Life for Children’s Musicians During the Pandemic

It’s hard to believe that just a month ago life was still pretty normal for most of us. Social distancing was a term that was just starting to be used, we were learning that the coronavirus was also called COVID-19 and the virus hadn’t yet hit pandemic levels (a status it gained on March 11). For weeks it was a disease that was on foreign shores, on cruise ships, and localized in Washington state. Then in a matter of just a few short days in the middle of March, many of our lives dramatically changed. COVID-19 was coming and it was coming fast and we needed to be prepared. But how do you prepare for an unseen enemy that is mainly transmitted from person to person? You have to cease life as you know it.

As someone who works in a public library in Illinois, I experienced my profession change at light speed. On the morning of Friday, March 13 we were discussing cancelling storytimes for the next two weeks and removing furniture in order to properly social distance. By 5:00 pm that afternoon we were making the decision to close the library to the public the following Monday. By 11:30 am on March 16, as a result of rapidly changing circumstances, the decision had been made to not only close to the public, but to be closed completely through the end of March. By 3:00 pm on Saturday, March 20, the governor of Illinois had issued a Stay-at-Home order. And on March 31, that ordered was extended through April 30.

In an effort to help protect the health and safety of not just their staffs, but the public which they serve, libraries across the country quickly closed. And with every public library closure came children’s program cancellations. In a matter of days, children’s performers went from having schedules filled with spring and summer programs, birthday parties and festivals to having their calendars completely cleared. The pandemic has affected so many, but today I wanted to shine a light on the affects it has had on the children’s music industry. I asked Chicago-based, three-time GRAMMY nominee Justin Roberts, Marsha Goodman-Wood from the Washington, D.C. based Marsha and the Positrons, and Andy Furgeson a.k.a. Red Yarn from Portland, Oregon to give us a look into their experiences during this unprecedented time.

How has the pandemic affected your work as a children’s performer?
Andy:
Before the pandemic, I was performing around Portland three to five times per week, visiting preschools and elementary schools, doing private shows and some touring on the weekends. Now I’m doing three shows per week on Facebook Live, guesting on other folks’ livestream series, making custom videos for kids’ birthdays, and picking up any other virtual work that I can. 

Marsha: Well, the first thing is that all my gigs — both performing and teaching — have been cancelled, so my income has gone down to almost zero. People can give tips for online shows, but many people are worried about their own finances, and they’re being asked to contribute to all the artists they follow, so that impacts whether and how much people can give. I appreciate every tip I’ve received, but to be honest, the amount that I’ve received in tips from online shows hasn’t even replaced the income from my first missed gig.

The second thing is that I’ve started to do online shows, so I’ve had to figure out the tech piece of doing that. I’m still learning how to do livestreaming video, and everything is changing very fast. It’s a bit weird not knowing how the audience is responding. I try to think of the audience and what they would be doing if we were in the same room, so I imagine the kids dancing along at home. However, I usually make decisions during shows based on the energy in the room — I can tell if they’re loving the show and full of energy, or if they’re shy or tired and I can judge how best to pump up the crowd. Without that in person feedback, it’s quite different.

What has been the biggest challenge for you?

Justin: The biggest challenge right now is just trying to figure out how to earn a living somehow when there is no clear end to the quarantine. Even when things start opening up again, I don’t foresee large gatherings being recommended in the near future. But this crisis is affecting everyone, from booking agents to venues and theaters. I can’t imagine any industry that isn’t going to be hurt badly by this epidemic.

Marsha: So far, the biggest challenge has been our family of five working on different things with simultaneous online meetings, conference calls, and online work happening all at the same time in a small space. For me, it means that I can’t really play music at home without disturbing people trying to do quiet work, or who need to hear/participate in a call or online meeting. At first, my kids weren’t doing distance learning, so I was able to do online concerts in the morning when I would typically play shows. Now, I’m planning to switch to the afternoon once a week so I’m less disruptive, and we’ll see how that goes. It also means that I can’t practice much, so if I’m playing songs I don’t play often, or trying something new or want to work on songwriting, I can’t easily do that, and sometimes can’t do it all.

Andy: The biggest challenge has been technological — figuring out how to offer high-quality livestreams with limited know-how and equipment. Thankfully, a few tech-savvy parents and friends have offered advice, so I’m gradually dialing in my system. Honestly, I feel very lucky to be a nimble, one-man operation with the basic tools and space I need to pivot to livestreaming. I also feel so thankful for my friends and fans, who have been so generous in donating during my livestreams. I know that a lot of people are hurting right now, so I feel incredibly blessed to be healthy and able to continue working and making some income for my family.

Have there been any silver linings?

