kids use it all the time and are learning about life. I haven’t really had any negative feedback as such, perhaps people are too polite.

Explain some of the differences between writing/performing/recording music for adult audiences and writing/performing/recording music for children/ young people
I feel more free in many ways when writing/performing for children. When I wrote and toured as an adult songwriter, I used to get hung up on what people thought of me, whether I was too old, not cool/pretty enough, whatever! Now I am simply myself and feel liberated. Apart from that I apply everything that I did as a dedicated adult songwriter to my children’s writing and performing. I work hard to perfect my material. I take great care with arrangement, production, instrumentation. I rehearse meticulously. I respect my audience and want everyone to have a good time. I want to give them value for money. I try to be as inclusive as possible. I strive to challenge myself and keep evolving as an artist.

I think there shouldn’t be any difference between writing and performing for children as for adults. I think historically children have been given less respect, quality, choice, and thought when it comes to songs/music/entertainment. This is changing now – America & Canada are years ahead of us with many good children’s artists and writers, but the UK is lagging behind. I still find I have to ‘justify’ what I do when I tell people I’m a children’s songwriter, as instantly people think nursery rhymes and baby songs and forget about the five million British children who have outgrown that but aren’t old enough for rock/pop/rap and still deserve great music.

What suggestions do you have for introducing children to music? And how might one go about paving the way for a lifelong connection with music?
I think most parents enjoy music and sing with their children when they are pre-schoolers – there are endless groups and activities for babies and infants. But when children start school, I think parents leave the music and singing to the schools and this is a mistake. I also think that a great deal of mainstream music isn’t ok for children to listen to – inappropriate themes, over sexualised, stereotypical, sexist, racist etc. and children aren’t old enough to hear the lyrics and work out what is ‘tongue in cheek’ or sarcastic, what it all means. So, without getting on my soap box, I encourage parents and carers to investigate good quality music for children. The internet has made this supremely accessible, and children have more choice over what they listen to now, usually on YouTube. There are a few good platforms out there that are more child-friendly, and coming to www.gokidmusic.com would be highly encouraged!

I would say to pave the way for your child’s life-long connection with music, it’s important to listen to what they want: do they want to play Beatles songs and be a songwriter or do they want classical lessons and play ‘Greensleeves’? Let your children find an instrument that suits them, let them try a few different ones, and don’t sweat it if they aren’t Grade 8 music readers – there are many ways to enjoy and access music.

Apart from music, what are some of the important things in your life?
My family is important – my partner and I adopted a daughter six years ago. It is challenging, but rewarding and I love them to bits. I’m an advocate of fostering and adoption and LGBT families, I support several charities and organisations who work with adopters and gay families. I have two amazing sisters who live nearby and I love spending time with them and their families. They have been so supportive of my musical endeavours over the years and I want to make them proud.

What has been happening in your world over the past year? And what do you have coming up?
In 2016, I had one of the most transformative years ever! I have been on an amazing business accelerator programme for the last fifteen months called Entrepreneurial Spark – learning how to grow and scale my music into a company and then accelerate to reach a huge market. It has been incredibly challenging for my arty brain, but I now feel I have ‘come of age’ and have got finance in place, am about to move into a new studio/office, grow my team and take on the world. I am collaborating with a brilliant animation company to take my songs to a new platform, I’m hoping to sign a publishing deal in early 2017 and develop a range of songbooks and place my music in TV and film. I’ll be setting up my touring theatre company and touring in late 2017, and I am working on an export project to take my songs into international English teaching arenas…phew! I think 2017 is going to be a rather busy year!

SUE BARRETT is an Australian music writer, who grew up surrounded by music and whose schooling took place in rural and regional Australia and included listening to ABC radio’s schools programs.

An interview with Joan Lowe (Pacific Cascade Records) is available at:
In a recent FolkBlog article, Connections – Musicians and their Instruments, Ruth Hazleton (Australian singer, guitarist, clawhammer banjo player, folklorist), Kara Square (American singer/songwriter, videographer, composer, ukulele player), Liz Frencham (Australian double bass player, singer, songwriter) and Rachel Hair (Scottish harpist, composer, music teacher) provided suggestions about introducing children to music:


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