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Music for kids' sake

Teacher-turned performer employs favorite classroom techniques in act.

Article by Chris Juzwik. Photos by Joseph W. Jackson III

Reprinted with permission from the Wisconsin State Journal, October 24, 2002.

The fable goes something like this: 35-year-old guy wakes up one morning, decides it's time to take a chance in his life, ditch the alarm clock wake-up call, cold- turkey leave the workaday world and follow a dream.

Becomes successful doing what he loves, loving what he does. Misses his old job, but continues to make a difference in his new one. Lives happily ever after.

Never happens, right? Movie script, right? Wrong. Meet David Landau. "I just figured," Landau says, "that if I never tried it, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. "

So the man who had been a first-grade teacher in Fitchburg for 11 years got his boss's blessing and took a year off from teaching to work full time as a children's performer. His first CD, "David Landau and Friends - Music for Kids," is a joyous mix of rhyming and sing- along storytelling. And Landau will perform at an Orpheum Theatre concert Friday morning, perfect for families looking for something to do during the WEAC teachers convention.

"I still liked teaching," he says. "I wasn't burned out. But once I got the idea of pursuing music, and started thinking about it, I couldn't get it out of my mind."

Landau, a Shullsburg native, UW-Madison graduate and east side resident, said his girlfriend, Wendy Brotherton, an organic farmer, was primarily responsible for his wandering career eye.

"She was the catalyst," he says. "She didn't suggest it, but I never knew anybody like her, who didn't get up and get to work every day. And there's a whole culture of those people in this town. Mid-30s, just freestylin'. No full-time job, some days work and some days not. She said, 'you could do that' and I said, 'Yeah, that sounds good.'"

Landau said he actually had the epiphany years earlier, during a school event at the Madison Civic Center. With several hundred kids in attendance for a show, there was a delay in waiting for one more school group to arrive. Landau had an idea on how to better pass the time. He took the stage in the Starlight Room, and began to perform.

"After it was over, I thought, hmmm. . it worked for 200 kids just the same as it worked for 20 kids in my classroom."

"To play for kids, you sort of have to know kids," he says. "I don't think I would have been able to do this without 12 years of teaching There's no way I could get their attention, keep it, know when they're getting restless. ... Everything I know is what I learned from teaching. I can basically take my favorite parts of 12 years of teaching and put it into 45 minutes — the songs, the dances, the jokes and the teaching points. Like how practice is important, how it's fun to learn new things, learn from your mistakes."

The tricky part for Landau hasn't been the performing aspect, but the business end. "I'm working for myself now," he says. "If I don't try to get something done, contact somebody new, do something, I'm not gonna get paid. It's great because the alarm clock doesn't go off and I'm not stressed out, but I don't just wake up and go for bike rides."

And for his "other" musical side, he continues as a member of the Cork 'n' Bottle String Band, a bluegrass outfit that has made Wednesday night gigs at Ken's Bar a veritable Madison staple.

"It was always so nice during the school year, after school, to go into the dark bar, where things are very different," he says. "It's more different playing with other people. Seven guys, the sum is greater than the parts. When I'm playing for kids myself, it isn't more pressure, but more responsibility. I sweat a lot."

Landau's strategy for engaging young children in music is simple: "They don't want it to be too complex. They like to follow the story of a song, use their imaginations, put themselves in the story. If there's too much crazy imagery, they're lost. On the other hand, if it's too simple, it might be corny."

He admits that he worries a bit about how adults will react to his children's music. "I had a friend at WORT who played one of my songs, 'Under the Trees,' on the radio, and later I heard some friends say, 'Hey, I heard your song on the radio.' I was like, 'Uh... that's not for you.' "

His Orpheum show Friday "is coming together nicely," Landau says. "I'd like to figure out how to do more of that sort of thing, and do it in other towns, too."

Landau is booked through November, performing school shows. He hopes to do at least 80 shows this school year; in March, he has to make a decision on whether to return to teaching at Stoner Prairie Elementary School in Fitchburg.

"David's classroom was always full of love, laughter and music," says Verona Area School District Superintendent Bill Conzemius. "He cherished the time with young children and found ways to connect with each child in his room. David has a wonderful sense of humor that resulted in classroom activities replete with joy. David is missed and we look forward to his return."

Meanwhile, Landau forges ahead, trying to make the most of his window of opportunity.

"I'm going to ride it out," he said. "I wouldn't want to predict the future, but I hope I can continue to do this. I miss teaching in that I miss getting to know 20 little kids. But getting my word out to 400 at a time like I can now?

"I'll take that trade any time."

Copyright © 2002- David Landau
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