Author: Elliott, Sharon

Kids on Stage
The Man, The Kids and the Music of Kids On Stage
Monday, July 5, 2004

Today’s guest columnist is Sharon Elliott
I came to Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival on Wednesday afternoon, knowing that once again I would be working with Frank Solivan and the “Kids on Stage”. This time I came prepared with my own yellow pad and several sharpened pencils. I found out relatively soon that I should have brought the pencil sharpener and carbon paper! There would be writes, re-writes, re-rewrites, changes made, additions to, more additions to and copies made. I thought, after having done Plymouth and Mid-State, that I would be ready for the “BIG ONE” at Grass Valley.

After setting up camp, I wondered over to Franks camp to say hello. I saw Frank sitting amongst his friends, but somehow apart from them. He was quieter that usual, more subdued, almost brooding. Obviously, things were already rolling around in his head. Later, his friend Clara, would tell us that his personality had begun to change about 3 days prior to coming to Grass Valley. Speaking in shorter, more “clipped” sentences and answers. What was happening to Frank? Was he in a bad mood? Had something bad happened? No, he was just getting ready for his “kids”. And he worries! He doesn’t sleep well, his stomach gives him trouble. He wonders if any kids will show up. (After all these years, he still wonders!) Who will they be, what songs will they do, will he have enough strong instruments? He can’t think of anything else now, but the show and his kids. Yes, his personality has changed, more introspective, quiet, and somehow, alone….until “they”come.

Clay (8) and Weston (9) show up first with their fiddles and within moments you can visable see the tension lift and the pleasure fills his face as he listens to these boys audition. Now, there was a twinkle in his eyes. He asks the boys to return the next morning at 10:00. That’s when the rest of the auditions will begin. By the end of Thursday, we will have 27 kids.

Frank has assembled a “crew”. There is myself, (Sharon Elliott), Chuck and Betty Thornton, Clara Merideth and early on we enlist the help of Betsy Riger, A.J.’s mom. Chris Smith comes in for a short time to help with rythym and Jack Tuttle helped on Saturday. My husband, Steven Elliott and Rodney Lee, A.J’s dad, helped with timing each song.

My job will be keeping lists. Names, addresses, ages, instruments played etc. Song lists, who sings, who takes breaks, backup and so on. Lists of all the songs the kids can play then to be whittled down to what will be used. Betty, Chuck and Betsy also take notes to be gathered together and re-written into the “Master List” for Fridays performance

Betty and Chuck and Betsy’s job will be working with separate groups. They have to figure out what combinations of kids work for which songs, who will sing or take breaks and make sure that each child gets a chance to play. Then they rehearse. This is Betty and Chuck’s first experience with “Kids on Stage”, and it is a daunting one. We have less than two days to prepare 27 kids!

Clara’s job will be taking care of the “crew”. Whatever we need, she will get for us. Water, pens, pencils, chairs. And she is a blessing!

Thursday morning starts at 10:00 AM. We will work until 1:00 PM, break for lunch, return at 2:00 PM and work until 5:00 PM. Friday and Saturdays schedule will be similar but ending with the performances. On Saturday, however, the entire process will start over because we will lose about 10 kids and gain about 8 new ones.

During practice, I stand in the middle of our area and I hear music and voices coming from everywhere. I hear kids shouting out ideas, who should take lead, breaks? What key is it in? I hear Marty’s voice saying “I can sing lead on that one.” I can do backup there”, I can play guitar or mandolin on this.” Is there anything he can’t do?

During the day, Frank is auditioning more kids and sending them off to one of the groups. He also works with kids individually. At times, he just sits and listens until he hears something that makes him go to one of the groups to help work something out.

It is at this point that two things occur to me. He has always told me that his job is not to teach kids to play but how to be a band. But what I see here is 21 separate bands forming.

For each time a new song is played, the players change, the vocals change, and a new band is created. He is teaching these kids flexibility, give and take, how to easily make changes and how to support each other. On Saturday, some kids will have left and new kids will come so the recreation of new bands emerge. In total, over the two days, there will have been 38 little bands fromed. Quite an incredible feat it seems to me!

The second thing that occurs to me is what else Frank is giving to these kids. How many of us have watched our children or grandchildren singing in front of the mirror holding that pretend microphone in their hand or strumming that pretend guitar, wishing and dreaming that they could go on stage. Wishing they had the nerve to try. So many kids with these dreams and so few get the chance. But Frank’s kids get that chance. With Frank, their dreams do come true if only for a few hours a few times a year.

Paige (10) and Aimee (8), sisters, have been playing guitar and fiddle for 8 and 9 months. Amazing when you see them play. And already so versatile. Both quiet and so intense, they will play on many songs.

Eaven (4 1/2) and Shea (7) also sisters that sing. While auditioning, Eaven suddenly gets shy and buries her head in her sister’s belly and throws her arms around her. Shea puts her hands on each side of Eaven’s face and turns it towards Frank and Eaven begins to sing. Once on stage, Eaven no longer needs her sister. She just belts out the song “Kalija”

Shea, on the other hand, informed me that “I’m not afraid of auditioning, and I’m not afraid of being on stage, but the audience kinda makes me nervous.” She sang “Down in the Arkansas”.

Hannah (11), Maddie (8) and Carley (11) are sisters and cousin. They sang “Walkin After Midnight”. Hannah plays a mean banjo and would play many songs throughout the show. I asked Carly and Maddie how long they had been playing the mandolin and fiddle. They said “20 minutes. Someone just stuck them in our hands and showed us how to chop.” I just shook my head .

Sarah (15) sang “Sunny Side of Life”. This year however, she had a mandolin in her hands. She had just started playing it 1 1/2 months prior to coming to Grass Valley. She wanted to learn to chop to her song. So at lunch I took her to my camp and we worked on it. We struggled to find one of the chords, so we both ran over to Chuck and got his help. She was finally able to do it. But when she went on stage she couldn’t. She was disappointed but I told her she did great and after 2 years, I still can’t play and sing at the same time.

Calvin and Trevor are 8 1/2. These twins are just priceless! Their voices are so clear and pure and their harmony is perfect. They change lead and harmony with ease, and this year they sang accapella. Not an easy thing to do for most. These two give me chills.

Kenny (13), Paul (12) and Liam (12) play bass, guitar and fiddle. They are all related and play regularly together. And it shows. Kenny was our only bass player and I think she played every song on Friday. Unfortunately, we would lose these three on Saturday.

Cooper (12), Luke (9) and Zach (10) are brothers and cousin who live together and play together. They need so little direction and always seem to know just what to do. And they are a delight. They sang “This little light of mine”.

Cameron (13) and Kenny did the “Rock-a-Billy “ song. These two had never met before and put this song together. Cameron plays guitar, mandolin and traumbone. Very Talented.

Justin (12) has been playing fiddle for 7 years, and he’s really good. I’m not sure if he
Posted:  7/5/2004

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email