Author Spotlight on Jim Gill
For this 15-minute podcast, Teresa Walls, ALSC Blog Manager, interviews Jim Gill, a musician, author and child development specialist with a graduate degree from the Erikson Institute of Chicago. So far, three of his works have been recognized by ALSC committees:
- Jim Gill Sings Moving Rhymes for Modern Times, a 2007 Notable Children’s Recording.
- Jim Gill Makes it Noisy in Boise, Idaho, a 1997 Notable Children’s Recording.
- Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes, a 1994 Notable Children’s Recording.
Jim shares how he began his work in music play, workshops with adults, the importance of adult/child play, as well as his current project, A Soup Opera.
Below is an edited transcript of the podcast:
[beginning of "Oh Hey Oh Hi Hello" by Jim Gill]
from Jim Gill Makes It Noisy in Boise, Idaho
© Jim Gill. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
ALSC Blog: Oh hey, oh hi, hello and welcome to podcast 8 of the Association for Library Service to Children, A-L-S-C or ALSC blog’s podcast. My name is Teresa Walls and I’m the manager of the ALSC Blog. And I’m pleased to have with us for this podcast, Jim Gill. That song you heard, “Oh Hey Oh Hi Hello,” is from Jim Gill Makes it Noisy in Boise, Idaho. It was recognized by the 1997 Notable Children’s Recording Committee.
Jim is a musician, author and child development specialist with a graduate degree from the Erikson Instiute of Chicago. In 1994 the ALSC Notable Children’s Recording Committee recognized his album, Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and other Contagious Tunes. In 2007, Jim was recognized the Notable Children’s Recording Committee for Jim Gill Sings Moving Rhymes for Modern Times.
First, I asked Jim about his personal history and how it has informed his work.
Jim Gill: [laughs] My personal history is almost tied up with my work. I guess I was 20 years old. I was in college. I had been working with children. I was hired by an agency, a family support agency, that served children with special needs, but it was a family based program. They hired me to do these weekly play groups which were based in music, so I now call it music play. They were weekly play groups and who came were kids with special needs, anywhere from babies up to 8 years old. Brothers and sisters came so it was kids with and without special needs. And also moms and dads came. And grandmas. Everybody would sit on the floor in a big circle and we’d play.
I think originally when they set up these play groups they thought, oh, this will be a fun thing we can do as an extra part of our program, but what started to happen was over the years of doing these over and over, some of the parents started saying that they were seeing abilities. Now, again, I was 20 years old, so this was 24 years ago. [laughs]. One of the things they started noticing was the parents said we are seeing abilities from our kids with special needs that we didn’t see at other times, just while we’re watching them play. Another thing that happened was the therapists started to use some of the music in their own therapy sessions, these songs I was singing, because they thought these kids were showing off abilities and developing abilities through this music and through this play in ways that they weren’t typically doing in their therapy sessions. I think best of all, the parents started mentioning that their children with and without special needs were coming from these sessions and playing the games that I was sharing with everyone, together at home.
I was in college studying to be a teacher. I realized that I really enjoyed these play sessions even more and I kept doing them up until a few years back.
In the early ’90s when I went to graduate school, one of the things that was coming out was …oh I should mention, that there were adults and children there. It wasn’t children’s programming. It was family programming. Again, this was in the ’80s. So, when I went to graduate school in the ’90s, people started looking at the brain research and saying, “Isn’t it amazing. What we know develops the brain is interactions between caregivers and children.” That made sense to me scientifically but mostly it made sense to me because I had been engaged in exactly that since I was 20 years old. So, I’ve always been involved in trying to create some sort of opportunities or experiences for adults and children to play together.
ALSC Blog: Now when you were doing these in your 20s with the play groups, were you coming in with things of your own that you had developed?
Jim Gill: You know, in those days it was a whole mix of things. There were a lot of old, traditional finger plays, songs I knew from summer camp, some very traditional kinds of things and those days, when I first started doing it, I strum a banjo now. In those days, I would do finger plays or rhythms, you know, get a beat on your knees, sing-alongs. I would augment it with recorded music. Frankly, the same way a lot of librarians or preschool teachers use my music in circle times or storytimes. The pieces of recorded music that I was using just didn’t match exactly what I was looking for. I was watching the children and seeing sort of what they needed through this kind of music play. I picked up a banjo and started strumming it because I was always a Pete Seeger fan, and started making up my own songs that were, again, these little play games more than anything. That’s really how it all developed.
Most people who do children’s music are musicians first and say, “Oh, I would like to adapt or write some songs for children.” However, I’m coming at differently. Instead of doing music for children, my goal has always been to have the music be a play experience. The music is really with children. I literally make up a lot of these songs sometimes improvisationally with children, then try to craft it later into something that is more of a song. Primarily I work with children and the music is a vehicle for creating those play opportunities.
I like to tell people that the most important musical experiences for children are the experiences where they aren’t listening to a CD but they are singing themselves, creating the music themselves, as opposed to consuming the music. Songs where you don’t need any musical instrument, you just sing with the children, that’s when children use language and sing along the most. That’s really where the language benefit comes from.
