Nearly two decades into a career that has made her a household name among the preschool set and their parents, children’s musician Laurie Berkner is still building on her lush catalog, which currently contains nine award-winning albums and four children’s books.
She performs regularly on SiriusXM’s “Kids Place Live” channel and has been a regular over the years on Noggin (now Nick Jr.), and, currently, the Sprout channel. This year she released “Laurie Berkner Lullabies” and her second greatest hits album, “The Ultimate Laurie Berkner Band Collection.” She also is piloting a preschool program, “The Music in Me,” in New York City, and recently premiered her second off-Broadway children’s musical, “The Amazing Adventures of Harvey and the Princess.”
Berkner, 45, lives in Manhattan with her 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, and her husband Brian, who used to perform with the band. I spoke to Berkner just before I took my almost-4-year-old son Ben to her concert in our hometown of Boston. Weeks after the show, Ben is still re-enacting scenes and songs in our living room, dramatically introducing himself by saying, “Please welcome Laurie Berkner!”
During our conversation, Berkner talked about real-world parenting, the screen time debate, and how music is a doorway into the mind of a toddler.
Your SiriusXM series, “Laurie Berkner’s Garden: Eat. Play. Grow,” is a musical call for kids to eat healthy foods. Why is this important to you?
To me, eating food is so much more fun and interesting when I know something about where it comes from. It’s cultivating respect and curiosity about what it is that we’re putting inside our bodies. What does it look like? How can it be cooked? What makes it tasty to me? What makes it good for my body or maybe not good for my body?
What’s it like to perform with your daughter on the “Instant Party” clips you do for SiriusXM?
It is both really fun and sometimes really hard. We do the instant parties all in one day for the whole month, so it’s scheduled around [Lucy’s] school day. And it’s like, we’re going to have lots of fun, but we also have to get through it. I don’t want it to feel like work for her, because it’s not her job. It’s only her job because she chooses to do it with me—and it’s my job. She has consistently said, “I really want to do it.” But I can see that it can be a little bit hard on her. Sometimes I find myself getting agitated.
So you’re saying you’re a real mom who gets aggravated sometimes?[Laughs] Actually, the last couple of ones have been good for some reason. She’s just a little older now. It’s been up and down, but overall I am so glad that we do it. But you know when you do something and you’re like, “Oh, it’s not perfect every time?”
What do you hope parents and kids get out of the idea of an “Instant Party” that celebrates little things like chocolate or circles or deviled eggs or astronomy?
It’s a wonderful thing to take one little silly idea and put a little bit of energy and a little bit of intention into making a moment of your day really fun. And then that colors in a really positive way the whole rest of your day. I hope that’s what it does for people, that it gives just a little moment of fun and pleasure when you’re trying to run out the door to get somewhere or maybe you’re in the car and you’re late and things always feel a little crazy when you’re a parent of a school-aged child.
What was it like when you first started teaching music to preschoolers?
I was just so bad. So bad. Oh my God, I cried every night, like, who are these creatures? I don’t understand them! They’re from another planet! I was so unprepared. I would go in the room and one kid would run across the room and I’d go after them and then I’d come back and the rest of them were gone. And that was the 45 minutes. Then the woman who had my job before, she was like, just stop telling them what to do, and put it in the music. And I thought oooooh. I think I understand that.
How do you think music affects preschoolers?
A lot of kids learn more easily through music than by just being told what to do. It’s an easier way of remembering things, it’s an easier way of making connections. It’s such a beautiful time for kids to discover “What is me? What is somebody else? How do I have fun still being myself and yet not being the center of everything, but still wanting to be the center of everything because of course I’m very, very important to me?” I just love that time in a person’s life.
Parents sometimes balk at taking their kids to see live music or theatrical performances because it’s expensive or they worry their kids won’t behave. What would you say to convince them to come out to the theater?
To me it’s so important that kids have a chance to see theater—a musical, or any kind of a concert. Just having a chance to actually feel what it feels like to see people creating music and hearing it at the same time in the same room with them. I think there’s something literally about the vibrations of the music that’s being created when you’re experiencing it actually coming from the people making it that is different from listening to it through headphones or watching it on a screen.
You’ve done so much television work—where do you come down on the “screen time” debate?
It’s a very conflicted place. I always felt really happy when I would hear from parents that kids would get up and dance. When I hear that my music inspired kids to actually move their body, I think “Okay, that’s a great way to use a tool like a television or an iPad or a phone.” And it’s hopefully providing pleasure. I make music videos all the time, and that’s what I want to have happen with them.
You’re kind of a pioneer for the new crop of kid’s artists making music today. How do you reflect on your growing, changing industry?
I feel like it’s been happening for quite a long time, it’s been a good 10 years that there’s been so much more to choose from. There was this simultaneous growth of the Internet and “kindie rock,” which they didn’t call it when I started. Suddenly there were these ways available to artists to be able to have people access their music that was never there before. But I don’t think discovering new music from independent artists is happening nearly so much [on TV]. They used to be much more interested in promoting that when I was starting out, which was very lucky for me.
What do you think families need and want most from the musicians they choose as their lives’ soundtracks?
They need music that really touches their hearts. I don’t know how to say that in a less corny way, but seriously, people want to be seen and they want to feel connection and they want to feel. Sometimes when I write a song, it’s just purely for pleasure or silliness. Other times, it’s really to touch on something that I think is important or maybe difficult for people. So the things we are about as children, some of those really core values like being accepted, being loved, having freedom, feeling self-confident, having good relationships—they don’t really change as we get older. We maybe talk about them differently, but they’re really the same.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and son in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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