LIVINGSTON, NJ — Two Livingston High School (LHS) alumni are taking libraries and schools throughout the eastern coast by storm with entertaining and educational concerts that are intended to further early-childhood development and autism intervention.
Through their company, Turtle Dance Music, LLC, Matt Mazur (LHS Class of 2006) and David Colicchio (LHS 2010) are helping kids come out of their shells by creating a joyful musical experience that engages children with important social, emotional and educational topics.
Their live performances, recorded albums and “Dance-A-Long” music videos have become widely popular in communities throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland. In fact, Turtle Dance Music was recently selected as “Performer of the Year” by all 33 libraries in the State of Delaware for Mazur and Colicchio’s latest live show, which is previewed below.
This summer, the Livingston natives will visit several New Jersey venues—including the public libraries in West Orange, Caldwell, Fairfield, Maplewood, Montclair, Cedar Grove and more—for free live performances designed around the nation-wide summer reading theme for 2019, “Universe of Stories.”
“I can tell you as a parent that things are very expensive, so it's really nice to have free activities and performances that are high-quality,” said Mazur. “Sometimes assemblies are not a good use of time, but this is a very good use of our students’ and our teachers’ time. That’s what we're going for—we want to really inspire kids using art integration and musical theater. [These topics] are not boring; they’re all simulating, you just need to present them the right way.”
The belief behind Mazur’s company is that every child—regardless of developmental ability or socioeconomic status—should have a right to learn and grow to his or her fullest potential” and that integrating arts in education is “a vital tool for expanding young minds.”
Mazur graduated from New York University Tisch School of The Arts in 2010 with degrees in fine arts and drama, but had a passion for working with kids. After earning a graduate degree in autism intervention and early-childhood development from Montclair State University’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, Mazur developed an entertaining and sensory-friendly musical theater experience and began touring.
Some teachers were so impressed with his performances that they encouraged him to consider developing new shows in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). By collaborating with a Connecticut-based teacher who has provided lesson plans and topics to cover, Mazur has been able to incorporate STEM-based themes like the water cycle, the solar system, ecosystems and more into an interactive performance.
Soon enough, Mazur was booking so many shows that he found himself looking for someone to help him create new content. He turned to longtime friend Colicchio, who had recently graduated from Berkeley College and was looking for a new project to sink his teeth into.
As a musician himself and also the son of a music teacher, Colicchio said Turtle Dance Music was a natural fit and that he jumped at the opportunity to contribute to its mission.
"Doing this has kind of redirected my life in a really amazing way,” said Colicchio, who has always been fascinated by science as well. “I have discovered a passion for this and it has transformed my life...I think, in a way, we are kind of trying to save the world through education. The future is education, and I think that's one of our big goals.”
Based on the increasingly positive feedback from their audiences, Mazur and Colicchio are both fully confident that Turtle Dance Music will eventually become a national company.
In addition to their upcoming summer performances, they are also consistently creating new video content so that kids can continue to enjoy their music outside of the live events. In fact, Colicchio said it has been a tremendously fulfilling experience to see more and more kids watching their videos prior to the live events so that they can sing and dance along during the performance.
"You never know what's going to happen or if it's actually going to connect with the audience, but after a few performances, you see that these concepts are sticking in the kids’ heads,” said Colicchio. “What we’ve realized is that we are entertaining just as well as we’re educating.”
Expressing his pride in the video content that Turtle Dance Music has been developing, Colicchio stated that “if kids can be watching something that is actually teaching them as much as it amuses them,” that’s the best they can hope for.
“‘Baby Shark’ is a fun little thing that the world's been going nuts for, but I think what's bigger about it is the format,” he said. “Whether this is a good thing or not, every kid has a device in front of them that they are learning from. Obviously it’s not good for very early-childhood development, but older kids have these devices in front of them.
“I do think it's possible to do both: to educate and amuse. You see it on YouTube—there are a lot of channels that are educational science experiments and videos that are getting millions and millions of views, and it's a really amazing thing."
Mazur agreed, adding that the current generation of kids is more interested in YouTube stars than in celebrities, which he said is “a very fascinating shift” from his own generation. If the ultimate goal is to inspire kids to “go out and take action,” then sharing this information through amusing videos that also encourage physical activity through dance is the best way to connect with their young viewers, he said.
“‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Mister Rogers’ were very aware that television has its drawbacks, but that it’s a place where a lot of kids are paying attention,” said Mazur. “What we want to do is try and get in there and connect with the kids where they are and then hopefully connect them to bigger and better things."
Since there are not many children’s media companies making videos that include real scientific information and present it in a way that emphasizes physical activity, the Turtle Dance Music duo hopes that teachers will start using these “brain break” videos in their classrooms.
“That's one of the amazing things about music and the Internet at the moment,” said Colicchio. “We can transport these ideas across time and space and help teachers to teach difficult subjects and help students become engaged where they might otherwise not have been.”
Mazur and Colicchio credited much of their company’s success to the skills they learned at LHS and the teachers who pushed them to follow their passions.
“I can't sing the praises of Livingston Senior High School enough,” said Mazur. “I can't tell you how many soft skills I learned during my time at Livingston Senior High School that I can use any time in my life. It's incredible how we were able to edit videos for our company and had an understanding of the media landscape.”
Mazur gained experience both in front of and behind the camera through AM Wired, the school’s long-running daily news show headed by Jason Daily. In addition to calling Daily his hero, Mazur also said that he wouldn’t be the person today if it weren’t for his relationships with Mark Stern and Kevin Wittmaack—who previously headed the LHS drama department but currently serve as LHS principal and Grades 7-12 District Supervisor, respectively.
“I know it's that corny thing about teachers, but certain people make a deep impact on your life and you carry around with you the things that they taught you for the rest of your life," said Mazur, who also praised his LHS “intro to business” class for teaching him skills that can be applied to his current position as the director of his own company. “I really have a deep love for where we came from because it was such a phenomenal place to grow up.”
Currently operating out of Livingston as well as New York City, Mazur and Colicchio hope to someday be included on the growing list of LHS alumni who have influenced a broader audience outside their hometown.
“It's really amazing to see someone like Chelsea Handler or Jason Alexander from ‘Seinfeld’ graduate from Livingston and become major influencers in our culture,” said Mazur. “We want to add something that has artistic value to the culture of the kids and to show them that there is a bigger world out there. I think we bring a lot of our influence into the music and hopefully the kids will latch on to those influences as well.”
As summer quickly approaches, the team at Turtle Dance Music is embracing this summer’s library theme and devouring material from various scientists and children’s authors in order to prepare.
"For the summer reading theme, we approach it not as experts, but as kids who are going to the library and taking out a book they find really interesting and want to learn more about it,” said Mazur. “We love learning about what we're going to be performing in the show because if we can't learn about it, how are we going to teach it to our students? We tell our students that with every book you read, your life gets that much better. Education is the way forward and it really changes your behavior in positive ways."
Turtle Dance Music will be performing at the following New Jersey libraries this summer:
- Caldwell Public Library: July 12 from 11 a.m. to noon
- Fairfield Public Library: July 12 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
- Wayne Public Library: July 23 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- Maplewood Memorial Library: July 27 from 11 a.m. to noon
- Montclair Public Library: July 27 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
- Hoboken Public Library: July 30 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- Cedar Grove Public Library: Aug. 16 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
- West Orange Public Library: Aug. 19 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
- Weehawken Public Library: Aug. 20 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Below are two of Turtle Dance Music’s Dance-A-Long music videos, including “Revolution,” which features lyrics and dance moves that aim to help kids understand the difference between the earth’s revolution and its rotation, and “Solar System,” which teaches the name and a fun fact about each planet.
The songs included in the five music videos are featured on the album “Space! The Cosmos for Kids,” which is one of two albums based on Turtle Dance Music’s STEM-based shows. The second STEM-based album is entitled “Wally and the Water Cycle.”
A third album, “It’s Gonna Be a Good Night,” is described as a naptime/lullaby record and the newest record, “Space Jr. (A Universe of Stories),” is the “younger sibling” companion for “Space: The Cosmos for Kids.”
Turtle Dance Music is also a partner of AutismFriendlyShows.com, which creates innovative, inclusive, autism friendly musical experiences and is “dedicated to furthering the field of child development through arts integration, music and educational entertainment,” according to the website.