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Alumni Profiles - Judy (Labbee) Pancoast

Judy Pancoast

Music for children

Singer-songwriter Judy (Labbee) Pancoast, a University Singers alumna who earned a music degree at UMaine in 1983, has been enjoying a prosperous and international musical career, capturing the hearts and ears of thousands of children and adults with her multiple CDs of children’s music. Her latest album “Weird Things Are Everywhere” was nominated for a 2011 Grammy as best musical album for children award. Pancoast, who tours nationally and internationally, has received numerous awards already for her concert performances and five albums. Of all of her “Bubblegum Music for Sweet Kids” tunes, such as “Swimming in Jello,” “Are We There Yet?” “The Potty Dance” or “Walk Away,” it is “The House on Christmas Street” that has had nearly 5 million YouTube hits and is now part of the annual holiday light decorations at thousands of homes far and wide. Her sixth album, a second collection of Christmas tunes, is in production. Samples of Pancoast’s music and other information is available on her website (judypancoast.com).

Your hometown, originally and now?

My hometown is Waterville, and my current town is Goffstown, N.H.

How long have you been writing children’s songs?

Since 1996.

How did you get started in children’s music?

I had decided to quit the music and radio business (I’d been a deejay for a long time, as well) and become a teacher so my young children could have a normal life. When I was doing fieldwork for my master’s degree, I began just casually making up songs with the kids in the classrooms where I worked. I was asked by the principal of one of the schools to do an assembly, and then the local library called and said, “We hear you do children’s music. Could we book you?” My new career was born.

What messages does your music carry to your young audiences?

I have very few songs that are actually “message” songs, except for “Walk Away” which hopefully helps kids deal with bullying. If there’s an overall theme to my music, it’s “kids just wanna have fun” (to paraphrase Cindy Lauper). However, the theme of the nominated album encourages children to get excited about the United States of America and all the interesting things it has to offer. I hope they will want to travel and explore it someday and, until they can do that, I hope it encourages them to read about it and imagine.

What is the most exciting or rewarding part of your work?

The most exciting would be getting to travel and see new places and meet new people because of music. The most rewarding part is getting hugs from children. That never gets old.

Do you write and perform other music, like adult contemporary, rock or other genres?

Since I began performing at age 15, I have written pop, adult contemporary and country songs, but since I began writing for kids in 1996, I have done that exclusively.

What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?

Personally: raising two wonderful daughters.

Professionally: The Grammy nomination. I’ve dreamed of it since I was 12 years old.

How did UMaine prepare you for what you are doing today?

When I was a student in the Music Department, the focus was mostly on classical music, which I enjoyed but it was not really the style of music I wanted to perform. The whole time I was there, I was writing pop songs in the practice rooms when I was supposed to be practicing. But I did arrange one of my songs for chorus and the University Singers performed it under the direction of Dennis Cox, and I later found out that he used it again in subsequent years after I graduated. I was selected to be a featured vocalist with the 20th Century Music Ensemble under the direction of Don Stratton and that was definitely the high point of my experience at UMaine. Stratton arranged one of my songs, which we performed in concert on tour. Both of those experiences gave me lots of confidence in myself as a performer and songwriter.

Most memorable UMaine moment?

Auditioning for 20th Century. I was very nervous because I wanted the gig so badly. I sang a song I’d written, which ended up bringing down the house. It was called “I Only Wanted Your Body.” Pretty funny considering the music I do now.

What was your favorite place on campus?

The practice rooms at Lord Hall. I don’t think they exist anymore. I loved playing the baby grand pianos. Off campus, it was the Newman Center. I was very active there.

While in Orono, I spent too much time …

Getting involved in the drama of other music and theatre students, and not enough time on my studies.

Favorite professor or mentor?

There were a lot of wonderful professors in the Music Department. But the person who took the most interest in me and my career goals was Don Stratton. He actually got me an audition to play in the lounge at the airport Hilton for happy hour, five evenings a week. I ended up working there for almost two years.

How did your UMaine experience shape the person you are today?

Some of my favorite times were when my friends came into the practice rooms and listened to the songs I was writing, and sometimes sang along with me. One of those people, a guy named Brian Bedell, actually went out and booked my first paid performance in a restaurant without even telling me that he was going to do it. He just came back one day and told me I’d be playing at the Ground Round at the end of the month. That type of encouragement in an environment filled with talented people was very confidence-building.

Why did you choose UMaine?

I could only afford to go to a state university, and it was between Orono and Southern Maine (then UMPG).  In the end, I was more impressed with Orono’s audition process and so I chose to go there.

Best UMaine tradition?

Governor’s! I loved the two-piece chicken special, followed by strawberry pie.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have …

Majored in music education to begin with. I would have gone for a degree in composition. But my high school teachers suggested that I have a fall-back plan, so I majored in music ed. I ended up dropping out for one year after my junior year and working in the piano bar at the Hilton and as a deejay at one of the Bangor stations. Then I went back after a year off and got a bachelor’s in music.

What advice would you offer to UMaine students today?

Don’t just dream, make a plan for how to achieve your dreams. Try everything you can think of to get to the people who can help you. Ask for advice from everyone you can find who is doing what you want to do. And, in the end, don’t have a fall-back plan. If you have a fall-back plan, you will probably fall back. Pursue your dreams relentlessly and don’t ever give up, and remember that no one wants your success more than you do, so take charge of your life and go for it.


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