The first time I heard Laurie Berkner’s music, I was working at a day camp for children with speech and language needs. I found the tunes getting stuck in my head and shared them with my parents, who wanted to know why their daughter was still singing kids’ songs after hours. The next time I heard her music, I was in graduate school and saw it used as a movement break for children during therapy, or as a reward for completing a task. To this day, I consider Laurie Berkner a speech room staple, and so do my students. I assure you, she has a song for everything and everyone. I was truly honored and flattered when she answered some questions of mine and my students. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
StageSLP: What got you into singing, and what kept you interested?
L: I first got interested in singing because it made me feel so good when I did it. I felt like I could transport myself to another world through making music. Then I started to notice that it not only made me happy when I sang, but it also seemed to make other people happy too. That made me want to keep doing it and keep giving something that I had – the ability to bring some joy – to other people.
S: How did you choose children’s music over all the other styles out there?
L: I have starred in musicals, I have led my own rock bands, and I have sung in cover bands where we performed popular music. I also spent more than ten years singing in choirs and being a music counselor at a summer camp. But it wasn’t until I took a job as a preschool music teacher that so many of the things that I love about music and about connecting to people came together. I was reminded of all of the things that were important to me as a child and how so many of them are things I still love or think about today. I loved seeing that the people I was making music for allowed themselves to enjoy it fully without worrying about what other people thought, and how deeply music touched the kids I was working with. I started writing songs for them more than 20 years ago and I still love doing it.
S: We Are The Dinosaurs is a speech room staple, how did it become a book? What made you choose this song?
L: I had been looking for a publisher who would be interested in making one of my lullabies into a book because I thought they would work well in picture book form. When I met with Simon and Schuster, they suggested doing a series of three books and actually starting with “We are The Dinosaurs.” (In fact, more than one publisher that I met with said to me, “You mean, ‘We Are The Dinosaurs’ ISN’T a book?”) I loved the idea, especially because the release of the book would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original song’s release. Plus I thought it would make a fun picture book!
S: When you’re performing, or when you’re preparing, how do you take care of your voice?
L: I try to vocalize every day. It’s essentially the same as going to the gym every day for me, except I’m exercising my voice instead of the muscles you can see. I also work with a voice teacher regularly, and she helps guide me in what I need to be practicing. She’s like my personal trainer. On top of that I try to get enough sleep (this is often the hardest thing for me to do because I like to stay up late), eat well, meditate, and go to the actual gym – or find another way to exercise – every day.
S: You’re so well-known across children’s music, what does that feel like? Is it ever overwhelming?
L: Hmm, I don’t think I find it overwhelming to be well-known. Mostly I like it and I feel grateful for it. There used to be times when I would go to places with my daughter Lucy when she was a pre-schooler, like the Children’s Museum of Manhattan or other family destinations, where it was hard. So many people would stop me to ask for a picture or to have me say hi to their kids that my time with Lucy was continually interrupted. I loved that other families wanted to connect with me – but I really didn’t like turning my attention away from Lucy when we were out trying to have mother/daughter time together.
S: Do you ever get frustrated with music? Have you ever wanted to give up?
L: Oh yes! Sometimes it just feels like I’ll never find the right sound or the right words. Luckily, I have found that if I just keep at it, or take a break and come back, even when I feel TOTALLY like giving up, I’ll find my way to what I want to create.
S: Did you know this was what you wanted to be when you were in elementary school?
L: It’s funny, I didn’t really ever imagine making music for kids when I was a kid, but I did imagine performing in musicals on Broadway. That was a dream for a very long time, and I organized and performed in many shows with my friends for our neighborhood families. I also had other ideas along the way, though. I wanted to run a bed-and-breakfast, be a helicopter pilot or a doctor, AND I wanted to work at a gas station.
S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
L: Keep on making music in any way that inspires you, and don’t be afraid to share whatever it is you create. Sharing your songs and your ideas (anything you come up with!) with other people is what makes those things real, and allows them to grow into something bigger than what you can imagine on your own. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to share what’s inside you with someone else.
S: Who inspires you to make music, and what song makes you happy?
L: Lots of people inspire me to make music – really any time I hear something in a song that I like I feel inspired to want to create that feeling in someone else. Kids also really inspire me. I think as kids we are all natural-born songwriters. So many of my songs come from phrases that I’ve heard kids say, like “I’ve got a song in my tummy and it wants to come out,” or “Doity Doit Doit – shakin’ down the sugar” or “moon moon moon.” One song that makes me really happy is Dennis Kamakahi’s version of the traditional Hawaiian song “‘Ohana.” It’s about a little sandpiper-type of bird and the music just makes me smile and smile.
S: Every week I challenge my students to do something new. What would you challenge my kids and readers to do or try?
L: Try coming up with 4 (or more!) lines of a song about something you find fun or interesting and share it with the rest of the class. (If you can’t think of music to go with it, just treat it like a poem.)
My passion for music runs deep, even if I don’t consider myself a singer. Lyrics have always been the sticking point for me, so I’m intrigued and delighted by Laurie’s challenge and hope you are, too! My students can’t believe the singer of “The Dinosaur Song” answered us. If you’re not familiar with Laurie Berkner’s work, I encourage you to check it out. If you’re anything like me, it will surely brighten your day.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP