Teaching about real heroes
Singer Jonathan Sprout avoids talking down to children
In his shows on history and self-esteem.

By Gene D'Alessandro
Inquirer Staff Writer

Jonathan Sprout hasn't sold as many recordings as Raffi, or made as many TV appearances as the Wiggles.

Still, the affable singer-songwriter is one of the most popular children's entertainers in the region.

And with more than 250 annual engagements on his calendar, Sprout might be one of the hardest-working children's acts.

"Everybody gets excited when Jonathan Sprout is coming to school," said Matthew Hassick, a fourth grader at George D. Steckel Elementary in Whitehall, Lehigh County.

"We talk about it the whole week," added Matthew, 9, who has taken in two Sprout concerts and is awaiting his third in May. (Steckel holds the record for Sprout shows, 17.)

Celebrated for his upbeat performance style, Sprout prides himself on the educational bent of his programs. He performs shows about American heroes and self-esteem issues ("Dr. Music Confidence Concerts") and conducts songwriter workshops for youngsters.

Mainly through word of mouth, Sprout has forged a successful career. He plays his songs and holds assemblies all over the country, mainly in elementary schools and theaters in the Mid-Atlantic region.

At a recent morning performance in the Lehigh Valley, Sprout made his Hillside School debut. He performed his "American Heroes" concert for about 120 students. The attentive youngsters - kindergartners through sixth graders - sat on the floor of the multipurpose "cafetorium."

First-year teacher Lynda Hassick had seen Sprout perform at her son Matthew's school two years ago. She was so taken with the act that she recommended Sprout come to Hillside, a private school for children with learning disabilities.

"I'll have a little fun adapting my show to this audience," Sprout said before the concert. "I learned to be flexible with all kinds of audiences, so it won't be a problem."

The Hillside students were a bit subdued, but they warmed up when Sprout broke into the zany "Washington's Hat." The room erupted in screams and guffaws when Sprout donned an outrageously oversize, tricorne hat with fluffy plume and modern sunglasses. Holding a wireless microphone, he invited the students to dance with him.

Clothed in a custom-made polo shirt designed like an American flag - half blue with stars, half with red and white stripes - Sprout used silly props such as a giant dollar bill and a super-size copper penny to punctuate his speech.

"I know [the youngsters] are not getting everything, but it's better to shoot high than cater to the younger kids and lose the older kids," Sprout said. "It's better to be more academic than babyish."

Sprout grew up in Hightstown, N.J., in a family of educators. He began singing professionally as a singer-songwriter after he graduated from Bucknell University in 1974. He performed his first children's show in 1981 - for his mother's grade school class.

Since he first started performing professionally in 1972, Sprout has recorded eight albums and won numerous awards, including the Film Advisory Board's Award of Excellence. To date, he has performed more than 4,300 children's concerts.

"[Sprout] helps the children take a different look at the social studies curriculum; social studies can be so boring reading out of a book," Hassick said. "He makes the people seem so real. The kids can relate to it, and I think it's really awesome."

To Sprout, performing for children is much more rewarding than playing in nightclubs.

"I was always a fish out of water in the clubs and bars. Doing the kid shows, you have to be politically correct and squeaky clean. And I've become that person," he said.

For his "American Heroes" assembly, Sprout paid tribute to Amelia Earhart, Sacagawea and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He combined songs with discussions aimed at helping children understand that real heroes can be people other than sports stars and celebrities.

"They say that when you love what you do, it shows, and he absolutely loves it," Hassick said. "He's more of an educator, and I like that angle to it."