Evolving in the Craft of Children’s Music

Embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam's first full band gig in 2013 at Essex County Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, NJ.

Our first-ever full band gig in 2013. We played songs.

Over two years ago when we were a brand new act for kids and families, I was certain that we were about as good as we were going to get. We just needed to be discovered. We were writing rock songs for kids that their parents would love too. Our songs were critiqued by our new friends in the Children’s Music Network and re-written to everybody’s satisfaction. I thought at the time my number one concern was getting the word out about how awesome we were! The kids’ entertainment blogosphere and radio scene would surely herald our arrival on the scene with great fanfare.

What we got at the time was something else, something more important; I realize that a little more each day. Instead of a long parade of articles from independent blogs through People Magazine singing our praises, as they did our heroes Justin Roberts and Laurie Berkner, we found ourselves not quite making the cut in a field crowded with amazing talent. And many of the people whose attention we were vying for were leaving a growing trail of public clues as to what they were looking for.

Thought leaders on the kindie scene like Jeff Bogle (Out with the Kids), Stephan Shepherd (Zooglobble) and Bill Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child) were writing articles about the state of the industry and the kinds of children’s music submissions that were grabbing their attention – what they had in common. These three tastemakers were emphasizing the importance of storytelling and emotional depth in the children’s songs that they loved to share. They tend to shun the more purely academic or procedural educational songs that many children’s musicians create.

The first children’s song that Amy and I ever wrote for public consumption falls squarely in the educational category – “Five Sea Lions.” It teaches the difference between sea lions and seals (a touch of marine biology) and creates practice in counting down from five (early math) to a reggae/ska beat. It was never going to grab critical acclaim among those looking for epic storytelling.

But it did resonate with an important player on the children’s music scene – Rebecca Alison (Kids Can Groove, Little Cloud Management). So much so, that she chose to world premiere our video of the song. What that taught me was, once you create a work and set it free, it can affect different people in different ways. Rebecca lives in California and created some important memories with her own child sharing their enjoyment of the sea lions native to her home state. So a purely academic song took on an emotional component within the context of her life. We took a little chance sending this song to Rebecca and it worked out in this case. It just goes to show you have to put yourself out there, even early on in your career. Trevor from GooberKids Radio, Q Manor from Tots’ Radio, and Todd from Jelly Bean Radio were also feeling what we were doing from early on, as was Phil Maq from WHFR-FM in Dearborn, Michigan, who doesn’t distinguish adults’ from kids’ music as long as it’s “good music.”

Having an early taste of success like the world premiere with Rebecca can help keep you motivated as you develop your career, but shouldn’t become a reason to believe that all you need is more publicity. Likewise, not getting all the coverage and opportunities you want is not necessarily a reason to abandon what got you this far. It may help make the case for evolving rather than suddenly re-inventing yourself into what you think someone else wants. It would be a mistake for us in the Jungle Gym Jam to distance ourselves from an academic song like “Five Sea Lions” while claiming that an emotional story song like “Lollipop Motel” is all we’re going to do now. For me, evolving means embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam perform at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2015

Over two years later, we’re playing venues nationally known for children’s music. We create moments around the songs we play.

If our songwriting has enjoyed a sort of evolution, so has our live show. I’ve had time to not only read live music producer Tom Jackson’s excellent “Live Music Method” but to absorb and apply it over time, emphasizing the creation of moments over merely the performance of songs. Attending KindieComm the past two years and experiencing the moments created by other artists also helped drive this point home to me, as did working one-on-one with Ron “Polka Dot” Albanese, a consummate children’s entertainer, who helped me not to become Polka Dot Jr. but to become a more fully realized Jungle Gym Jam guy. Our live show today is very different from our very first live show. Early on, we played the songs. We moved swiftly from one song to the next. Over time we started to take more seriously the interactive potential in introducing certain songs and the visual elements that could help unlock feelings of delight, like puppets.

Once we began introducing puppets into the act (we had seen them used sparingly and effectively by Justin Roberts to create moments as in “Willy was a Whale”), we started modestly with pre-made Folkmanis puppets. They were high quality, small puppets sized appropriately for the classroom, but not the big stage. They served us well for several months. Also, Amy did not have a clearly defined role on the stage other than to put on one of these puppets and go out into the audience during songs like “Five Sea Lions” or “Mimi the Ladybug.” We later started having young volunteers work the puppets (if we could find one who didn’t have a touch of stage fright).

As Amy took a greater interest in playing percussion instruments in the group, her role evolved and she became the go-to person for all the puppet moments. She started coming up with voices and mannerisms for the characters. I was also becoming acquainted with a great puppet maker (and puppeteer) by the name of Chris Palmieri, who custom made spectacularly large sea lion, moon, ladybug, dinosaur and Santa puppets for our stage show. I’m not sure that the visual component of our show would have come out as well as it did had we just quickly mimicked Justin Roberts, the Pop Ups or other acts that make great use of visuals. We needed to watch those acts, learn, digest, and over the course of time, figure out what moments and visual cues best apply to our show in an authentic and entertaining way.

Jason and Amy from Jungle Gym Jam create a fun and learning moment about how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I create a fun and educational moment around how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I also understood that our record-making would have to evolve as well. Our debut album “Everyone’s Invited” had done well in earning a Parents’ Choice Approved seal, which helped sell hundreds of copies to schools and libraries. It’s the source of some of our great live moments on the stage, and we still enjoy listening to the album in the car almost 2 years later. Now, with the songwriting and song selection evolving to include a stronger emotional connection, we needed to make sure those feelings would translate to the record. For this, we chose Marc Bazerman, leader of Baze and His Silly Friends and producer of Suzi Shelton’s heartwarming “Smile in my Heart” album. We also chose Suzi to duet with me on “Free to Be…You and Me,” a song that connected me with the feelings of my own childhood and the signal to the kindie community that our band was entering a new stage of its development. This single found some of the coveted airplay that had eluded us with the first album.

If we’re evolving as songwriters, live performers and makers of records, we’re also evolving as people. We’re more attuned to what our audience wants, where we can fit into the industry, and how to go about this way of life. This is the kind of growth that can only happen over the course of years and can’t be rushed. I believe it can be accelerated. Two years and change is not a very long time for us to have developed to the point we have. Factors like attending KindieComm (where we learned much from other artists and industry professionals and established relationships) for two years straight tend to act as career development accelerants – developing both craft and connections. Paying attention to what your audience is trying to tell you is another career accelerant. Having both a mom and a wife with early childhood education expertise also provided valuable insight into what could work well for our young audience members.

If I were to give a new children’s artist just one piece of advice right now, it would be this: Seek out other people in the industry – not so they’ll discover you and shower you with praise and top-paying gigs – but so being around them will help you evolve as a children’s artist who will ultimately attract the praise and the livelihood.

I’d love for you to join the discussion about evolving as a person, a professional or an artist, in the space below! Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

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