Toddler Opera

Cynthia Compton - April 24, 2019

We play music in our store, as many retailers do. It helps keep the energy level high, gives the staff something to sing (and sometimes dance) along to, and seems to direct and lift the mood of customers and our interactions. While some stores use a Spotify channel or another streaming service, we have always maintained a somewhat eclectic mix of CD’s that we also offer for sale. On any given day at 4 Kids, you might be treated to the cast album of a Broadway show, the greatest hits of Sesame Street, or the latest Disney collection in karaoke version. My own musical taste runs toward instrumental classical recordings and light opera, so depending on which staff member has store opening responsibilities, the musical mix is as varied as the midwestern weather forecast. (Oh, you like this one? Wait five minutes… we’ll change.) I have always encouraged the closing crew to select whatever they want to listen to during evening clean-up and restocking chores, which happen after the front doors are locked. It’s a great staff perk, but it does require that I remember to TURN DOWN THE STEREO before I pop in the first CD of the day…. or be treated to blasting ABBA songs, the current favorite of our high school employees. You’re not really awake until you’ve heard “Dancing Queen” at level 8….

My favorite musicians, however, are our young customers themselves. Most kids sing, and often do so without regard to such stuffy adult barriers as pitch, meter and rhyme…. a music form we have named “toddler opera.” This is the delightful stage when vocal narration of a child’s thoughts are sung a cappella, while happily playing at the train table or play kitchen. These performers are usually age 2 to 4, old enough to have a spoken/sung vocabulary to describe their thoughts, but before that sorrowful day when they suddenly look around and worry what other people must be thinking of them. The purity and emotional content of these narratives are among my favorite kid moments to witness, and completely derail my bookseller productivity, as I stand rooted behind the register, straining just a little bit to hear, but unwilling to move closer lest I disturb the performer. A recent guest in our store treated us to the following drama, in three acts:
SETTING: the train table at 4 Kids Books
CAST: Devon, age 3 (AND A HALF!… this part is critical) VOCAL RANGE: Soprano, with some animal sounds required
ACT ONE: Breakfast
Sung in monotone: “I had Cheerios today, Cheerios, yes I had Cheerios in the bowl with Paw Patrol. I like Chase and Marshall, but Abbie likes Skye, but Abbie is my sister, my sister, she is not me.”
Added in varied melody: “She is a girl, she is a girl, she is bigger and she goes to school and when she goes to school on the bus I play with her kitchen but she doesn’t know and she likes Skye and she is bigger.”
(scene change: other side of train table)
ACT TWO: Self Awareness (actor’s note: this is a LOT like Hamlet’s soliloquy, delivered with the same seriousness and self reflection)
Sung in improvisational melody, focused on the upper range of vocals (squeaking is acceptable):
“I like to be me, and to play trains, and to be good. And I am here this today, on today, and playing. And my mom is over there and looking and we are buying some stuff and if I’m good I will get a surprise but it will be a car and a book because my mom says books are good. Books are good. BOOKS ARE GOOOOOOOOOOD. And I am good. And trains are good. And I will go outside and see the giraffe, but I will not cry and it will be ok and I will get a treat. Chugga Chugga WOOF!” ¬†(repeat entire verse in variable tempo and pitch)
ACT THREE: Celebration 
“I have a car! And a book. AND A CAR! And we will go and I will play with my friend Ruthie and I will show her my car but not my book because she can’t read and I can’t no I can’t but I know what Piggie says and we will play and be Paw Patrol. And we will go to the park and the playground and the swing and eat ……… ¬† and I will be tired and take some naps but not today.”
(end scene)
One of my favorite musical moments in the shop happened a summer or two ago. Overlapping staff vacation schedules had left me with a marathon open-to-close shift, with a stretch of holding down the store all by myself in the middle of a hot July day when the air conditioning was just not keeping up the opening and closing of the front doors, as summer reading kids stopped by to drop off book reviews and pick up prizes. It was just HOT in there, and we were all sleepy. Lunch was not an option, and breakfast long forgotten, but I fueled my flagging energy level with my own music… a 1968 recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong performing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. The entire store full of customers was treated to Ella’s effortless phrasing and Louie’s emotional vocals… and one young friend, age 5, stood motionless at the building table through the entire piece. He held himself completely still, while the children around him rolled trucks and flopped on bean bag chairs to page through stories, head just slightly tipped to one side as he listened. I walked nearer as the song ended, ostensibly to pick up scattered books on the floor, but mostly to catch a glimpse of his face.
“Oh, Mrs. Cynthia…. play that summer song again. The one with the princess and the lion voice.”
And that is opera, children’s bookstore style. Sometimes heard over the speakers of the store stereo, and sometimes in the imagination of a child.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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