by Dan Cohen
When I agreed to perform for seven-, eight-, and nine- year-olds, snow still howled down the corridors of February — okay, this year’s February was more lamb-like — and, there still being six months to prepare, I was able to breathe in the sweet scent of possibility.
My usual demo is four- to five- year-olds. I am to this audience what The Boss is to middle aged East Coast men, what One Direction is to tween girls. These kids are nice; they are kids. I am comfortable playing music for them. I am good at making them laugh and sing and dance and have fun, and they are good at being free, at allowing themselves to laugh and sing and dance and have fun.
Seven- to nine- year-olds are different — and when I say seven- to nine- year-olds I especially mean eight- and nine- year-olds. Ask anyone familiar with these creatures to describe them; what you will hear most often is, simply, THE ABSOLUTE WORST. This is when the bloom of their innocent five- and late six-year-old selves is not just behind them but gone, utterly crushed by some weird funhouse-mirror self-consciousness. They haven’t quite got puberty to occupy them yet but they’re emphatically NOT BABIES and they’re suddenly aware, acutely aware, of every other kid in their class, of every leaf that falls from every tree and every stitch of clothing they wear and every blade of grass crushed underfoot with every tread, acutely and mistakenly self-aware, morbidly fearful of standing out in any way, and suddenly, from one day to the next, it seems, possessing a kind of devilish glee in contradicting and countermanding and — let’s just be honest — tormenting grown-ups in ways, and through language, that hadn’t even been invented six months ago.
And yet, even as a parent of three children who were once seven, eight, and then nine, one who knows what this age means, I was glibly, even supremely confident. Why? I was quick on my feet, sure. I had a great rapport with kids, yes. But my ace in the hole was something called a GyroTech. A GyroTech, which I had recently purchased, is a machine which allows you to create sounds and manipulate audio in ways uncontemplatable a decade ago, or even six months ago, the salesman assured me. “And the thing is,” he said, pressing a button and calling up a sort of low wail which he could then apply to each note of a full-sized 88-key keyboard, “it’s so easy to use.” He played a sort of moaning cadenza, like a sleepy cow mating with a broken lawnmower. “The user interface is completely revamped, completely intuitive now. It’s incredible. Try it.” I sat down and doodled cow-gargling-with-razor music for a few minutes. Everything worked great. Of course I didn’t want to write cow razor gargling music. Who would? But the intuitive user interface promised a whole raft, a whole promised land of new possibilities. And, kids love electronic music. Music made by machines is cool! If I could come up with just one or two bits that involved hip-hop beats, if I could just come up with one bit of business– record a kid and then play it back an octave higher, or lower, or like a bird, or a cow gargling with razors– I was golden, man. How hard could it be?
It was this kind of magical thinking in February that turned, in June, driving to Cleveland to begin my tour, into a kind of disturbed, obsessive, hard-blinking haze. I gripped the steering wheel with a desperate white-knuckled intensity as I wracked my brain to come up with something, anything to perform for the seven- to twelve- year-olds that wouldn’t have them rolling their eyes and then giggling uncontrollably and finally laughing me off the stage. Luckily, I had a family show booked in Cleveland. That’s a breeze. Parents are sheep. Tired sheep. But then, after a couple of pre-k’s along the way, I was to go up against the dark side, a whole room of 120 or so third through fifth graders, at a camp in Kansas City. And I had nothing. Nothing!
What do I do? They’re going to eat me alive. They’re going to literally eat me alive, and in the pool of my headlights on the endless, lightless path of I-80 through Pennsylvania past midnight I saw them coming at me, horrific gaggles of them, tow-headed, freckle-faced, laughing and giggling and rolling their eyes and telling their teacher that I SUCKED, right after they told me I SUCKED, right in the middle of my program. What do I do? What in god’s name do I do?
Dan Cohen, aka Danna Banana, a local family performer, is on tour through the mid-west and west this month. Stay tuned for more entries into his road journal exploring the ways music functions in the lives of children and families.