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A participatory performance

Music is a participatory sport. That’s what Norman Foote believes. The children’s performer has been making his audiences a part of the action for more than 30 years and he’s bringing his skills to the Yukon Arts Centre for The Ready, Set, Howl Masquerade on Oct. 10. 

The event, which encourages kids and their parents to dress up for Halloween, combines play, puppets, stories, spook and, of course, songs. But it won’t just be Foote behind the mic. He’ll be joined by roughly 150 Whitehorse students from various elementary schools in the city.

They’ve been preparing to sing his songs on their own for weeks, in schools and with music teachers. When Foote arrives, they’ll have four days to rehearse together for the first time (“I come and give them direction and go over the stuff like a pep talk.”) before taking the stage as a choir. Though Foote balks at the term “choir.”

“I’ve kind of redefined choir. It’s not your typical choir. I’ve called it ‘Everybody Sings’ and the ‘Big Voice Orchestra’ and ‘The Halloween Howlers. I give directions like ‘howl like a wolf’ and ‘growl like a bear’ and ‘smack your lips like a … ‘“ he laughs. “Well, like whatever smacks its lips.”

Foote himself started performing when he was the same age as many of the kids who will comprise his choir this October, though his audiences may have been smaller. He says he grew up surrounded by music, with parents who listened to Al Jolson and Elvis Presley. When friends and family dropped by their home in Squamish, B.C., his mother encouraged him to get out the guitar and play for people.

It was years before Foote says he realized he was good at entertaining though – not just singing and playing, but offering up little stories and slices of life in his performances. He says he fell into playing for kids while touring Australia and New Zealand in his 20s. There, a job with a New South Wales theatre group introduced him to puppetry, which he enjoyed.

At the age of 34, he put out FootePrints, his first record for kids. The following year, his record If the Shoe Fits, was positively reviewed in Entertainment Weekly. Disney came calling with a record deal. Since then, Foote has put out more than half a dozen albums and worked with Disney and CBC, writing for Shari Lewis, as well as TV shows such as Scoop and Doozie and Backyardigans Live. He has worked with everyone from Fred Penner to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. In 2010, his seventh album, Love My New Shirt, won a Juno. The title track is a catchy tune employing backup singers and bouncy woodwinds to extol the virtues of a flashy new shirt that not only features every colour of the rainbow, but a “button-up collar, I think it makes me look taller.”

One of the things that’s notable about Foote’s performances,is that while they are geared toward kids, there’s humour for adults as well. Partly that’s because Foote sees himself as a bridge between generations, surprising the kids with stories from his youth, and connecting with their parents via those same stories. Partly it’s self-serving, he jokes.  

“I try to entertain myself,” says Foote, who’s now in his 60s. “When you go into doing family entertainment, it’s a whole different ballgame than being a contemporary blues or folk artist. You have to have the heart for it. You can’t really think that it’s an easy deal (just because it’s kids.) It’s not. You have to love that laughter and you have to love getting people to sing. You have to find the songs that you’ve written that are interactive with an audience. And with a large audience too.”

So far, the formula seems to be working for him.

“I’ve been very fortunate to get so much work with this. If I stopped loving it, I’d stop, but I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon,” he says,

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