A Pied Piper Who `Makes Something Happen'. Bob Schneider's message of tolerance and self-confidence leaps all kinds of barriers. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

BOB Schneider had an itchy guitar-finger. As he sat on his hotel-room bed the other day, the instrument was a like a third party - a gently assertive presence constantly being tuned (``traveling loosens the strings, you know'') or strummed to create an apt and pleasing obligato to the conversation.

Sure, he's glad to talk about his work, but he'd much rather demonstrate. And once he does, you know instantly why this Toronto-based performer has become a kind of kiddy culture hero all over Canada and the United States. His sample songs filled the hotel room with a benign and bouncy folk sound so fetching you could all but see an audience of tots responding to simple, inviting numbers like ``Listen to the Raindrops'' or ``I Dreamed a Dream.''

Schneider writes all the songs himself, music and words, and for some 12 years children have been plunging joyfully into their pantomime spirit - moving their hands like birds, wiggling them like fish, shouting responses.

But Schneider is more than an award-winning artist of stage, recordings, TV, and video. Behind his shows - which lure kids 3 to 12 years old - lies an implicit message of tolerance and self-confidence that has leaped over ethnic barriers and turned handicapped audiences into eager show-and-sing choruses.

For one thing, there's the Rainbow Kids, an integral part of Schneider's performances. Drawn from local schools in each city he visits, they are not pros - usually not even hopefuls - but a true sampling of children from the area representing every kind of background. After a mere 90-minute rehearsal, they self-assuredly join him on stage - in jeans and ``Rainbow Kids'' jerseys - forming a happy link to people in the seats.

``The kids are looking up and maybe seeing their classmates,'' Schneider points out. ``I always feel with the Rainbow Kids there's an energy that comes off bigger than me, bigger than any one of the kids. It works so beautifully with audiences of multi-ethnic kids, including new English-speakers, because the language is simple enough to be accessible to the very young, yet hip enough for 11- and 12-year-olds.''

Just a few minutes of a Schneider concert proves his point. He walks on stage in a baseball cap, face beaming, singing and clapping and exhorting kids with a deliberately goofy friendliness that turns them on in seconds. His songs touch the basic realities of their lives - how they feel, what they see - and lets them react in song and movement.

Watching the small faces at moments like these, you feel you're stealing a piece of a child's own wonder. When Schneider launches into a song that uses signing, for instance, the kids are soon making hand movements as they sing ``I can feel.... I can see.... I can dream.'' The show is like a tribal celebration, with Schneider leading them in song rather than merely performing for them.

``I never try to write a preachy song,'' he says ``but the Rainbow Kids are communicating something just by being up there and performing. It might not knock the audience over the head, but they're saying, `Hey, guys, you can do it, too.' The kids responded beautifully, for instance, the time I did a Special Olympics show in front of 20,OOO people, with my chorus drawn from the mentally retarded. My greatest attribute is my ignorance. I didn't study kids or the handicapped and don't what they're supposed to be able or not be able to do. I treat them the same as adults or any other children.''

Schneider performs mostly for non-special audiences, but his shows owe their effectiveness to their unique origin in his own background. He grew up in a big, home-oriented Bronx family who kept telling him he could sing. ``When I was 17, my older brother Miles got a guitar but never learned it,'' Schneider relates, ``and I just picked it up and started playing.''

No thought of professional performing entered his mind as he got a New York University degree and then went to law school and left after a year. ``I floundered around a bit,'' he says, ``and was living with a buddy. We woke up one day, and I said, `Let's write songs.' I didn't know from anything but believed in myself, and I started writing soft-rock numbers in the James Taylor, Cat Stevens vein.''

Early on, Schneider met a record producer who later went with a company in Toronto.

``In 1972, I get a call from Toronto,'' Schneider explains, ``and the producer says, `Hey, Bobby, you want to come up and do some demos?' I thought I'd be there five days, but ended up recording an album and liking it there and staying.''

Schneider waited on tables in Toronto, did other jobs, but kept hoping to use his talent to help support himself. The schools there were hiring musical artists to work with students, ``but you had to have a program, and I didn't have one,'' Schneider recalls. ``So I literally became a teacher's aide in the summer of 1978, hoping some of the arts council people might come in and watch my work, and maybe I'd get booked.''

The kids knew he was a musician and asked him to sing. ``Instead of doing `Old MacDonald' and traditional songs, I guess - being a songwriter - it was more fun for me to make up songs,'' he says. ``One time in a park we passed a stream of water, and the teacher said, `Do you know any songs about the water?' And a new song just came out of my mouth. Some songs you have to work hard for. This is one that seemed handed to me. I didn't even have my guitar with me. The kids started adding their own verses. Let me show you...'' The room came to life again as he sang a lilting ``Listen to the water, listen to the water/ Rolling down the river.'' It had a Woody Guthrie simplicity and appeal.

Later, in the Toronto suburb of North York, Schneider used his musical tricks to help a group of kids just learning English.

``It was scary,'' he remembers. ``Some were just off the boat. They'd seen horrors in their life. I had to say, `Okay, guys, let's make something happen.' The thought in my head was making the kids feel good about themselves. I felt I had these antennae going out and was hearing everything going on, and I'd pick up on things. For instance, one day it was raining, and we made this up....'' This time he sang a poignant, lyrical ballad about a dream.

His songs are still co-created with kids to assure authenticity and the right chemistry. They're even ``product-tested'' on youngsters in schools before he takes them on the road. ``Within two minutes any group of kids can sing them,'' Schneider asserts, ``no matter what their language.

In fact, various countries are using Schneider tapes and records as teaching aids. The public can find Schneider on the Peter Pan record and tape label in the US, and on Capitol and Trend in Canada.

``Nice thing about a family audience is the kick parents have of watching their children,'' he says. ``After I rehearse with the Rainbow Kids, I tell them, `You know all this stuff I taught you - I want you to forget it. Go out on stage and have the best time of your life.'

``The only thing the audience will pick up on is the fun, the joy, the love. It goes back and forth from the seats to us on stage. Like this number, for instance...,'' and suddenly we were into another song.

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