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Kids + music = connection

April 02, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

"Music is the shorthand of emotion," Leo Tolstoy once said.

And nobody knows that better than high-energy children's musician Laurie Berkner, who will perform Saturday at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md.

"Kids connect to music so early, before they're speaking," said Berkner, 35, of New York City. "They immediately respond physically to the music. To me, our physical bodies are where we hold all our feelings."

With music she describes as a part rock 'n' roll and part folk with an emphasis on vocals and acoustical guitar, Berkner strives to help kids connect with their feelings through her music. She writes songs that are fun and easy for kids to learn with melodies and rhythms that will appeal to listeners of all ages, she said.

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Her young listeners respond to her songs' cues to dance and jump and run - sometimes with total abandon.

"People describe the (area in front of the stage) as the kiddie mosh pit," chuckled Berkner, whose efforts have earned her raves as a hip alternative to traditional children's music. "My show is really active."

Berkner - whose gigs have included a performance at the White House for the 2000 Easter Egg Roll, national TV and birthday parties for the children of superstar musicians Madonna and Sting - has released four albums and a video songbook since 1997. Her work has garnered numerous awards. In March, Scholastic Inc. subsidiary Orchard Books published a children's picture book that paired renowned illustrator Henry Cole's colorful pictures with a storyline based upon lyrics to Berkner's "Victor Vito."

A lifelong musician, she found her niche in children's entertainment by chance after graduating from Rutgers University with a psychology degree in 1991. Berkner was playing with rock bands at night and teaching music to preschool and day-care children during the day when the parents of her young students encouraged her to produce the music she created with the students on a larger scale.

"It was so unexpected," Berkner said. "I'd been performing in rock bands (including her original band, Red Onion) and struggling to write original music. Writing music for kids has not been a struggle at all. The more I started working on material for children, the more I realized that it opened up creativity in me that I never knew I had."

Berkner released "Whaddaya Think Of That?" in 1997, and launched her own record label, Two Tomatoes Records, to release "Buzz Buzz" the following year. "Victor Vito" came out in late 1999, and "Under A Shady Tree" was released in 2002. Songs on all of the albums encourage kids to participate and express themselves, Berkner said.

"Music really brings up feelings in people," she said. "You don't have to use words to connect to your own emotions. They can come out in so many ways," including rhythms and melodies and the way a song is sung and played, she said.

Sharon Buck, manager of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and coordinator of the local Kinder Konzerts series, agreed that music doesn't need words to have a positive influence on kids. The free concert series is designed to introduce preschool-aged children to live music.

Participating musicians select pieces that are fun and to which kids can relate, such as marches, Buck said. Kinder Konzerts give young listeners the opportunity to express the emotions conveyed in the music they hear, she said.

"I think kids respond to it very well," Buck said. "It's something that's completely internal. They can react to it with a lot of freedom."

Children begin responding to music as infants, and music continues to play a role in child development through adolescence, said child psychologist Michael Brody of Potomac, Md., chairman of the Media Committee of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Lullabies soothe infants and help them internalize the sound of their caregiver-singer's voice, Brody said. Musical rhymes and rhythms help children ages six to eight coordinate motor activities, and aid memory development, he said. Grade-school aged children can learn about safety and pro-social behavior from songs with such messages. And music is a tool that adolescents can use to differentiate themselves from their parents, Brody said.

"I think music has many positive effects," he said.

Unfortunately, music also can be abused.

Profane, violent and homophobic lyrics can have adverse effects upon listeners, said Brody, who teaches a course on children and media at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Brody also takes issue with instructional music targeted at infants and toddlers - like songs designed to teach preschool children such academic lessons as multiplication tables - which he calls "consumerism" aimed at building children's rsums "by the time they get to nursery school."

"To do that with infants and toddlers is just ridiculous," Brody said.

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