Rock on!

Local kids get active – and grow a love for music – with Monkey Rock Music

Photo Courtesy Monkey Rock Music

The room was alive with energy, as fans – both the ones crowded at the front and the lucky few invited up on stage – sang along with the familiar words of “Livin’ on a Prayer.”


The man on the stage with the guitar wasn’t Jon Bon Jovi, and the fans weren’t men and women who had come to be steeped in musical nostalgia.


No, the musician holding the audience captive was none other than John King, and most of the fans, barely three feet tall, were there to enjoy another show by Ottawa’s Monkey Rock Music, of which King is the founder and director.


King, who is known for telling the audience during shows that not all music for children has to be children’s music – plays a true mix, from “Sticky Sticky Bubble Gum” to the Beatles to Katy Perry.


“Our mission is to show that anyone can be an active part of music, not just a passive listener,” says King. “That’s why every single song we do is 100 percent participatory. We want parents to know that enjoying music with their kids is important for bonding and development, and does not have to mean children’s music. We always finish our classes and shows with a rock singalong.”


Creating music together is just one of the things that makes Monkey Rock Music stand out from the other groups in Ottawa. This makes it “so much more engaging,” King says. “Some programs put too much stress on actually teaching music and theory – these kids are way too young for that. This kind of program should be about having fun, and joining in above all else. Then if they get hooked, (they) move on to actual lessons as they get older.”


King, who holds a B.A. in drama and English from the University of Toronto, has plenty of experience working with kids. In addition to being a family man (he and his wife, Sheryl, an elementary teacher, have two sons, Jack, 10, and Max, eight, who frequently help with the shows), King taught English to kids in Japan and ran an English daycare, where he first started doing music with kids. Feeling that the available repertoire was lacking, he began to write and perform his own children’s music.


While enrolled in a Master’s program at the Ontario Institute of Education in Toronto, he put together an 11-piece funk band with some first- and second-year students. It was around this time that, to pay the bills, he got a job playing music for parents and kids. Eventually, it grew into Monkey Rock Music.


The self-taught musician – he plays a number of instruments, including the guitar and ironically, (after quitting lessons as a young child) the piano – shares the stage with a slew of other talented, local musicians who also help to run Monkey Rock Music’s classes.


Assistant director Kieran Howes says he “couldn’t be happier” about his work.


“Seeing the joy and happiness on the children’s faces every day makes my job very easy,” says the Ottawa native, who joined Monkey Rock Music in 2014. “If you asked me what I wanted to do in life 10 years ago when I was in high school, my answer was always ‘play music and make people happy.’

“Every day I get to witness how fundamental music is to humans and what it means to be human – and that continues to blow me away five years in. I’ll often see a three- or four-month-old baby, who has never interacted with live music before, become completely engaged with the music to the point where they are clapping on beat with my guitar. Often, I’ll have a one-year-old strumming my guitar in perfect rhythm when we let them play at the end of class. All of these moments are almost magical and continue to prove, to me at least, that music is an inherent human function within all of us as early as birth – which is both gratifying and inspiring as a musician,” he says. 


Monkey Rock Music has performed – both paid and volunteer gigs – all over the city, from daycares and schools to pubs, restaurants, libraries, special events, fundraisers, fairs and festivals as well as venues like the Bronson Centre and the National Arts Centre. But the majority of Monkey Rock Music’s business are the classes for babies up to one year and children ages one to two and two to four years.

Monkey Rock Music performs earlier this year Photo Courtesy Monkey Rock Music

The younger groups are really about the parents, King says. “We’re teaching them songs and new ways to interact with their babies.


“Many studies have shown how sharing music with your child, dancing with them, and singing to them, does things like release dopamine and endorphins in both the parent and child’s brains and actually improves your relationship with your child,” says King.


As the kids get older, the musicians can work with them more directly, encouraging them to do actions, joke around with them, and get them playing instruments.


“We really take pride in how we’ve developed a program that teaches toddlers not just about music, but how to participate in their first group activity,” King says. “We get they have very short attention spans, but also that they are capable of following instructions and participating. We’ve carefully structured things to change up every four minutes or so to accommodate this, setting the kids up to succeed in what we ask of them. We equip our staff with strategies to guide the kids.”


Monkey Rock Music also offers birthday parties, solo acoustic shows and evening dinner shows at local restaurants, “but my favourite thing to do is our full rock shows – drums, bass, electric guitars,” says King. “It’s a great first rock experience for kids. We keep the volume lower than you’d normally expect for little ears, but it’s still very much a live band vibe.” The stage shows appeal to a broader age range, as King can get older kids up on stage helping out.


Growth is in the future for King’s group. They are currently working on expanding to the GTA this September, and Vancouver within a few years. King is also working on recording new music. “I’m experimenting with branching out into more music with a message – my newest song, “Can I Give You a Hug” is about teaching consent, both to kids and parents. It’s so important that we instill a sense of bodily autonomy at a young age so that as they get older, they’ll be more comfortable enforcing their own limits, and respecting the limits of others. It’s a heavy topic, but I think the song makes it light and loving,” King says.


Love is a key part of the job, and its how the group’s members feel about Monkey Rock. “I get to swoop in, be a rock star, then leave,” says King. “I’ve worked in a daycare, I’ve been a parent of young kids, and I know how much work it is. Rewarding, but hard work. Now I get to do just the best parts, without the hard stuff! There’s nothing cuter than a baby that won’t be in your house at 4 a.m.”