We’ve got ten tips on how to succeed performing and writing children’s music from Grammy Award winner Jennifer Gasoi
From the outside, performing, recording, and writing children’s music can seem like a deceptively simple craft. Just come up with a sing-song melody and nonsense lyrics — and maybe throw on a silly hat before you go on stage — and you’re done. Easy, right?
Ask Jennifer Gasoi, two-time Juno-nominated Canadian artist whose most recent project, Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well, just won the Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album, and the answer is a resounding “no.” For Gasoi, forging a live and recorded repertoire that delights both little ones and their parents is a task to be treated with respect, rigor, and all the creativity you can muster.
There is a work ethic and dedication to the crafts of songwriting and recording that have helped Gasoi go far, and following her example can help you find your own path when it comes to making quality music for kids.
Research the field
Like any genre, children’s music has its luminaries, and spending some time getting acquainted with their work can inspire you in your own endeavors. “Raffi is one of the biggest and most respected children’s artists out there,” says Gasoi. “He has done incredible work and has always respected kids. His music comes from a place of honoring them. I definitely recommend that children’s artists become familiar with his work.”
Another children’s artist that Gasoi has “great reverence for” is Dan Zanes. “What I love about him is that he is very adult-friendly but kids love him, too. He really brings community together. He plays great music, has dance parties in his performances, and creates joy in his shows.” Gasoi further points to Canadian artists Fred Penner; Sharon, Lois and Bram; and Charlotte Diamond as having made huge impacts in the world of top-notch children’s music.
It’s also worth checking out a healthy variety of random children’s music via your favorite Internet radio station and noting what you love, what you hate, and what falls in between. A quick listen can give you some valuable ideas on best practices when it comes to writing children’s music — and things to avoid at all costs.
Invest in the best
“Making music for children doesn’t mean you can slack,” says Gasoi. “Always focus on making quality music and a quality recording, regardless of the audience. If you want to make great music for kids, treat it as if you’re making great music for adults.”
In other words, invest the same time, money, and planning into the production aspects of your project as you would for your flagship rock, pop, hip-hop, or jazz album. “Surround yourself with the highest caliber of everything that you can,” says Gasoi. “Kids can feel that you’ve put a lot of yourself into the music. Plus parents, who are the ones buying your albums and bringing kids to your shows, greatly appreciate it as well.”
Use real musicians (or make sure your electronics are top notch)
“Personally, I’m a big lover of real instrumentation and always perform with live players,” Gasoi says. “Unless you’re doing something really cutting-edge with backing tracks and multi-media, I’d avoid coming out and having subpar electronic backing tracks with tubas and baselines. That doesn’t serve the kids, the parents, or the music very well.”
Gasoi points out that using real instruments helps children learn an appreciation for the act of music creation itself. “That’s part of what we’re introducing kids to. What is a bass, drum kit, and trumpet? Letting kids see and hear those real instruments in action is an important part of children’s music to me.”
Work with great collaborators who love kids
Even if you have easy access to the most amazing musicians within a 100-mile radius, look elsewhere if they don’t connect with children and have genuine interest in making little ones happy and inspired through music.
“You don’t want a band full of top-notch players, no matter how good they are, if they are not invested in the project for the right reasons,” says Gasoi. “Bring in people who are both great musicians and who also have respect for working with kids.”
Follow the story in tracking and production
Gasoi describes her Grammy Award-winning album as containing songs of nine different genres, “but it all works, somehow,” she says with a laugh. One of the big reasons that Gasoi cites for the album’s success — despite its disparate musical roots — was a rigorous and thoughtful creative process for individual songs and the album as a whole.
“The consistency overall is the presence of my voice, of course, plus a focus on quality control and real intention to know what I’m doing with each song and why I’m doing it,” she says. For the track “Buttercup,” for example, Gasoi wanted the song’s production to evoke a sense of magic and gentleness consistent with the story of the song, while songs like “Little Blue Car” needed a much more exuberant vibe.
“‘Buttercup’ was very challenging to sing, because it was so delicate, and I really needed the vocal to reflect the delicacy of the butterfly and buttercup discussed in the lyrics. That’s the vibe I wanted to project to the world, so when we went to mix and master, we had in mind the intention to support the song through the engineering.”
