By Brendan Lai-Tong
Sharon is a National Board Certified Teacher in Music, holds a Bachelor of Music Education Degree from Truman University in Kirksville, Missouri and a Masters’ Degree as a Professional Educator from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. In addition, she also holds a certification in piano instruction from the International Piano Teaching Foundation developed by Dr. Robert Pace. She has served as a vocal and piano instructor, taught preschool through 8th grade general music and directed junior high and high school choirs. Sharon currently specializes in K-3 music.
Sharon found that the use of games, storytelling and puppetry in teaching was a highly effective way to communicate the concepts of music to her students. As a result, the Freddie the Frog series became a reality in 1995.
Sharon authored Freddie the Frog and the Thump in the Night, Freddie the Frog and the Bass Clef Monster, Freddie the Frog and the Mysterious Wahooooo and Freddie the Frog and the Secret of Crater Island as the first of several adventuresome stories introducing fundamental music concepts. Since then she has collaborated with jazz double bass player and elementary educator, Sherry Luchette, on Freddie the Frog and the Flying Jazz Kitten, introducing the concepts of jazz through scat and improv in an interactive story. She is currently working with Jose Diaz on Freddie’s sixth book, Freddie the Frog and the Invisible Coqui, an adventure with Spanish-speaking frogs who teach Freddie, Eli, and the reader a few Spanish phrases, salsa rhythms, and dance steps. Sharon serves on the national Jazz Education Network Elementary Jazz Committee and enjoys sharing her teaching strategies at music conferences and clinics with teachers around the globe.
Keep reading to learn more about Sharon and the Freddie the Frog series!
What inspired you to start a career in music?
My fourth grade music teacher, Mary Jo Papich, inspires everyone she meets to make music with passion. I wanted to grow up to be a music teacher like Miss Papich. It was a great honor to re-connect with my inspiration and join her in the Jazz Education Network, an organization devoted to further education and performance in jazz.
Who are some of your role models?
Since Mary Jo Papich, I have met incredible teachers and musicians pursuing their craft with passion. Artie Almeida, Lynn Kleiner, Cristi Cary Miller, Marvelene Moore, Patricia Bourne, Louis Rogers, Bill Burns, and Jose Diaz, barely tap the list. The key is meeting teachers who teach from their core and with passion, keeping the kids first. All the teachers listed teach kids through music, inspiring in the process. I love watching teachers in action and picking up tips from each one that help each of us reach our goal—teaching kids with passion.
What music do you listen to? Has this had any influence on your books?
I listen to a little bit of everything, except the 80’s. (Too many big hair memories drudged up!) Classical music is perfect when writing and needing to focus; I enjoy jazz, indie, Celtic, musical theater, opera, r&b, and innovative mixes that are fresh and new. Kids influence my books. I strive to find music that is not part of the general society pop scene and bring it to life for kids. Jazz is a perfect example.
How did you get involved with Mystic Publishing and Hal Leonard Corporation?
Mystic Publishing, Inc., is a company that I started for the sole purpose of providing Freddie the Frog® materials for others to use. It was such a success in my classroom that I knew it would be a success for others, but Freddie the Frog® is very different from any other music education resource. I wanted it to go beyond a music teacher tool. It is designed to work for anyone who can turn pages and push play to hear the audio. Of course, music teachers can extend the learning way beyond the books. At the time, the only option was to start my own publishing company. The success of Freddie led to needing a broader marketing force and larger distribution center. Hal Leonard Corporation is the perfect fit. Mystic Publishing continues to publish the book/CDs and plush toys; Hal Leonard publishes the teacher’s guides.
Do you have any advice for others trying to get their own instructional methods published?
You have to know your market and if there is a need for what you are creating. If you choose the path that I did, then be prepared for a life change. Creating something is comparable to giving birth to a baby. Having the baby is just the beginning and it changes your life. Once you give birth to an instructional method, they have to be marketed or no one even knows they exist. They have to be shared so that others know if they are a good fit for their classroom or teaching style. And you have to keep writing and developing. It is an incredible amount of work, but rewarding if you are doing it for the right reasons—because you believe in the positive impact it has on kids.
What was your inspiration for the Freddie the Frog series?
At the time, I was teaching PreK-12 General/Vocal music at a small school. I was frustrated with what my older students did not know and how the current curriculum introduced the reading of music notation. I watched the kindergarten teacher across the hall introducing our English language and wondered if similar building blocks and sequencing would work for the written language of music. It could only help. I observed stories, imagination, puppets, etc. in the kindergarten room. I created an oversized staff on a vinyl mat that I laid on the floor. Rummaged through my daughter’s puppet collection and discovered a frog. With the preschool students gathered around the mat on the floor and a frog on my hand, I wove a story creating images in their little minds that they pictured when looking at the black lines of the staff. It worked! They remembered the story, the places on the staff, and they fell in love with the frog on my hand. He was real and they wanted him in every music class.
