Songs for Children That Won't Make the Adults Fwow Up
(reprinted from The New York Times)
A Musician With a Struggling Punk-Rock
Band Makes a Day Job Into a Career
The songs are about things like farm animals and locomotives and everyone has heard them a million times before. Music-appreciation classes for children can be endurance tests for everyone involved. But even adults say David Weinstone's "Music for Aardvarks and Other mammals" is one of the exceptions. Mr. Weinstone writes songs for children growing up urban and particularly as New Yorkers (with titles like "Annie the Nanny," "Modern Art," "Playdate" and "Taxi"), and his classes are more like parties.
When Mr. Weinstone's son, Ezra, 5, the star of many of his songs, was just 2, they were invited to a national music program class, a children's enrichment program in Princeton, N.J., that started in 1987 and has 400 centers in the United States and abroad. (In Manhattan, he registers more than 2000 families a semester.) The rest is history.
"I really didn't like it," Mr. Weinstone said. "It didn't have much to do, context-wise with these children's lives. This city is such a rich environment. How could it be ignored for so long?"
But he was a musician with a struggling punk-rock band and a family to feed, so he offered to teach music classes in Brooklyn. He lasted for two semesters in the winter of 1996-97. "I was bored by it," he said. So he wrote and recorded a tape in his kitchen and gave it out to the families in his son's play group. "I started it as a joke and it immediately took off," he said. They clamored for more.
In September 1997 he rented space in the basement of a restaurant on Avenue A and started a Saturday class with six children from the play group. By the next week, he recalled, there was a line down the block and he had to start formally registering.
Mr. Weinstone, now 40, was a bartender then, and within three months, he said, he could afford to quit his job. Parents in the classes started buying his CDs and copying them for friends. He started getting calls for more CDs from all over the United States.
He sells 50 to 100 a week for $12 each ($15 with shipping and handling), and T-shirts for $12. His classes are now held in a studio space at 440 Lafayette Street at Astor Place and are $185 for a 10-week semester. They are filled and have waiting lists. He and Alice Cohen, a fellow Aardvark teacher who has recorded with him, along with Laura Schurich teach 275 children a week, and with licensing deals with other music teachers in Brooklyn and Manhattan Music for Aardvarks is taught to an additional 600. He would not say how much money he was making, but did say with a laugh, "Its funny what $12 adds up to when enough people give it to you."
He is loath to say who takes his classes, but when pressed, he gives a hint: "Aging rock'n'rollers that have kids."
In 1998, the punk-rock band he founded, Mozart's Grave, signed a five-record contract with Sire Records label. They recorded one album, and it flopped.
"I would have signed you can take my legs away and give me fins" he said, only sort of jokingly. But he did write a clause excepting his children's music from the deal. His 12 CDs of children's music since produced are self-published and virtually self-recorded and self-performed. (He has finished his first compilation CD, a best of the lullaby from his earlier CDs.) He plays all the instruments. Because of his experience with the band, he is wary of a deal for his children's music
Since the fourth CD, he has had a co-producer, Eddie Sperry, from Sperry Sound and Pictures on Ann Street in Manhattan, where he records. "He stops me from doing really dumb things," Mr. Weinstone said. "For instance, I would say, "I'm thinking of putting a kazoo in that part.' And he says, 'Raffi would put a kazoo on there.' And I say, 'Whew, thanks.'"
He has his critics.
"It is educational or is it entertainment or is it somewhere in between?" said Kenneth K. Guilmartin, founder and director of a national music program. "Or does it matter? I don't know."
"What's the difference between buying that and buying anyone's CD that you like? We have different goals. We do that too, and more." But others say Mr. Weinstone's music offers a refreshing change.
"Some people don't feel that Aardvarks material is appropriate for a young child," said Nanette De Cillis. She is the director of Artscetera, a music and art school in Caroll Gardens, Brooklyn, who teaches Music for Aardvarks. She gave Mr. Weinstone his job teaching music classes.
"I love that David pulls from so many different musical influences from the Beatles, to reggae to 70's and 80's hits," Ms. DeCillis said. "That variety of music is really good for children to hear. Instead of going down in the music, he's going up. The true secret to Aardvarks' popularity is that adults like it."
"Parents need to be not bored and not insulted," said Margot Glass, an artist and a mother of two. Mr. Weinstone says he is just starting to feel comfortable with his fame. "It is just phenomenal," he said of his new life and his success. "My wife and I don't take it for granted. Sometimes we're just lying in the bedroom and we just laugh."