In Julie Ingram's music class, freaky little miracles happen. Watch closely. You might spot a diapered kid drumming sticks on the floor in perfect rhythm with Ingram's guitar strumming, or hear a little girl who can't form sentences singing in tune. While most kids look like Elaine from Seinfeld when they dance, every once in a while, a babe in Ingram's class finds the beat.
Ingram is the creator of Scruffin Rock, a music program for toddlers, which teaches music theory through children's books and albums featuring the Scruffin characters. She also offers a Scruffin Rock class at various community spaces around L.A. Check her trunk — it's crammed with mini instruments, egg shakers, rhythm sticks, a parachute, various toddler dance-party accessories and, of course, her guitar.
Ingram is a classically trained musician and vocalist with a master's degree in music and a Juilliard arts internship under her belt, but her repertoire departs from the typical toddler standards. She pulls a great deal of inspiration from the roots of rock & roll. Her first children's album included songs inspired by Chuck Berry, the Go-Gos, Big Mama Thornton and Neil Young.
And while she loves to rock your toddler, traditional folk tunes, classical music, lullabies and even songs in other languages work their way into her track lists. “There aren't any songs I use that I haven't really thought about,” Ingram says. “Each song serves its particular purpose, whether it's rhythmic, melodic, upbeat, pensive, historical, beautiful, exhibits an unusual timbre or is a combination of these and other elements.”
Ingram claims 1970s kid rock as a big influence as well, nodding to projects like Free to Be … You and Me, Really Rosie and the Peanuts gang (in their heyday). It's easy to see the connection: The Scruffins are a bit like Charlie Brown and his pals. Maybe a little more cerebral. One, Mavis, sports a beret, and appears to wear knockoff Uggs. Ingram worked into Mavis' storybook an “echo-chant” technique that demonstrates rhythm: “Whoosh-rattle-whoosh-rattle whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” go the autumn leaves, and the kids repeat.
Jimi Hendrix inspired the tale of Roman and His Spanish Guitar. Ingram read that when the rock legend was a boy, he used to jam out on a broomstick. Little Roman rocks a broomstick, too, until his landlady gives him a real guitar.
For Ingram, an authentic musical experience is important. She's averse to the synthesizer-heavy children's albums produced today. Her criterion: “Is this going to make you feel like you're walking through a mall, or is this going to make you want to learn to play the banjo?”
The two children's CDs she's recorded were completely acoustic. “There's a very 'perfect' quality that synthetic music can achieve. I'm someone who likes to hear the human element behind recorded music, whether it be a note played by mistake, the squeak of a piano pedal or an involuntary stomp,” she says. “I also feel that it's good for children to hear this type of music — to hear that music doesn't have to be shiny all the time.”
In that vein, Ingram's not on a mission to lead kids to American Idol grandeur. She sees our culture's musical appetite as more performance-based than participation-based, but to her, children's music shouldn't be about churning out little superstars. “This is about participating, trying things out, experimenting and seeing what happens.”