Alum Jim Gill uses music to engage parents and children in play

In a studio at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois, Jim Gill is producing his first-ever music video for his song “Foot Notes.” Standing on a vast green screen that hangs from the ceiling and sprawls over the floor, he coaches Erika and Layla, a mother and daughter, on their parts. “This one’s called ‘hot foot,’ so I need you to hop from one foot to the other, like you’re on burning hot coals.”

Layla smiles widely to let him know she gets it.

Jim nods to his director, Mike Dutka, and steps off set to watch the monitor beside his wife, Sue.

Mike quiets the set and calls out, “Hot foot, take one. Music, go.”

In the back of the studio, a young audio technician cues up the song. Erika and Layla hop across the set, mock-wincing all the way, their toes barely making contact with the floor. At the other side they stop and high-five.

When the music cuts, Jim looks at Sue and takes a deep breath. “Rock. On!”

The other parents and children waiting for their scenes break off playing and applaud. The day is off to a good start. In short order the camera is rolling again as Erika and Layla make their way back across the set, this time trudging through imaginary snow.

And so they go, from “hot foot” to “cold feet” to “snow shoes” to “hoof beat.” With each pass they interpret the rhyming, stream-of-conscious lyrics into movements. For “sleepwalk” they shuffle, arms outstretched and eyes closed. For other words, like “gum shoe,” there are multiple possibilities. Erika and Layla strain to lift their feet off a sticky floor. Later, another mother and daughter will turn that phrase into a hot-on-the-trail search for clues.

This word play and, more importantly, parent/child interaction, are the heart of Jim Gill’s popular music—music that emerged from more than 20 years experience in running playgroups for special needs children.

Gill’s first songs were written for those groups, to engage parents and children in play together. What he discovered was, at the time, something of a revelation. The children were willing and able to learn and do far more complex activities when they played with their parents than when they were in standard therapy sessions.

The key, Gill says, was creating an opportunity for the parent and child to do something that was a little more difficult than what the child could have done alone. An obvious benefit was that the child learned to do something new. But Gill realized that something far more important had happened.

“For children, the interactions created a special attachment to learning because they had someone they love experience it with them,” he says.

It was around that time that Gill became a student at Erikson, and his studies gave a name to and reinforced the value of the “relationship-based” approach to learning he had discovered.

Gill realized that his model would benefit all children and families, and he started performing concerts and writing music and books that would bring the experience to wider audiences. His reputation has grown steadily since, and between his family concerts and appearances at early childhood education conferences, Gill has now brought his style of music and play to 42 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands. His CDs are fixtures in the collections of more than 1,500 libraries throughout the country.

On occasion he gets a request to perform at a mall or Christmas party, the type of gig where he is expected to keep a group of children entertained while their parents are somewhere else. He declines.

“Long ago I decided I’m only going to do this in places that have something to do with child development,” he says.

Seeing parents and children playing together while listening to his music is rewarding, and while staying true to his purpose has cost him a little notoriety,he does have the satisfaction of knowing he makes a big impact wherever he goes. His Wall on Facebook is a running list of two types of messages: “Thank you for the awesome show!” and “When are you coming to our town?”

Gill’s books and music also have received high praise. His first album, Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes, received the Parent’s Choice Award from the American Library Association (ALA) and recognition as one of its “notable children’s recordings.” His latest book/CD, A Soup Opera, was his fourth work to receive an ALA award (see below).

Gill’s current project has proven to be his most complex series of compositions yet, venturing into free-association lyrics and freestyle musical accompaniment.

“This isn’t a traditional music video. It’s not meant to be another way to just entertain your kids,” he says. “This is more of an instructional video to teach parents and children how to play this game. Hopefully, they’ll watch it once and say, ‘Let’s go play it ourselves.’”

Layla is now between scenes, lying on the ground, apparently making dust angels. Her mother, Erika, enjoys a muffin and some coffee with her friend Gina. Before this shoot Erika had never heard of Gill’s music or books, but as a preschool teacher, she quickly sees their value.

“The kids are having so much fun they don’t even realize they’re learning—but they are!” she says. “They’re learning to think creatively, to move and react spontaneously to sounds. It’s all pretty high-level abstract thinking.”

Gina, an instructor at the dance academy and a close friend of Jim and Sue, regularly uses Gill’s music in her beginner classes. “I’m a big believer that kids learn by following adults’ examples. So, when they can’t figure out a move by themselves, they can still learn to do it by following my lead.”

A moment later director Mike Dutka calls everyone back to set. Gina takes her daughter’s hand. “Talia, we’re gonna tiptoe!”

“Oooohhh!” Talia squeals, and together they join the pack running to the green screen. The group’s socked feet are a blur of colors: red and white zigzags, pink and purple and rainbow stripes, multi-colored hearts, and one pair that looks like pig faces, complete with protruding snouts.

The one person conspicuously absent is Jim Gill himself, who remains behind the camera. On another day, he’ll shoot some brief scenes with his band, but he insists that the video focus on the parents and children.

“If I were a children’s performer, I would have to be on camera the whole time because the video would be about selling me and the music,” he says.

“But I’m not a children’s performer. I’m not even really a musician. I’m a child development specialist. I use music to work with children and families because it’s a great way to get them playing together.”

Gill thinks back to when he recorded his first song, “The Sneezing Song.” His producer wanted to create a melody for the “a- a- achoo,” to make it more musical. Jim argued against it, knowing that shouting “achoo!” was the payoff kids would look forward to. To sing it would mean losing the fun of making that noise.

Finally, his producer blurted, “This isn’t a song!”

Gill thought for a moment and said, “It’s not a song, I guess. It’s music play. I’ve liked that description ever since: music play. I’ve never tried to trademark it or anything, because that’s not my style. Frankly, no one owns play. It’s free.”