Don't forget your stuffed animal when Laurie Berkner plays Ravinia Saturday
The morning after a particularly late show in Long Island with her rock band, singer Laurie Berkner had an epiphany. As the gig ended around 3 a.m., leaving her reeking of smoke after fielding drunk guys yelling suggestions, she questioned what she was doing there.
"I could be singing songs that I wrote to kids and families, having them screaming 'Victor Vito' and 'We Are the Dinosaurs' instead of 'Freebird.' They're not drunk, and they're loving each other and dancing and having this great experience that is much more fun," she said. "I had to get up and do a party the next morning a couple of hours after I got home from the gig on Long Island. ... I thought I don't ever want to have to do that again, and it's the thing at night that I want to get rid of."
Born in France and raised in New Jersey, Berkner has now been working with children since the mid-'90s and performing for them full-time since the early 2000s. She brings her solo act to Ravinia Festival Saturday morning for a family-friendly performance celebrating the 25th anniversary of her first album for young fans, "Whaddaya Think of That?"
When she was getting her start as a music teacher at the Rockefeller University's Child and Family Center in New York, a mentor taught her the key to working with children: Stop talking at them, and put it all in the music. Soon, instead of struggling to wrangle a room full of 3-year-olds, she had them marching around as pretend dinosaurs and scooping food up off the ground instead of roaring at each other, all by directing them through her songs.
"I felt like I could connect to them and give them a positive musical experience," she said. "That was really my goal, making music feel organic and fun for young kids. And movement was a huge part of it.
"I noticed I was having a lot more fun doing that and getting a lot more positive feedback, especially when parents started asking me to come and sing those songs at their kids' birthday parties."
Berkner said the inspiration for many of her early songs came directly from asking the kids in her classroom what they wanted to sing about. Others came from silly things she'd overhear kids say when she was riding the bus around the city. Some -- such as "Song In My Tummy" and "Chipmunk at the Gas Pump" -- came from improvising suggestions on the fly.
"I definitely get so many ideas from kids. I just think the way that they see the world is so brilliant. And it's a way that I think a lot of us adults lose," she said. "It reminds me of how I used to see things when I was a kid. So sometimes I think about things I liked when I was a child or songs I wished I had that are a little bit more empowering and maybe more connected to feelings."
As is often the case, Berkner said her early original rock music was often born from her anxieties, with a dash of post-college angst.
"I thought that's what I had to mine in order to really write good music. But when I started writing music where I thought about the audience as being young kids, I started to write songs that were about joy and self-empowerment and being connected to people and love in a very positive way, rather than like love lost," she explained. "I mean, I do have a song called 'I'm Angry,' and I have another song called 'I Missed You.' I don't try to pretend that there aren't other feelings, but I do think it's really fun to mostly know that my audience wants a song that's going to make them want to jump."
Berkner grew from teaching and playing parties to performing full-time at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the White House after a guest appearance on "The Today Show" and regular spots on "Jack's Big Music Show" on Noggin and Nick Jr. gave her a big exposure boost. Since then, she and The Laurie Berkner Band have posted numerous videos for youngsters on YouTube and regularly released new "kindie rock" albums along with two seasons of her "Laurie Berkner's Song and Story Kitchen" series on Audible. She also published a Christmas album 10 years ago and has another due out this fall.
Popular recordings aside, when she's performing live Berkner expects kids (and their parents) will want to get up and participate. One song that draws loads of interaction -- "Pig on Her Head" -- was inspired by a young student who didn't want to put a toy pig away and instead wore it as a hat. Today, Berkner encourages audience members to bring their favorite stuffed animals to wear on their heads during the song. She'll often call out some of the animals she sees, using that as a way to connect to larger crowds when she can't find out all of the kids' names.
Helping young fans establish that bond and feel important is another key lesson she learned while teaching, one that she still lives today.
"I have a mission statement for my business," she said, "to create things that allow people to connect more to their feelings and to each other. That's just what I enjoy doing. And so it really was kind of cool that I found a way to do that that I did not really expect, you know? I really didn't know I would end up writing songs for kids when I was 20."
• • •
Laurie Berkner's "The Greatest Hits Solo Tour"
When: 11 a.m. (gates open at 9:30 a.m.), Saturday, July 16
Where: Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, (847) 266-5100, ravinia.org
Tickets: $20 for pavilion seating; $20 for premium lawn in blocks of two, four or six; $15 for general admission on the lawn