Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arts in Infancy Part 1: Music

Other than the demoralizing year of sixth grade band (I was third clarinet, using an instrument I inherited from my older sister) and a brief stint learning to play the electronic keyboard during the 80's (when my romantic teenage fantasies included running away to London to start a New Wave group) I have little formal training in music. Unlike my husband who can pick out most anything on an acoustic guitar and who hears notes I never realized were in songs, I am a little tone deaf. But since our artful son (AS) was born, I sing more (albeit ballads for children) than I ever have in my life and I know what I like. It isn't the bubblegum melodies of Raffi and Barney.

In the beginning, I left it to my artful husband to search out baby-friendly tunes that aren't cringe-inducing for parents who smoothly transitioned from vinyl to CD to MP3. He discovered the web-based children's television program "Pancake Mountain" which features DC faves The Evens performing their very catchy original "Vowel Movement". You're bound to get the chorus of this hip song stuck in your head for days, and if your neighbors are likely to overhear you rocking out with your child at least you won't lose face here. The Buzzcocks, Shonen Knife, Steel Pulse, and The Flaming Lips have also appeared on PM.

Looking for something a little more mellow for nap time? Give a listen to one of the many recordings in the "Rockabye Baby!" series, including lullaby renditions by U2, The Beach Boys, No Doubt, Radiohead, even Metallica.

Of course there is plenty of music that wasn't written with children in mind that will still get baby jumpin' and give the somewhat discerning parent auditory relief. Among our family-friendly faves are oldies but goodies like "Rockin' Robin" by Bobby Day and "Alley-Oop" by The Hollywood Argyles and the retro-styling of The Puppini Sisters. But it was ska music that motivated AS to dance for the first time, starting with a bobbing of the head that worked its way down to his tapping toes as he heard the rock-steady beats of Madness, The English Beat and local idols The Pietasters. When The Pietasters play in town you can expect a full house at the 9:30 Club, "Washington's premiere live music venue", but their outdoor performances are just as energized and probably a more comfortable way to introduce ska music to its youngest fans. A MySpace Friend of The Pietasters once posted, "I've been listening to you since I was born."

One of the most memorable early experiences we had with AS was when he first joined in on an unplugged music session at home in our living room by shaking his rattle while his father strummed guitar and I tried my best to keep rhythm by clapping. We have since improvised various percussion instruments which AS especially likes, including cymbals out of pot lids and bongo drums out of recycled 32 ounce yogurt tubs. I also made shakers out of smaller plastic containers with something too large to choke on (like a wooden block) hidden inside that AS could not fit in his mouth when he inevitably discovered he could pry open the lid himself.

If you are looking for a good excuse to get out of the house with your little one, there are oodles of free or cheap live entertainment for families in Washington, DC. Sticky Fingers Bakery in Columbia Heights hosts a Kiddie Happy Hour on some Wednesday mornings. Toddlers can practice their new dancing moves while grownups enjoy discounts on cafe drinks. Become a Facebook Fan of Sticky Fingers to get more info about upcoming acts, dates and times.

Local singer and musician Liz DeRoche, aka "The Singing Lizard", gave a great solo performance on keyboards at Sticky Fingers recently but invited kids to accompany her on toy drums, rattles and microphones. She was very encouraging to the impressionable young musicians, "Good drumming!". Her website features the internet pre-release of her debut album "Alphabeat" (Hurray!). If you are pinching pennies and can't spring for the whole album all at once, download an individual track to play before bed time. Babies are comforted by repetitive sounds and routines. BTW, Liz will also personalize a song or album cover for your child. See her website for details and prices.

Rock-n-Romp! concert series came to our area in 2002 with great bands and inflatable guitars for your little burgeoning air guitarist. "Born in a DC Metro backyard to music-loving parents who wanted to share the live music experience with their kid, Rock-n-Romp continues to bring excellent local music to families in a kid-friendly setting." Thanks for your efforts, Debbie Lee!

There are also affordable music lessons to be had for the artful child. Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan has group Early Childhood Music classes available for children ages zero (yes, prenatal) to five and their caregivers. The multi-disciplinary center also offers classes in visual and digital arts, drama and dance, and creative writing for kids, teens and adults. Sitar largely relies on volunteer artists and arts organizations to provide art education to neighborhood children and adults at its state-of-the-art facility. Tuition is subsidized and based on a family's income, so no family is ever turned away due to inability to pay. AS attends classes at Sitar, so I can attest to how wonderful and affordable this place is!

Of course there are opportunities to catch free live music with your kids at local parks and museums, too. We occasionally check out the legendary drum circle at Meridian Hill Park after 3pm on Sunday afternoons in the upper park. There are also great impromptu people-watching opportunities to be had there on sunny days such as Tai Chi or yoga practitioners, dogs catching Frisbees, pick-up soccer games, fathers and sons tossing footballs, college students hula-hooping, and families picnicking on the grass.

Another artful parent recommended the free music classes for young children at First Baptist Church of Washington, DC on 16th Street, NW on Friday mornings. I haven't checked it out myself yet but would love to learn more. Please leave a comment below, if you know anything about this.

Once children are old enough to express a preference for a certain style of music I feel parents should just get out of their way -or join in- even if it is Raffi. Until then, we'll expose AS to a wide enough variety of kid and adult-friendly music that we won't feel remiss in our obligations as artful parents.


  1. Wow! Lots of great music and ideas! Too bad you aren't doing reviews for places in NoVA. Yesterday J, R and their two friends were dancing to the Sugar Plum Fairy music in our kitchen. If you play it....they will dance!

  2. Looking forward to seeing you and your little one at the next Sticky Fingers show!

    -Liz aka The Singing Lizard

  3. After listening to The Singing Lizard's CD time and again, seeing her live was even more fun for AS and myself. He looked at me and began bobbing his head as soon as she began singing as if to say, "Hey! She's playing our favorite song!".

    Following this posting, NPR ran a story on bands who have recently released albums for kids including "A Family Album" by The Verve Pipe. As it turns out, this is a demographic that has been virtually untapped by the music industry until now. Lucky for us!



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