LARGO — Perhaps with the alligator puppet chomping on the microphone and zany dances being performed on stage, the students didn't realize they were getting serious learning done.
Jack Hartmann, 60, had 100 students dancing in the aisles last week in Belcher Elementary School's auditorium.
The prekindergarteners and kindergarteners followed him through the Hip Hop Tooty Ta dance. "Thumbs up, elbows back, feet apart.'' They swayed and chomped during the Alligator Chomp.
And they got their "brain jumping'' during Exercise as We Rhyme.
Little did they know they also were gaining skills like recognizing rhyming patterns and vowel sounds, along with working on brain and body connections.
"I love to sing and connect with kids, and I try to do that by keeping my songs, the beats, hip, not too babyish,'' Hartmann said.
This is a busy time for Hartmann, a nationally recognized singer and songwriter of children's music. The Largo resident started composing educational songs for children in 1980, and 30 years later his business, located in a business park off Ulmerton Road, is thriving.
On Dec. 1, he learned he is being honored with the University of Florida's Distinguished Alumnus Award. He'll return to Gainesville to receive the recognition during a future commencement ceremony.
And Monday he will release his 30th album, Get on Board the Transition Train.
As with all his work, he got his creative juices flowing for his new release by visiting schools — kids and their teachers.
"This new one came to me after a group of teachers told me they needed help with successful transitions," he said. "That's the in-between times of a school day like when a child is getting in line, cleaning up or using the bathroom.''
Deborah Fike, a kindergarten teacher at Belcher Elementary who has been with Pinellas County Schools for 15 years, has used Hartmann's music throughout her career.
"Sometimes kids just have a hard time getting a concept, and Jack Hartmann's music is another way to teach it,'' she said.
In the beginning, he didn't plan on kids' music being a lifetime gig.
"Actually, I grew up in Long Island, and I first moved to Florida to golf,'' said Hartmann, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Florida and a master's in child psychology from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
"But it didn't take me long to realize there were some excellent golfers in Florida, and so I focused on finding another way to earn money.''
In 1983, he joined the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, where he worked as a counselor, social worker and trainer until 2001, when he decided to concentrate on his music full time.
His talent for kids' music really came to life when he began dating his future wife, Lisa Hartmann, who was teaching kindergarten at North Ward Elementary School in St. Petersburg in 1981.
"The first song I wrote was when she came and said that she was teaching a unit on the life cycle of the butterfly," he said. "She asked if I could write a song about it.''
The experience with Lisa's students led to Hartmann's decision to spend $1,200 on his first album, Let's Be Friends, in 1982.
Other albums soon followed.
"In the early days, my dad would act as a distributor and take my album to child care centers in the area,'' he said.
In 1991, the Hartmanns, who have two adult children — daughter Lauren, 24, and son, Graham, 22 — decided to start their own music company. They opened Hop 2 It Music at Crownpoint Office Center in Largo.
Hartmann, who has written more than 600 children's songs over the years, said the business has grown to the point that he expects to see a profit of $1 million this year. His fan base now includes educators throughout the country.
"This has always been about something more than monetary wealth,'' he said. "Certainly I want to keep getting better at songwriting, but what do I want to do next? I don't know. I've been pretty busy getting to this point.''
For those fans who are curious as to what songs are on his newest CD, Hartmann hinted at one he is extra excited about.
"I really love the title of one of the songs,'' he said. "We always stay positive, and in this CD that deals with rules, we did not want to sound harsh. I think we accomplished what we wanted to do."
And what's the name of the song?
Here's What You Do Do and What You Don't Do When You Go to Use the Bathroom.