What is the best way to integrate Freddie the Frog into the classroom curriculum?
Students ages 3- 7 are the ideal age to introduce the first story and Freddie. Fantasy and reality blur. Freddie is not a puppet. He is real. It is that magic that sticks. (Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, etc.). Definitely start with the first book, Freddie the Frog® and the Thump in the Night and the teacher’s Freddie Puppet. The teacher’s guide, Beyond the Books, is a must for understanding the full concept and sequencing the lessons far beyond the introductory story. Then, utilize Freddie in every class to introduce everything that you do, not just Freddie lessons. Kids will come to music to see Freddie, not you. Long-past graduated students still approach me, forgetting my name, but talking about Freddie the Frog.
How did you conceptualize the gradual increase in musical concepts of the series?
From the beginning I envisioned a series of books. Note names and rhythm notation was first and core. Now we are introducing kids to styles of music and the musical elements that make up that style. Jazz is the current focus, but there is no limit to the places and music that Freddie and Eli can explore. The books are very cross-curricular, similar to how music is cross-curricular in life. The key component to every book is interactivity. Kids need to experience the concepts to internalize and learn the concepts, and it must be a story that captivates from beginning to end.
What is your favorite book in the series?
The story I’m working on is always my favorite. Similar to teaching, the more you teach, the better you become. The more I write and develop, the more I grow in those skills as well. I’m having a blast sharing the newest release, Freddie the Frog® and the Flying Jazz Kitten. It is so much fun to watch kids and adults move from inhibited to uninhibited scatting fun! The teacher’s guide, Scat Singing for Kids, is a step-by-step guide that works every time with every group. The teacher can know nothing about scat singing and lead like a pro.
Can the series be used in any order after the first book?
Great question. Yes! The first book needs to be first. After that you can jump around however you want. I do HIGHLY recommend introducing the first four books to the same group in the same school year. Some teachers share that they share one book per year to different age groups. Kids need repetition for concepts to stick. Share every book every year to every group until they “outgrow” them for best results. They will not be bored and they will retain what they learned.
How do the flash cards tie into the series?
Flashcards are essential for retention. They serve as a great classroom management tool that makes efficient and effective use of precious class time. I typically introduce the first four books once to each grade level K-3 in the fall with lessons in between. The flashcards are used throughout the year to help “remember Freddie’s story.” I use the flashcards to pick special parts, or who gets to play an instrument, etc. It’s the repetition and making the note name learning relative to kids that makes the learning stick.
Who is the illustrator for the series and how did you meet?
Tiffany Harris is the incredibly talented illustrator. We met while working together at a local girls’ camp. We connected immediately and I quickly discovered her artistic talent. I shared my story with her and a week later she shared an illustration of Freddie that matched the picture in my head! It is the first illustration in the first book. Tiffany adds her own sense of humor and compassion in every page. The Freddie books are the results of a synergy of talented people who share the same vision. I call them the “Freddie Team.”
Tell us more about your latest book in the series “Flying Jazz Kitten”.
Freddie the Frog® and the Flying Jazz Kitten is an interactive introduction to the world of jazz through scat singing. Freddie and Eli meet a group of cats that can only scat. But there is one magical kitten with wings that can translate and teaches Freddie how to scat. He gets whisked away to Scat Cat Island, Mew York, where he experiences the sounds “making music all around” in the city streets. The cats take him to a jazz club where the Flying Jazz Kitten leads Freddie and the reader in scat singing call and echo session. By the end of the story, the kids are comfortable with singing non-sense syllables and swingin’ to the beat. The story naturally leads the teacher and kids into The Scat Singing for Kids Step-By-Step guide for additional scatting. Sherry Luchette, a jazz bass player and music teacher, added her expertise to the recording and has teacher materials available to extend the learning, The Flying Jazz Kittens. Dr. Ron McCurdy, a jazz performer and educator from California, and Mardra Thomas, a professional jazz vocalist are the talented cat voices. A really fun book and great introduction to jazz.
Will we be seeing Freddie return in a new adventure soon?
We are working on Freddie’s 6th book now! Freddie the Frog and the Invisible Coqui (expected 2013 release). Spanish-speaking frogs in Puerto Rico teach Freddie, Eli, and the kids Salsa rhythms and dance steps. Jose Diaz, an educator and founder/artistic director for the Diaz Music Institute, and director of the MacArthur High School Jazz Ensemble in Houston, Texas, is lending his expertise and musical skills in Latin jazz on this project, along with the rest of the Freddie the Frog Team, Tiffany Harris, Jonathan White, and Grant Wood. Tiffany is in the middle of 40 pages of artwork now.
We hope you enjoyed reading this interview. You can see videos of Sharon talking about the different books in the series on her homepage https://www.sharonburch.com/.
Don’t forget to check out the FREE Freddie the Frog iPad app by searching for “Freddie the Frog” in the app store. It’s a great addition to the books!
Brendan Lai-Tong is the Assistant Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in trombone performance from University of Miami and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.