Music makes the medicine go down

If family entertainer Peter Puffin was an unscrupulous business man, he would have used Canada’s Poopin’ Puffin to his advantage.

If family entertainer Peter Puffin was an unscrupulous business man, he would have used Canada’s Poopin’ Puffin to his advantage.

But the songsmith with an environmentalist twist isn’t a shady music business agent.

“If I was opportunistic, I could have used the ad to advance my own cause,” said Puffin.

So, the Conservative Party online ad featuring a puffin taking a midair dump on Liberal leader Stephane Dion passed without the entertainer making significant business moves.

Peter Puffin — Peter Lenton to his banker — is too earnest to take a crass incident and turn it into profit.

The singer-songwriter blends his background in biology and education into a touring performance about environmental stewardship, science and community involvement.

It’s a serious message the award-winning musician wraps in light-hearted performance, which he takes to the Yukon this week.

Puffin, whose name originates with a summer spent in northern coastal Quebec ferrying children to a puffin nesting ground to teach them about animal life — an emotional experience he remembered for years — played the Dawson City Music Festival in 2001 and appeared at a Whitehorse storytelling festival shortly after.

On Thursday, he returns for a week’s worth of music and workshops.

The first two days of the Yukon tour will be spent with local teachers in workshops at the Yukon Teachers’ Association fall conference.

Saturday he plays a concert at the Old Fire Hall with local family entertainer Remy Rodden — a “good ol’ buddy,” said Puffin.

The following week will take Puffin to rural schools in Teslin and Carcross, with more stops planned.

Environmental stewardship underlies Puffin’s music in songs like Extinction Train, Proud Like a Mountain and the Whales are Waiting.

A former teacher, Puffin is a student for life.

“Everywhere there are ideas that I can blend or adapt into music or the workshops,” said Puffin.

“The best teachers are great listeners. They’re always listening for a good idea to share.”

The ideas Puffin likes to share about endangered species or industrial farming or hunting can hit the wrong note for some people.

He takes pains not to come off as preachy in his performances, gently embedding ideas into his music.

“If there is a message — it’s OK to hunt, but with regard to animal populations — you weave them into songs, and you give the audience a choice, to take the message or just listen to the music,” said Puffin.

Puffin, 47, grew up in Ottawa and around southern Ontario before landing in Edmonton where he now lives.

A former biologist and teacher, Puffin began using music to teach his students lessons towards the end of a school year.

His success led to requests from other teachers for Puffin to teach a couple of their classes in trade for some of his.

Positive feedback gave him the idea to road test his act.

Puffin thought he’d entertain kids for a year and head back to the classroom.

“But that was in 1996,” he said.

Twelve years later, business is strong.

 He’s played more than 2,500 concerts and played for more than 1,000,000

With over a million served, Puffin is like a healthy educational alternative to McDonald’s. Food for the mind.

Years of word-of-mouth praise has propelled him across Canada for tours that include hundreds of shows every year.

“The travelling life suits me well,” said Puffin.

His first year of continual touring he played 200 plus shows, and followed that with 303 performances in 365 days.

“That was too many to sustain one’s health,” he said.

Puffin’s shtick is anchored in the idea of music as universal language.

“You can use music to teach anything,” he said.

Using the science curriculum for his target audience, Puffin wrote song lyrics based on what’s taught in the classroom.

“When the kids sing along in concerts, they’re memorizing stuff the teacher wanted to them to learn,” said Puffin.

The act includes lots of physical activity to help the memorization, creating a highly interactive concert experience.

For one song, Puffin will have kids stretch their arms above their heads to mimic a whale spout while making whooshing sounds.

He has instruments audience volunteers can play, and costumes for children to wear to interactive with others in the crowd.

Visual stimuli in musical education experience can be used in any subject, not just environmentalism, said Puffin.

Teaching a class about numerators and denominators, Puffin brought two volunteer students to the front of the classroom.

He got one ­— the numerator —  to stand on top of a desk and the other to crawl below, representing the denominator.

“You hook them physically,” said Puffin.

“Just those simple demonstrations and they never forget.”

Puffin follows a long line of venerable Canadian family entertainers with a message, like Fred Penner and Raffi, the latter of whom has stepped up his environmental activism.

But Puffin believes a fine line separates him from the rest.

“Those guys are phenomenal at what they do — they’re masters,” he said. “But these guys awre working in the entertainment industry and (gear) their material to a very young audience.”

Puffin is in the educational business that “has some spill over into the music business.”

Puffin and Rodden play the Old Fire Hall Saturday at 2 p.m.

Advance tickets, available at Yukon Arts Centre of Arts Underground, are $20 per family or $7 individually, or $25 and $9 at the door.

Children under three get in free.

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