Mister Rogers, Sesame Street & Jim Henson Introduce Kids to the Synthesizer with the Help of Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby & Bruce Haack

Does your child have a musi­cal instru­ment? That’s good. Tak­en a few music lessons? Even bet­ter. If they’re so inclined, learn­ing music is one of the best things kids can do for their devel­op­ing brains, whether or not they make a career of the endeav­or. But one doesn’t need clas­si­cal train­ing or jazz chops to make music, or even to become a musi­cian. Those skills have served many an elec­tron­ic musi­cian, sure, but many oth­ers have cre­at­ed mov­ing, com­plex music with inge­nu­ity, fine­ly-tuned ears, tech smarts, and wild­ly exper­i­men­tal atti­tudes.

Then there are elec­tron­ic artists, like Bruce Haack, Her­bie Han­cock, and Thomas Dol­by, who com­bined fine musi­cian­ship with all of the above qual­i­ties and made peo­ple stop and won­der, peo­ple who were not nec­es­sar­i­ly fans of elec­tron­ic music, and who did­n’t know very much about it.

None of these artists felt it beneath them to bring their art fur­ther down to earth, to the lev­el of the kids who watched Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood or Sesame Street. On the con­trary, they’re nat­ur­al edu­ca­tors, with a performer’s instinct for tim­ing and audi­ence and a geek’s instinct for high­light­ing the coolest tech­ni­cal bits. But leave it to Mis­ter Rogers him­self, above, to cel­e­brate the music and the play­ful­ness of syn­the­sized sound in his mild-man­nered Cole Porter-ish way, to the accom­pa­ni­ment of a good-old fash­ioned piano and one of his mother’s sig­na­ture hand­knit sweaters, in green.

Above, we have the weird wonky Haack, a musi­cal prodi­gy who stud­ied at Juil­liard, and who loved noth­ing more than mak­ing children’s records with his part­ner, children’s dancer Esther Nel­son, and cre­at­ing musi­cal instru­ments from house­hold objects and hand­wired cir­cuit­ry that was acti­vat­ed by human touch. Fred Rogers was so tak­en with Haack’s play­ful­ness that he had the com­pos­er and Nel­son on a long seg­ment of his show. You may or may not know that Haack’s work was inspired by pey­ote and that he record­ed a rock opera called The Elec­tric Lucifer about a war between heav­en and hell, but you’ll prob­a­bly sense there’s more to him than meets the eye. Rogers and the kids are mes­mer­ized (see Part 2 of the seg­ment here.)

Her­bie Hancock’s appear­ance on Sesame Street oper­ates much more on a get to know you lev­el than the gestalt dance ther­a­py per­for­mance art of Haack and Nel­son. He jams out; charms future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali by turn­ing her name into high-pitched cho­rus of voic­es; and explains the many func­tions of his Fairlight CMI, a dig­i­tal syn­the­siz­er born in the same year as the young actress. The tech­nol­o­gy isn’t near­ly as inter­est­ing as Haack’s home­made curios, giv­en that every one of the Fairlight func­tions can be fit into an app these days. The joy lies in watch­ing the kids warm to Han­cock and the then-new tech­nol­o­gy.

When it comes to Thomas Dolby’s appear­ance on the Jim Hen­son Company’s The Ghost of Faffn­er Hall pro­gram, we are in the posi­tion of the child audi­ence. Dol­by, with his pecu­liar Eng­lish inten­si­ty, plays a mad sci­en­tist char­ac­ter who stares into the cam­era as he demon­strates his col­lec­tion of syn­the­siz­ers, ana­log and dig­i­tal, for view­ers. Dolby’s per­for­mance might have been aid­ed by some real kids to play off of, but his “fly in a match­box” exam­ple will eas­i­ly help you and your young ones under­stand the basic prin­ci­ples at work in syn­the­siz­ing sound. These play­ful tuto­ri­als were made for kids in 1968, 83, and 89 respec­tive­ly, and maybe they can still work mag­ic on young 21st cen­tu­ry minds. But, as Fred Rogers says, “grownups like to play too, sure. And if you look and lis­ten care­ful­ly through this world, you’ll find lots of things that are play­ful.” Few grownups have been bet­ter author­i­ties on the sub­ject.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er­ing Elec­tron­ic Music: 1983 Doc­u­men­tary Offers a Fun & Edu­ca­tion­al Intro­duc­tion to Elec­tron­ic Music

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

Two Doc­u­men­taries Intro­duce Delia Der­byshire, the Pio­neer in Elec­tron­ic Music


Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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