Laurie Berkner: The Kindie Rockstar Next Door

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One of my earliest memories of sharing music with my son was in Mommy & Me Baby Yoga. At the end of every class, the teacher gave us time to snuggle our babies while she played calming music. One day, she played an a cappella song that made my infant’s face light up. “Moon, moon, moon, shining bright… Moon, moon, moon, my nightlight…” The words were sweet but strong and the woman singing had a captivating voice. Her harmonious story about the moon watching over us soothed my baby while stimulating his interest at the same time.

That special moment which still makes me smile was thanks to Laurie Berkner, the best-selling children’s musician whose work has since acquired prime real estate in my phone’s playlists. Berkner is a children’s music icon. Toddlers and preschoolers adore her, teachers respect her, and parents appreciate her for creating music the entire family enjoys.

It’s no wonder why People magazine dubbed Laurie Berkner “The Queen of Children’s Music.” She tours, she rocks out, she’s even friends with Nick Jr. characters. So when I recently had an opportunity to interview this fellow born-and-raised Jersey girl, I was super excited…as was my now three year old.

You can feel Berkner’s innate love of music as soon as you hear her perform. “I remember as a kid I spent my time listening to music when I was trying not to be bored,” she told me. “Music was always a big part of my life.”

Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Berkner loved singing on her own time as well as during school. And she soon realized that her musical gift was one she could share. “I remember when I was 9 or 10 I went to camp,” she recalled. “I had this one swimming teacher who instead of having me swim had me stand in the pool and sing to her. And I realized, ‘People actually want me to do this, it’s not just for myself.’ That was a turning point for me.”

Berkner’s fire had been ignited. By the time she was in high school, she had tried out several instruments but hadn’t yet found her favorite. She enjoyed the piano but couldn’t move around as she played. The violin was cumbersome. And the clarinet was fun but didn’t allow her to sing at the same time. Soon, Laurie discovered the instrument she was meant to play. “When I was in high school I babysat for someone who was a guitar student,” she told me. “I quickly realized, this is cool.”

The guitar — the instrument for which Berkner is known today — enabled her to play while singing and moving around. While in high school, she signed up for an adult school guitar class, but her early skills were mainly self-taught.

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As Laurie entered Rutgers University, her musical interest grew stronger, though her approach to music continued to be fun and unstructured. “I didn’t major in music but I took a year of music theory class,” she recalled. “I wasn’t super into it though. I just enjoyed singing and playing.” So when her college boyfriend encouraged her to perform with him in local hangouts, she was game. The pair began doing shows at restaurants around the New Brunswick area, and she got to know the musicians on the scene.

After graduating from Rutgers, Laurie moved to trendy Hoboken, NJ — a stone’s-throw from New York City.  She started taking guitar lessons, writing her own music, and performing in cafes. She soon moved to Manhattan, and began auditioning for bands. “That’s when it became exciting,” she shared. “And I started taking the idea of a music career more seriously.”

Berkner’s babysitting jobs hadn’t ended, and they once again provided her with opportunity. “I was babysitting for a neighbor whose mother was a preschool teacher at Rockefeller University and told me they were looking for a music teacher,” Berkner said. “I didn’t have any experience but I needed a job,” she joked.

Berkner was excited when she got the job — but admits she wasn’t completely ready for it. Her babysitting gigs hadn’t prepared her for wrangling large groups of young children. “The teachers would drop off their students in my room, which had nothing in it,” she recalled. “I would sit them in a circle and one kid would run to the total opposite side of the gym while I was chasing after others.”

Berkner was a bit overwhelmed by her new role as an early childhood teacher. “I didn’t know how to talk to the kids at first and I struggled to find songs to keep their interest,” she said. “I used to say, ‘Tell me what you want to sing about’.”

And that personal approach is how Laurie’s legendary songs were born.

In an effort to calm the chaos of the class and speak her students’ language, Laurie realized she needed to tap into the children’s interests and meet them at their level. “I said to all the kids, ‘Get up! We’re all gonna be dinosaurs’,” she recalled.  “They started marching around the room like dinosaurs and they were all roaring and pretending to eat each other.” Out of this experience with her students came We Are The Dinosaurs, one of Berkner’s most famous songs.

Laurie quickly realized that young children respond best to music and learning when their experience is interactive and fun. “I stopped talking to them and put it all in the music,” she said. The new teacher started listening more to her students and began to learn as much from them as they were learning from her.

I felt personally annoyed by music that talks down to kids.

Berkner began studying Dalcroze Eurythmics, a method of teaching music through body movements. The new music teacher’s eyes were opened to a different way of connecting with her students. “I asked myself, ‘What is my job,’ ” she recalls. “My job wasn’t to teach them about notes and rests or Bach and Beethoven. Sure, that’s all fantastic, but I realized one of my most important jobs was to make learning feel fun so they wanted to do it.”

And it worked. Berkner’s students began responding to her approach and listening more to her based on the way she connected with them. “I remember being a kid and adults talking to me in ‘teacher speak,’ and I didn’t like it,” Laurie explained. “These kids were so smart and they taught me so much. There wasn’t any reason to talk to them any other way.” Her young students inspired her song-writing and helped her create music that was fun but smart, something for which she is admired to this day. “I felt personally annoyed by music that talks down to kids,” Berkner shared.

Berkner’s experience with children began to grow as she added private music classes to her schedule. At one point, she was busy teaching 25 classes a week — and reaching many kids with her love of music.