Andy: Absolutely. It’s been amazing to experience a new kind of virtual connection with my audience. Kids are sending in drawings of my puppet characters, parents are writing the kindest notes of encouragement, families are sharing pictures and videos of their kids singing and dancing at home. My audience has definitely grown in the last few weeks. Through the magic of social media, lots of new folks have found my videos and music. Finally, it’s been inspiring seeing all of the amazing collaborations, community art projects, activism, and generosity going on right now, in the family music community and beyond. 

Justin: Yes. When schools and offices started closing and concerts and festivals started getting cancelled, I tried to think of how I could help the families that would suddenly be stuck at home. The thought of kids being in front of screens all the time sort of depressed me and so I tried to think of ways to design projects and activities that would go beyond just watching music on a screen. I put up a page on my website called stuck at home with free craft projects, sheet music, musical scavenger hunts and other fun activities. The amazing part of this has been all the photos and videos that have been sent to me from parents and kids playing my songs together on unusual instruments like euphonium and clarinet and then seeing homemade shoebox guitars and other projects being completed by kids at home. I’ve also found livestreaming to be a really wonderful way to connect with kids and families in real time. It’s much different than just watching a video. We are able to respond to each other in almost real time and laugh and exchange our thoughts and feelings. When the stream is over, I get pictures of kids bringing their musical instruments up to the computer or working on the same project that I’m describing on the screen or playing along on their ukulele. Last week I did a cooking segment where we made homemade pizza dough and then this week I started getting all these pictures of pizzas. Yum!

Marsha: For sure! I’m all about trying to find positives and making the best of a difficult situation. One positive from all this is that by learning how to do video meetings I’ve started to connect with people I wouldn’t normally see in person. I can see musician friends perform online who I normally can’t see because they live far away or because we’re playing at the same time. I’ve gotten to see a few shows this past week, and look forward to checking out lots more of my friends’ online shows while I’m at home.

Another positive is appreciating nature and being outside. Since one thing we can do is go for a walk outside as long as we keep our distance, we can really enjoy nature. With fewer cars on the roads, we can listen to the birds who maybe we can hear a little better now. Also, when I see someone else across the way, I think we appreciate seeing each other and wave and say hello from afar maybe more often that we would have.

Finally, I think great art often comes out of difficult times, so as we’re feeling a lot of different emotions, some good could come out of channeling those emotions into songs, and other creative outlets. Before this, I was about 2/3 of the way done writing for my next record, and while it’s been a little difficult for me to do much songwriting in this new environment so far, I hope I’ll be able to do more writing and finish some songs I’ve set aside, and maybe write some new ones.

If fans would like to show their support by buying the music of their favorite performers, what are the avenues that most benefit the performers at this time? 

Justin: The best way to support musicians right now is by buying their music and merchandise directly from their websites, especially in physical form (CD and LP) or by paying for a download. In addition, many musicians are doing free live streaming concerts and shows. So, it’s super helpful if you can support these musicians via Venmo, Paypal, and other means for their live streams. It won’t make up the revenue lost from touring, but it may help that musician pay their rent or buy groceries.

In addition to buying music, what is the best way for librarians, and fans in general, to support those in the children’s music community?

Justin: If you are in a position to support musicians on a grander scale, you might consider making a donation to Musicares, which provides emergency relief funding to musicians in need. And if possible contact your representative in Congress and make sure that they continue to support freelance artists as part of the relief packages and continue to support foundations that support artists like the NEA. You can follow @GRAMMYAdvocacy on Twitter or Facebook to get the latest details of how you can help. They often provide ways to reach your representative with a few clicks of a mouse and that can really help ensure that musicians are protected.

What is one thing you’ll take away from this difficult time:

Andy: I’ve always been wary of replacing “in-real-life” human connection with virtual connection. But now I’m feeling how deeply nourishing, and really “real,” this virtual connection can feel. I think that no matter what happens, I’ll keep on doing livestream shows more regularly. 

Marsha: I think the biggest thing we’ll take away from this difficult time is a deeper appreciation for being able to see each other in person. I hope that after it becomes safe to meet in groups, we’ll gather in crowds and enjoy lots of live music and support all the artists and venues that are having a hard time now. 

9Now that we are a few weeks into this new reality, what words of encouragement do you have for fellow children’s performers?  

Justin: I think it’s going to be a long and difficult road for many of us. I hope we can all stay safe and healthy at home and hopefully limit the spread of COVID-19. I would encourage everyone in the music community to pay close attention to the relief legislation that just passed. There is a wonderful website, MusicCovidRelief.com, that was put together by a consortium of organizations in the music community (including the Recording Academy) that will be very helpful for musicians.

I do think our mission as children and family entertainers will be essential during this difficult time and I hope we can provide some comfort and distraction and community to those who need it.

