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February 1, 2022IM -
After nearly half a century of music education, Allan “Al” Hirsch of Local 76-494 (Seattle, WA) has firm and well-informed opinions about the best way to approach it. His first rule is to keep it fun. “Basically, I teach singing to children,” he says. “Kids learn how to do that naturally, but over time they unlearn it because of people who don’t do it properly.”
Hirsch says he has developed a system based on Italian opera chants, which are the five vowel sounds of Italian opera. “By singing these, you sing quite well.”
It’s not as dry as it sounds. “I get the kids to sing scales with these sounds. I incorporate poems created for the scales, and then songs—simple things that get them to learn by making it fun.” Many of the songs come from a surprising source: folk singer Woody Guthrie, who—unbeknownst to many—had whole volumes of children’s songs to his credit.
Guthrie is an unsurprising source for Hirsch, who doubles as a folk singer himself when not doing the children’s shows. He came to music relatively late. Born in New York, he grew up in Pennsylvania, went to Penn State, and has been in Seattle since then.
“As a little boy, my parents gave me a stack of classical 45 RPM records, mostly marches,” he recalls. “While listening, I’d build things with blocks. So, I associated music with fun pretty early on.” Another big influence was Elvis Presley. “I was singing Elvis songs at the age of five, but I never took it seriously ’til I took voice classes in college.”
Hirsch picked up the guitar in his 20s, and gradually gravitated to doing children’s music. “My wife and I started a Montessori school, and that’s when I discovered Woodie Guthrie. His simplicity was a big part of the appeal. He used to say that if you play more than three chords, you’re just showing off.”
This led Hirsch to start writing his own music. In 1991, Hirsch won the Parent’s Choice Gold Award for his first original song and he picked up a second award in 1995.
Since those days, the children’s shows have expanded to include teaching events in schools, libraries, senior centers, fairs, and festivals. Appearances incorporate games, stories, and an ever-changing cast of puppet characters, all presented through his alter ego, Alleyoop.
“Some of the puppets are commercially-made, and I’ve made some out of stuffed animals. I bring different ones every week, and they each have different songs and stories, some material from Guthrie, some original songs by me.” Hirsch stresses that the storytelling element is a powerful tool in education. “Kids will often talk to a puppet before they’ll talk to you,” he says.
Alleyoop shows have taken him all over South America, Canada, and Hawaii, including three years of tours in South America and Mexico, showing kids how to sing English in a natural manner. “I can get three-year-olds up and doing stuff,” he enthuses. “The key is to make it fun and playful.”
One show component incorporates Hirsch on the xylophone for a segment called Xylophonie Macaroni. Hirsch says, “Kids love funny words. I also use an Appalachian dulcimer, and they sing along.”
Typical classes last 30-40 minutes, with eight different elements. “It’s a progression, and they learn more songs as we go. But I always quit before the kids are ready to quit. It’s about never forcing them, lots of regular repetition, and keeping it short and sweet,” he says.
Another show is the popular Amazing Whistles of the World. “I have a whistle from the Titanic, and ones made from bone, stone, and animal teeth. Train whistles, theater whistles—you name it. Whistles are universal, and people are really fascinated by them.”
Since the pandemic began, Hirsch has expanded his activities to include more shows at nursing homes and eldercare facilities. “It’s remarkable that, in their 80s, all the songs they learned in elementary school are what stick with them. So, I pull out all the songs they learned when they were younger.”
Hirsch credits the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF) for helping make this work possible. “When I joined the AFM years ago, it was in the hope that I would get more work,” he says. “I was looking for a support group, and there were other benefits including insurance for my equipment and for liability, which I absolutely need for my performances. These are great benefits you can get from the union.”
Hirsch also discovered the benefits of the MPTF. “It’s a great service, making it possible to present free concerts for seniors, military, or children. I believe it will be vital after the pandemic. The music industry will need a lot of help.”
Hirsch says the MPTF has been the focus of several meetings at his local. “Live music is still crucial. Even the parents at my children’s programs have said how much they missed having live music,” he says.
Hirsch says one of his biggest rewards is seeing some of the kids he’s worked with over the years go on to make music of their own. “Some of them are now master musicians,” he says. “I certainly won’t take credit for that, but I’m happy that I gave them the opportunity to make music. If you love something, you can convey it in a way that makes it fun.”