When parents of her students started asking for copies of the songs she taught their children, a new door opened. “I had an opportunity to record the songs myself and sell them to parents so our music could be integrated into their families,” Berkner said, which meant a lot to her. “These kids learned by having mastery over the music and a relationship to the music allowed them to feel good about themselves and share this love with their parents, which in turn produced more love.”

But without funds to make albums on her own, she wasn’t sure how to make this happen. Then, one of her bosses made her an offer. She would front Berkner the money to record the songs and she’d receive $5 for every cassette sold. Whatever was leftover, Berkner got to keep.

And before she knew it, Laurie Berkner was recording and selling her own music to excited New York families. In 1997, she released her first hit album Whaddaya Think of That, with popular originals like We Are The Dinosaurs and beautifully creative versions of classics like ABCD Medley (one of my favorites.)

After about ten years at Rockefeller University, it was time for Laurie to devote more time to the new direction her music career was taking. “I left teaching when administration of selling albums took up so much of my time,” she explained.

In 2001, Berkner’s growing popularity landed her a spot on her biggest stage yet — the Plaza on the Today Show. Despite her years of musical experience, Berkner admits she had some stage fright right before her performance. “I told myself, ‘I’ve been doing this so long I’m just going to do it right now’.” And she did. Laurie’s talent and love for children’s music were finally reaching national audiences, and the results showed. Following her Today Show appearance, stores were scrambling to get hold of Berkner’s albums and sales multiplied tenfold. “I had this ‘Oh my God, people are knowing me’ moment,” she said. “Barnes & Noble even called me at home!”

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Laurie Berkner performing live in the Plaza on the Today Show

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Then in 2005, Berkner had her next big moment when she met with an exec from Noggin (Nick Jr.’s name at the time.) Nickelodeon wanted a music video interstitial for the pilot of Jack’s Big Music Show and Berkner was their choice. She filmed the first video —  when she was 2 months pregnant with her daughter  — and it was such a hit that it led to regular appearances. “They did it as an experiment…and it worked,” she told me. Berkner became the first recording artist to ever appear in a music video on Nick Jr.

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Laurie and the cast of Jack’s Big Music Show on Nick Jr.

Nick Jr. launched Laurie’s success to new heights once again. “After the Today Show, my album sales multiplied by 10, and then by 10 again from Noggin,” she recalled.  And the rise of online shopping helped Berkner’s new notoriety.  “Amazon gave people access to buying my music without having to come to New York City,” she added.

With twelve top-selling, award-winning albums to date, Laurie Berkner’success continues to grow with loyal fans and new generations of tots. But there is clearly more to her appeal than mere musical talent. Berkner “gets” kids. Her songwriting is in tune with children, and inspires anyone who listens to truly connect with young people.

“I can’t take credit for more than half of what I’ve written,” she modestly shared. “The children I taught inspired so much and so did my daughter Lucy.”

Lucy, who is now 13, was Laurie’s muse when she was little. “I’d walk with Lucy by the river when she was three months old and I’d sing Walk Along the River to her and ask, “Do you like this one’,” Laurie remembers happily. When Lucy was two, she loved balancing on the Columbia University curbs at 116th Street and inspired Laurie’s song Balance Beam. And by age three, energetic Lucy inspired the fun songs on the Rocketship Run album.

In addition to creating top albums and writing music for three off-Broadway children’s musicals, Laurie released a highly successful debut DVD, which went quadruple platinum and was the first-ever indie children’s music DVD to enter Billboard’s Top Music Video chart at #1.

Recently, Berkner has also delved into the world of children’s books. “I started talking to publishers and an editor at Simon & Schuster thought my songs would make great picture books,” she explained. In 2017, We Are the Dinosaurs and Pillowland were released both based on Laurie’s songs of the same names. Monster Boogie is set to publish in July 2018.

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Laurie Berkner at a book signing for one of her three new picture books

As successful and well-known as Laurie Berkner has become, she is still a down-to-earth, humble person with the best intentions of children as her focus. Through her music and concerts, Laurie supports many charities, such as Pajama Program, about which she wrote the song Open Your Heart in 2010.

Share Laurie Berkner’s music with a child in your life and you’ll quickly see how her inspirational songs bring children and adults together: celebrate a special place Under a Shady Tree, smile as you watch a 3 year-old giggle and sing along to Pig on Her Head, and instill valuable lessons while listening to I’m Not Perfect, which honestly makes me tear up every time. Berkner’s songs are written with this human connection in mind, and they’re a gift to not only children but also to the adults who love them.

Laurie takes her role in the spotlight seriously, and approaches her fans today just as she did her students in her teaching days. Her playful energy reminds kids to just be kids, and her respect for children is a helpful reminder to us all. “I think that as adults we forget we’ve got to actually listen to kids,” she reminds. “It’s very easy to hear kids say something and then brush it off with our own interpretation. But it’s important to remember it’s coming from the perspective of a kid. It’s about slowing down and taking in their perspective the way they’re looking at it.”

She may rock the Plaza on the Today Show, perform at the White House, and tour the country playing for sold-out crowds, but Laurie Berkner is one rockstar who is still a simple, humble girl at heart. “If I weren’t doing this, I think I would have moved out of Manhattan a long time ago and started working on an organic farm or something,” she joked with me.

But as millions of kids dance and sing along to Berkner’s carefree anthems, millions of parents are thankful she hasn’t put down her guitar. There’s more songs to be written, Laurie, and many more childhoods to touch.

 

Laurie’s music videos now appear regularly on NBCUniversal’s Universal Kids channel and her own YouTube channel.

 

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