You can catch Justin’s “Stuck at Home” events on www.facebook.com/justinrobertsmusic4kids/, Marsha’s live performances on www.facebook.com/Marsha.Goodman.Wood/and Andy’s concerts on www.facebook.com/redyarn/. For a comprehensive list of the online streaming events coming out of the children’s music world right now, visit Playtime Playlist to see a day-by-day breakdown of who is playing, and when. If you’re a children’s performer please chime in in the comments with how the pandemic is affecting you and if you’re a librarian or a fan, please show your favorite performers some love.
Be safe, be well, and be kind to one another!

Wild Life Performed by Justin Roberts

Three-time GRAMMY nominee Justin Roberts returns with his richest album yet. As a new father, Justin turns his attention from a child’s view of the world to a parent’s perspective on love, life and watching a child grow. Each of the ten original songs on Wild Life contains a new depth of emotion not previously found in Justin’s kindie pop music. This time around, the very personal lyrics focus on the anticipation and worry that come with the impending arrival of a new little one, and the many hopes and joys that a parent has for their children.

On Wild Life, Justin has surrounded himself with a skilled group of musicians including Gerald Dowd, Lisa Kaplan, and his longtime collaborator, Liam Davis. The melody for each track has its own unique sound, with many of the songs being on the softer side and potentially serving as lullabies. Justin’s wife, accomplished cellist Anna Steinhoff, joins in on several of the tracks, most notably “Be Not Afraid,” and the title track, “Wild Life.” Both of these songs are scaled back to Justin’s vocals and Anna’s gorgeous accompaniment, allowing their boundless love for their son Eli to come shining through.

Both new and experienced parents will relate to the universal moments in Wild Life while their hearts fill with the love embodied by each song. Need a little pick me up? Give Justin’s earworm-worthy tune “Glad You’re Here” a whirl. Enjoy this video that was produced by the SALT project, illustrated by Elena Skoreyko Wagner, and animated by Mariana López.

Kids Music Takes New York City by Storm!

Last weekend the GRAMMY awards left the sun and warmth of Los Angeles to celebrate the big 6-0 back home in New York City. Throughout the City that never sleeps the return of the awards were celebrated and it seemed like everywhere you went, there were announcements for concerts being held during the weekend featuring everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Childish Gambino. But it wasn’t just musical acts for grown-ups in town. NYC was also alive with the sound of children’s music.

 

The first of the two children’s music concerts that I was able to attend over the weekend was held Friday morning at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Sponsored by Kids Rhythm and Rock, Chicago’s own Wendy & DB performed two concerts to benefit the museum, VH1 Save the Music and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots. These engaging, interactive performances had children up and dancing as they heard songs including, “Pink Flamingo,” “Watersong,” “Girl Superhero,” and the blissfully exhausting “HopScotch.” I don’t know about the little ones, but after those high energy performances, I was just about ready for a nap.

 

 

The second children’s music concert was on Saturday at New York’s Symphony Space as part of their “Just Kidding!” series. This concert, “Best of Family Showcase!” featured live performances by four of the five nominees for the Best Children’s Album GRAMMY. Hosted by Sirius XM’s Kenny Curtis and Mindy Thomas this hour-long musical extravaganza was a true delight from beginning to end.

 

 

Up first was everyone’s favorite drop of sunshine, Gustafer Yellowgold. Aided by his human friend (and creator) Morgan Taylor on guitar and vocals, Gustafer’s escapades from Brighter Side were brought to life for all to enjoy. Those awful “Hot Nights” and how fun it is when “I Jump on Cake” were just a few of the insights shared into Gustafer’s one-of-a-kind life.

 

 

 

Switching gears a bit after Gustafer and Morgan came a pre-recorded message from Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Nominated for their album Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World, the group expressed their gratitude for the nomination and performed the song, “Everything is So Stupid.”

 

 

 

Next up was Chicago-based Justin Roberts. Accompanied by producer Liam Davis, Justin performed the very relatable “Must Be This Tall” and “Dodgeball” before inviting Jason Rabinowitz from The Pop-Ups and GRAMMY winner Tim Kubart on stage to join in the title song from Justin’s album, Lemonade.

 

 

 

 

Lisa Loeb, who would go on Sunday to win the GRAMMY award, gave a lovely performance of several of the songs from Feel What U Feel including “Say Hello” and “Moon Star Pie (It’s Gonna Be Alright)” while accompanied by her co-producer Rich Jacques and her keyboardist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final performance of the all-star concert brought the crowd to their feet when Alphabet Rockers took the stage. This Oakland-based crew fundraised so that all of the kids who appeared on their nominated album, Rise, Shine, #Woke could make the trip to perform in New York. And perform they did!

