Musician works to keep kids entertained, learning

Elizabeth Davies

There’s one thing Rockford native Jim Gill really likes to do when he goes to work: play.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that this 44-year-old father of two actually does play for a living. A singer, songwriter and author, Gill aims to give parents and children silly songs and fun stories to explore and play with together.

“Everything I do is meant for adult-child play — that’s where development takes place,” said Gill, who has a master’s degree in child development. “Music is the perfect context for adults and children to play together. When adults are interacting with young children … little ones not only develop their minds, it literally builds their brains.”

Gill’s latest creation, a 28-page children’s picture book titled “A Soup Opera,” combines music and reading. A CD is included with each book, offering an orchestrated performance that can be played as you read the story about a man who can’t eat his soup.

The $24 book, available at Rockford’s Wonderland Books & Toys, was inspired by a performance Gill did with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in 2005. During that concert, Gill looked out from the stage and saw a mother and child singing along to his music.

“If I can get that going on between parents and kids, how can I bring that into their living rooms?” he thought.

So in between lectures to teachers and concerts for children, Gill began working on his new book.

“Somebody who studied business would say, ‘There were only 1,500 people at that concert. How can we market this for a larger audience?’ ” Gill said. “But for me, I think small. I thought, ‘I have to do something that gets this happening in their homes.’

“That concert really was the origin of this whole thing.”

Gill celebrated the book’s official release in Rockford on Jan. 31 with a family singalong and book signing at Wonderland. It is his second book: “May There Always Be Sunshine” won the 2002 Book Award from the Philadelphia Children’s Museum. He also has produced five musical recordings from children, earning awards from the American Library Association and the Parents’ Choice Foundation.

Gill first began working with children as a teenager. He remembers helping out at Rockford Park District’s Camp Sunshine, then left for college and began leading musical play groups for special needs children.

“The therapists on staff started saying, ‘Did you see what so-and-so did? We can’t even get him to do it in therapy. Who knew they even had this ability?’ ” Gill remembers. “I quickly decided this was all I was interested in: play. It’s an odd thing to study, but that’s my life.”

Today, Gill lives in suburban Chicago and essentially does the same work. But instead of hosting a musical group of 20 people, he might stand before thousands at a concert. It’s quite the feat for someone with virtually no music training.

“I’m really not a musician,” he said. “What I quickly learned was … the more I do on the banjo, the more people would sit back and watch. For young children, it’s more important for them to get involved.

“So it doesn’t take a lot of musical talent, it just takes a different way of looking at it.”

Rockford Register Star