Gasoi went through a number of mastering revisions on “Buttercup,” in fact, to get the right flavor in the end “The vocals kept sounding too harsh, even with some of the tiniest tweaks applied to it. We really had to pull it back so the song came across in the way I wanted it to. And the vocals on every song were totally different, so it was important to have a clear vision for each.”
Get things right up front
Especially in children’s music, having that aforementioned clarity of purpose can be key in creating a song that truly communicates to its listeners. To that end, Gasoi recommends getting things right in the isolation booth before going any further.
“Once you know the message and sort of energy you want to deliver, whether you’re singing or directing your musicians, get a performance recorded that has the roots and heart that you’re looking for,” she says. “That makes mixing and mastering so much easier. You already have the energy and intention of the songs. A lot of people think that they can just do the performances, fix things up in the mix, and polish it in the mastering. Much more effective is getting the intention set from the start and letting the mixing and mastering evolve organically from there.”
Tap into your own childhood and keep it honest
When you’re set to start writing children’s music of your own, Gasoi recommends a little introspection. “Find that place within yourself that reminds you of your own childhood, that place of innocence, fun, and abandonment. For me, allowing that aspect to come through is really important. Kids respond to it.”
If you over-think your songwriting, kids can feel it, Gasoi continues. “Instead, just tap into happy memories from your own childhood, things that bring out that vibe of fun and exuberance. Regardless of the style of song, remember to bring a joyful spirit to what you do.”
Experiment with moods
While a joyful approach can help you craft outstanding children’s music, all of your songs don’t have to be about rainbows, unicorns, and other happy-go-lucky themes. In fact, some of the most effective kids’ music touches on more mature topics.
“In order to bring out honesty and integrity in your music, you have to bring in different dimensions of life,” she says. Gasoi’s song “Little Boat,” for example, talks about the listener getting into his or her vessel and having faith to overcome whatever may happen during the journey. “I try to use lyrics that are not overly specific, but that convey the sense that life isn’t always easy,” she says. “At the same time, I communicate that listeners are going to have the tools they need to get through.”
Kids crave honesty, she continues, and many children have responded to that song “because they feel something in it. It’s always a delicate balance between not being scared to address more mature issues, but talking about those topics in a mindful, respectful, and subtle way. Adding a little bit of darkness gives the music a depth and realness that both parents and kids can relate to.”
When it comes to adding tasteful amounts of grit, Gasoi cites Shel Silverstein as a master. “He would be my hero in that way,” she says. “His writing is brilliant and fun, but there’s definitely an edge. Robert Munsch’s book Love You Forever also struck a great balance. He was able to integrate both joy and sadness very well.”
Don’t fall into the trap of underestimating the intelligence of kids, just because they’re little, advises Gasoi. “Always remember to communicate with kids as if you’re speaking to friends. Never talk down to them and always see them as intelligent, connected people who are just looking to enjoy something honest and real.”
In fact, Gasoi sees such an approach as a major key to her success in the field. “Tapping into a childlike sense of fun and innocence and not speaking down to kids has been a powerful combination. I steer clear of writing music that is too didactic. Instead, I prefer to create music that stimulates imagination, creativity, and a sense of wonder and possibility. I love giving kids the opportunity to explore and dream. They are already so tuned into their creativity, I simply give them a platform to nurture that aspect of themselves.”
Keep it concise on stage
While it’s always important to respect the intelligence of your youthful audiences, remember that attention spans for those in the single digits can be limited.
“Unless storytelling is an active part of your performance, try not to talk too much on stage and let the music speak for itself,” advises Gasoi. “You have to keep it moving for kids. There’s a real art for keeping the attention of two-year-olds!”
For kids of that age, Gasoi recommends avoiding shows that last longer than 45 minutes, though the sort of venue you’re in can allow flexibility. “If you’re in a theater, it’s easier to pull off an hour. A bigger show with a full band can often allow you to get away with longer performances. If you’re in a venue where it’s just you and a guitar, you might want to stick to 45 minutes.”
Note that holding kids’ attention does not have to mean introducing strobe lights and flash-bang moments every thirty seconds. “It’s not about overstimulation and constant entertainment,” says Gasoi. “The goal should be more about engaging children through your performance and giving them opportunities to participate.”
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Wonderful article. I am very familiar with Jennifer’s music. My grandchildren are mesmerized and we love the beat , lyrics and her very sweet voice .