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Tuning in to Kids : Peter Alsop and Hap Palmer educate children, parents and teachers with their wise and funny messages.

July 09, 1993|ROBERTA G. WAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberta Wax is a frequent contributor to The Times

If music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, imagine what it can do for children.

Be it a restful lullaby, a jumpy alphabet song or a rockin' exercise tape, music can reach and teach children, Topanga Can yon-based performers Peter Alsop and Hap Palmer agreed. For more than 20 years, the two have been making award-winning music for youngsters.

"Music is one more tool for the family toolbox," said Alsop, who has a doctorate in educational psychology and has taught elementary school and worked with emotionally disturbed adolescents. He uses music to reach not only children but parents, educators, therapists and other health-care professionals.

Alsop believes that it's important to include grown-ups as well as kids because "we can only help people achieve a level of clarity that we have about ourselves." If parents have feelings they don't want to look at, he explained, they can't coach their kids in dealing with those emotions.

Based on its relevance for parents, Alsop calls his music--which ranges from the zany to the serious and substantial--"covert parenting music." Mixed in with the wise and funny messages for children are helpful hints for Mom and Dad. One example is Alsop's recent video, "Wake Up!" which co-stars actor John Ritter and the nonprofit organization Kidpower. The video teaches children how to protect themselves from abuse and abduction, yet reminds parents to listen--and believe--when children say they are scared.

Because of his approach, Alsop is in great demand at adult conferences, where he shows teachers, therapists and other professionals how to use various techniques and mediums, including music, "to get information to kids with feelings connected."

Palmer, who holds a master's degree in dance education, is a former teacher. Years ago, when Palmer was using music to teach mentally handicapped children, he realized that the youngsters didn't like to sit still. He gave up trying to soothe them with folk songs and started writing music. His aim, he said, was "to tap the natural desire children have to be physically involved," while including subtle lessons about colors, directions and body parts. Soon, he, too, was working with educators, showing them how to integrate movement and music into their curricula.

Palmer noted that while "children don't necessarily make the distinction between learning and just having fun," there's no reason why music shouldn't be fun. He added: "Music should also be enjoyed for music's sake. It's not terrible to present a message, but I don't think they have to have one either."

Palmer and Alsop, exceptional in the children's music field because of their educational leanings, have distinct yet remarkably similar styles. Both are tall and lanky, work in Topanga Canyon and each has reared four children. Both have penned tunes that go from the downright silly to the soothing or message-oriented.

Alsop, for example, takes listeners on a trip through his sister's nose in his tune "Safari," then urges them in a softly appealing song to "Heal the Bay." In "Gotta Lotta Livin' to Do," he answers questions about AIDS. Palmer, whose master's thesis was titled "How to Enhance Movement Vocabulary Through Music," gets kids moving with "Can a Cherry Pie Wave Goodby?" and lulls them to sleep with "A Child's World of Lullabies," a medley that mingles original tunes with standard lullabies from around the world.

Palmer acknowledged that it's always tricky trying to teach values or convey messages through music because not everyone may agree on the message. One of the few negative reactions he has received, he said, was a nasty letter objecting to "Frances Had a Football," a song about a girl who enjoys football and a boy who plays with dolls.

Alsop's belief is that music should teach today's sophisticated children "to think and explore their feelings" rather than giving them "simplistic messages like 'Listen to your mommy and daddy and be good.' "

Neither Alsop, who lives in Topanga Canyon, nor Palmer, who lives in Woodland Hills, are frustrated pop singers, but both admit to having had early desires to be entertainers for grown-ups. Alsop, who as a graduate student at Columbia University strummed guitar in the park hoping that strangers would shower him with coins, has recorded adult folk-rock albums. Palmer laughingly admitted to wanting to be a mainstream pop singer in his 20s, and insisted that writing for children is no easy substitute.

"The craft of lyric writing is just as demanding, no matter what kind of songs you write," he explained. "People think it's easier than it is. Lyric writing in general can really take a lot of time."

He said he doesn't want to do anything but kid stuff because "pop material has a limited range of subjects to write about, but for children, I can write about a broader range of topics. I can write about hippos, clowns, ants, letters of the alphabet, taking your diapers off. It's fascinating to me, and I don't think of it as writing down, or writing less."

Although the children's market has yet to match pop music in sales and recognition, it has been making gains in both areas, which has encouraged the emergence of new talents.

"More people are paying attention to it now because there is more money to be made," Alsop conceded. Palmer, who said his music is better known in schools than by the general public, noted that when he made his first juvenile record in 1969, "not a lot of people were doing children's music." It's wonderful, he added, "to see children responding to and getting joy out of what you've done. I feel I'm making a contribution, and that has a lot of meaning to me."

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