I don’t think there is necessarily anything special about music as an activity for children as opposed to all different types of play. I mean, play, in general, is the context where children develop and express abilities across every domain of their development. They show you abilities you don’t see other times when they are playing. They develop abilities while they are playing; you can almost see them working on something. And, most importantly, it’s across the entire spectrum of their development, so the thing about music is that music is one type of play, the kind of play that I am the most interested in, but frankly sitting and reading a book with a little baby on your lap, that’s a play experience. I know that some people like to say, “Oh, no, that’s a literacy experience.” Well, it is, but literacy is literacy play, especially when the baby is mouthing the book and chewing on it, you know, it is a play experience. We shouldn’t be saying, “It’s just a play experience?” It IS a play experience. That’s where children develop abilities. And, so a song of mine is really a context to engage in that kind of active play, whether it is physical play or whether it some kind of a word game, Even better yet, and frankly, my goal always, is to try to keep that kind of play going after the CD is turned off or after you put the book back on the shelf. That there is some sort of play that can continue on afterward between an adult and a child.
ALSC Blog: So, your creative process, in many ways, is a collaborative one, isn’t it?
Jim Gill: The creative process is that I work with children, I watch children. For years, for 20 years, I had the opportunity with these play groups where we made up many of these games really on the spot, well at least the beginning of the games, right on the spot. That “Oh Hey Oh Hi Hello” song, I had a little melody, nothing really much, and there was a little guy in one of my play groups who was trying to get my goat in some ways. He started singing it really angry. He was trying to act up a little bit, frankly. It cracked me up, so I said, “You know, Jonathan, that’s how they sing it Ohio when they are in a bad mood.” We laughed and sang it that way. And since everyone laughed and that was a little game, I said, “Well, how would you sing it if you were sad?” The next thing you know, we had made up this little game on the spot. For me, it begins with that kind of a game experience, but the work for me is how do you turn that into a song or turn that into a book that still conveys that kind of a game.
What’s funny about this is that I was never really meant to be doing this as a show in any way. I started out doing these play groups and then people started asking me after the sessions. (We’d schedule ten weeks of sessions.) There would be a break in between and the parents would say, “Hey, why don’t you come to my kid’s school and do a show?” I’d say, “Do a show? What would I do?” And they would say, “Sing songs.” And that’s why my style of concert isn’t really like show biz, it’s more like a circle time or a library storytime. It’s just like “Hey, everybody, sing along.”
ALSC Blog: How did you start the workshops geared to care providers and librarians? Has that been organic as it’s developed?
Jim Gill: Well, it was before I really should have been doing them, before graduate school or anything like that. One of these places where I led these play groups was a speech and language therapy clinic, and they served a lot of kids with autism there or somewhere in that spectrum of autism. This speech clinic had its own annual conference that they would bring in speakers, and the speech therapists themselves would speak. And one of the speakers they would invite year after year was me to get up and share some of my songs. The sessions went over really well with all the speech pathologists who were there. In those days I didn’t have recordings, I just gave out lyrics to the songs that were mostly to familiar melodies like instead of Skip to My Lou, we sang Stick to the Glue, again, all of these game songs and that is really how I started doing them.
It allows me also when I’m planning for them to think about why I do what I do as opposed to just getting up and singing silly songs or sharing silly stories or whatever, it allows me to remember, “How does this further adult/child play? O.K.” As long as I have that in my mind, that’s always my goal, then I’m on the right track and I feel like I keep doing good work.
A couple of times a year I get a chance to do a concert I do with symphony orchestras.
ALSC Blog: How did that collaboration come together with the symphony orchestra?
Jim Gill: I was narrating years and years ago with a symphony orchestra. I was narrating Carnival of the Animals [composed by Saint- Saens]. I was reading Ogden Nash poems to go with it. The gentleman who was the music director and conductor of the symphony looked out in the audience, and there were lots and lots of preschoolers there. It was a family concert and he rolled his eyes and said, ‘”Oh, the little ones are all here.” I looked at him and said, “That’s a good problem to have.” He said, “I know but they’re too little for some of this music.” And I said, “The problem isn’t really that they came. It’s good that they came. The problem is that you don’t really have anything in your program for them [...] You should have some active music for the little ones.” The guy looked at me and said, “Well, if you come up with some, we’ll do it.” And I said, “All right.” I worked with Steve Rashid who does all my recordings with me and a gentleman who is classically trained, James Falzone, who is a clarinetist and a composer. We came up with this concert which is actually where A Soup Opera in its current form, the book, came out of that concert as well.
ALSC Blog: You want to go ahead and set up the description for what we are going to hear to end our podcast?
Jim Gill: Yeah. I guess I could say that I have a new book and it’s a book/CD combined and it’s called A Soup Opera. Originally it was many years ago, a little story we would dramatize with young children, giving them a chance to act it out. Eventually we started singing it and it became part of the concert with symphony orchestras. We turned it into an opera so we could sing it opera style. I think what librarians will like about it is that it’s a pattern. Young children very quickly will figure out the pattern and be able to read and sing along. So it will be a sing-along little book.
[excerpt of A Soup Opera]
© Jim Gill. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
ALSC Blog: I want to thank you again so much for speaking with me for this podcast.
Jim Gill: Honestly, thanks to the librarians literally all over the country who use my stuff in storytime and keep my music and books in circulation. I certainly appreciate it, so thank you so much.