 

 

This Best of Family Showcase! was filled with energy and a love and understanding of all those things big and small that are important in the life of a child. It’s impossible to predict what performers will appear at the showcase next year, but the one thing you can guarantee, is that when it comes to children’s music, whoever gets nominated will be absolutely amazing.

 

Last year was full of fantastic, smart, entertaining music for children. If 2018 is even half as good, it’s going to be a great year. Thank you New York City for embracing children’s music and giving it such wonderful places to shine!!

Best Children’s Album GRAMMY Nominees

This past year was another amazing one for children’s music. Whether you like the more traditional kids music, jazz, rock, folk, EDM, pop, world music or the blues, there was something for every family. To be considered for the 60th GRAMMY awards, albums had to be released between October 1, 2016 and September 30, 2017. Below are the five albums that are nominated for Best Children’s Album (click on the blue titles to see my reviews). The GRAMMY awards will be announced on Sunday, January 28.

Brighter Side performed by Gustafer Yellowgold

Feel What U Feel performed by Lisa Loeb

Lemonade performed by Justin Roberts

Rise Shine #Woke performed by Alphabet Rockers

Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

I’m Going On a Trip and I’m Taking…

This list of fantastic songs! Are you looking for just the right music to listen to during a summer family road trip? From today through Sunday, June 11 the wonderful variety of songs listed below are available as free downloads. There’s a little something for everyone. Pass it on!

“Transportation” – Danny Weinkauf – Red Pants Band
“Moon Star Pie (It’s Gonna Be Alright)” – Lisa Loeb
“Superhero 2017 REMIX (feat. Carly Ciarrocchi)” – Tim Kubart
“Rolling Down the Hill” – Justin Roberts
“Paletero Man” – Lucky Diaz
“She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” – Jazzy Ash
“Five Green and Speckled Frogs” – Dana
“Mockingbird” – Red Yarn
“The Senses Song” – Little Miss Ann

Are YOU Ready for Valentine’s Day?

Are you looking for just the right songs to share in your classroom, during storytime or as a family on Valentine’s Day? From today through Tuesday, February 14 the wonderful variety of songs listed below are available as free downloads. There’s a little something for everyone. Pass along the love and kindness!

“Valentine (I Don’t Want to Be Yours)” – Justin Roberts
“Lovestruck Unicorn” – Recess Monkey (2017 GRAMMY nominee)
“L.O.V.E.” – Little Miss Ann
“Love Bug” – Raffi
“Closer to You” – Frances England (2017 GRAMMY nominee)
“You Can Count on Me” – Lisa Loeb
“Your Love Turns the World Around” – Brady Rymer (2017 GRAMMY nominee)
“Loving and Kind” – Aaron Nigel Smith
“Til There Was You” – Lucky Diaz
“Cancion de Amor” – 123 Andrs

School Library Journal’s Top 10 Music of 2016

School Library Journal released its list of the Top 10 children’s albums of 2016. Compiled by the SLJ music reviewers, all of these albums are great additions to every collection. Did your favorites make the list?

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Lemonade

Lemonade Performed by Justin Roberts
Target Audience: Preschool-Grade School

lemonadeJustin Roberts’s 13th album for families was released today and it’s another great one. The twelve all new, acoustic songs cover such familiar topics to children as waiting and waiting to be the right height to ride all the rides at the amusement park, being willing to do anything to get out of playing dodgeball, and the simple joy of taking time out from the day to roll down a hill. The title song “Lemonade” as well as “Me and My Kangaroo” and “This is How We Bring in the Sun” invite listeners to sing along with catchy choruses and delightful melodies. Students will love “Valentine (I don’t wanna be yours)” a tale of kids being made to go through the ritual of handing out valentines even though I don’t wanna be yours/And you don’t wanna be mine. The song “Eight-Legged Octopus” about an octopus who is kept as a pet, but is ultimately returned to the deep blue sea will draw children in and have them counting along with the chorus. This song could easily be adapted into a flannel board to use during storytime. Roberts’s view of the world through a child’s eyes combines with a creative mix of instruments from cardboard boxes and paint cans to cello and ukulele in order to create a collection of songs that children will instantly identify with. Several of the songs could be used in programs where participants are dancing or using musical instruments. The subject matter and top-notch musicianship will make this an album that children AND parents won’t mind listening to again and again.

 

 

Upcoming Releases

Here are a few albums that will be out in the next couple of weeks.

September 29

Sing-A-Long History, Vol. 2 performed by The Deedle Deedle Dees

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October 7

Feel What U Feel performed by Lisa Loeb

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October 14

Lemonade performed by Justin Roberts

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Wonderful YOU performed by Vanessa Trien & the Jumping Monkeys

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October 21

Live in Colour performed by Marlowe & the MiX

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