WHEN Canadian children's singers Sharon, Lois & Bram do a live concert, you'd think they'd been rehearsing the whole thing with the audience for at least a month. It seems as if the kids know exactly what to sing, when to join in, and how loudly to laugh, shout, and clap. But the best part is when you realize that it's for real: spontaneous, high energy, fun entertainment - no jive!
Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein, and Bram Morrison have been together 10 years, making children's records and performing live around Canada and the United States.
Last fall they started their own TV show, ``The Elephant Show'' (featuring Elephant, their dancing elephant-suited mascot), on cable's Nickelodeon station.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the trio is their repertoire. As Sharon puts it, sometimes a three-year-old will come up to them after a concert and say, ``You didn't sing my favorite song.'' ``So what's your favorite song?''
``Jada!'' comes the response. Or ``A Hot Time in the Old Town.''
Or it could be ``The Eensy Weensy Spider'' or ``Sur le Pont d'Avignon'' - Sharon, Lois & Bram sing them all. And whatever they sing, kids go for it. So do parents.
Says Sharon, who started out as a folk singer, ``We approach everything we do as music for the whole family. We have learned through years of experience that it's very limiting to suggest that `song A' is appropriate for kids three years old and `song B' is appropriate for kids 10 years old.
``Sometimes at a concert a song might be more complex than a three-year-old would enjoy on one level, but on another level ... maybe they don't understand all the lyrics, but they understand the energy and the rhythm, and the experience.''
Sharon, Lois & Bram don't write their own music. They pick whatever they like, from any era or style, for that's what helps bring the whole family together.
``When our first record came out with `Yessir, That's My Baby' on it,'' says Sharon, ``we heard from people that the grandparents were dancing to it. What a wonderful link between the generations in a period of time when there's so much that separates the family! And it's not that we had these honorable motives - it just grew out of who we are.''
These singers just aren't the kind of people to do anything self-consciously or with a purpose. They're in it for fun, and they want kids and parents to have fun, too.
Says Bram, whose background includes research on international folk music, ``There are a lot of people writing music for children who have lessons in mind, and they say, well, I'm going to write a song about world peace, and although we agree with everything that that person says, somehow it comes out so didactic and preachy that the delight of a wonderful musical experience is lost.
``We like to choose music because of its charm and its emotional content, and if there happens to be lessons buried in there somewhere, that's fine - that's gravy.''
``We really believe that though we are friends to a lot of children, we are also strangers to a lot of children,'' adds Lois, who started out in musical theater. ``So if we get up there and give moral lessons ... who are we?''
And they're careful not to patronize. ``We speak to children as equals, as other human beings with smaller vocabularies,'' says Bram. ``It's amazing how they can understand concepts that a lot of adults don't give them credit for.''
So how do Sharon, Lois & Bram find new songs for their repertoire? ``We have very strong family ties,'' says Lois, ``both to each other and to our own families. And many times when we're casting about for repertoire, we think back. What did we used to sing to our children, what did our parents used to sing to us?''
And whatever songs they pick, you can be sure each one will have its own special arrangement. One thing the group tries to avoid is the sameness that you hear on a lot of children's records today.
Bram decries the tendency to ``take `Pop Goes the Weasel' and `Mary Had a Little Lamb' and put them all to the same rock-and-roll beat and figure you've got a great contemporary children's record.''
So they've worked up a kind of Andrews Sisters arrangement of ``A-Tisket A-Tasket,'' a funky Latin ``Hokey Pokey,'' and a jazzy ``ABC Song'' that segues into ``A, You're Adorable.'' As in the live shows and on TV, kids sing along with Sharon, Lois & Bram on their records, too.
Another highlight of both their live shows and their TV shows is Elephant. ``Elephant started out dancing on a couple of songs in our live shows. In a way she's a little bit like a child who's playful and adventuresome and gets into mischief, and trips over her own feet. She is part of our musical adventures ... she's our companion,'' says Sharon.
The group pretty much avoids ``scary stuff'' and ``naughty stuff'' in their performances and on TV. A snapping crocodile and a pie in the face are about as scary or naughty as they'll get.
And Bram is the group's funny man; he keeps the kids laughing. ``I just get playful and I drive everybody crazy. Like, did you hear about this great new men's shop in midtown, it's called Slacks Fifth Avenue, or the new fast-food place, Snacks Fifth Avenue!''
Getting serious, he says, ``People say about us, `Oh, don't you have a wonderful new idea!' But there's nothing new about what we're doing. It's rooted in generations of songs that have gone on and on and have just been forgotten for a little while.''
Sharon, Lois & Bram will perform in Springfield, Mass., Nov. 4; Hartford, Conn., Nov. 5; Baltimore, Nov. 6; Pittsburgh, Nov. 7; Richmond, Va., Nov. 8; Tampa, Fla., Nov. 10; Orlando, Fla., Nov. 11; Miami, Nov. 12; Jacksonville, Fla., Nov. 13; Savannah, Ga., Nov. 15; Atlanta, Nov. 16; Philadelphia, Nov. 18; New York, Nov. 19; New Haven, Conn., Nov. 20; Trenton, N.J., Nov. 21; Portland, Maine, Dec. 2; Boston, Dec. 3.