By Harriet Barovick
In a spare room on the lower east Side of New York City on a Wednesday morning, a disheveled music teacher multitasks in front of his audience of 10 toddlers and their parents. As he sings Bagel, he wiggles his hips goofily, preens, then pretends to be a bread product inhabited by the spirit of Mae West: "I'm big and round, I got a hole in the middle/And I'm lumpy and I'm bumpy and they call me pumpernickel/I'm good in the morning, I'm good at night/A little bit of butter and I taste just right/Come on and gobble me up, gobble me up/ Gobble gobble gobble me up."
In this somewhat radical alternative-music class for toddlers--part of a four-year-old New York City-based program called Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals--much is free-spirited and unpredictable. But one thing is certain: there will be no renditions of Itsy Bitsy Spider or I'm a Little Teapot, thank you very much. Most programs that aim to introduce toddlers to music rely heavily on traditional folk songs, many of which have been around for centuries, but the music in Aardvarks classes (and sold on CDs) springs entirely from the brain of its punk-rocker founder and lead instructor, David Weinstone. With its topical song subjects and dizzying range of musical styles, Aardvarks has become something of a cult phenomenon among New York City hipsters. And the one-man operation, along with the 10 CDs of music it is based on, is gaining converts across the country.
With no promotion or advertising ("I'm not very business-minded," Weinstone says), Aardvarks has grown from one class with six kids in 1997 to 65 classes with 1,000 kids a week in New York, and 100 on waiting lists each semester. Clients of his $185 courses--in which toddlers listen to, dance to and accompany songs with shakers, sticks and tambourines--include some high-profile artists like members of the bands Phish and Sonic Youth. Just last year Weinstone was duping homemade tapes of his songs out of his Brooklyn apartment (sales last year: 1,000). This year he has mass-produced his 160 songs on CDs, and through grass-roots sources--classes, a new website www.musicforaardvarks.com) and local merchants who have asked to sell the album in their stores--he has sold some 7,000 in just three months.
A third of Weinstone's CD sales this year have come from families who live well beyond the Big Apple--parents who were not even aware that Weinstone teaches Aardvarks but have heard about his music from friends. (He knows this because he is the one who puts the CDs in the mail.) Two years ago, Weinstone began to license the program out to a few interested instructors. Now a dozen teachers in New York teach Aardvarks under his watch, and classes are under way in Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif.
In the insular world of children's music, say experts, this grass-roots popularity is unheard of. "Lots of kids' music, like Barney or Sesame Street, is marketed through TV or film," says David Wolin, a music-industry veteran who takes the classes. "No one is doing what David's doing. He has sort of grown at the pace he's been comfortable with. He's like a commercial boom waiting to hit. His numbers, small by label standards, are astonishing if you consider he's doing this all himself."
Since even the most pleasant kids' music can rankle--fast--an important part of Aardvarks' appeal to adults is that they too can appreciate the tunes. "It's real music--the songs are so good," says Phish keyboardist Page McConnell, who has taken Aardvarks with his daughter. "We listen to it all the time." The classically trained Weinstone, 40, who attended Berklee College of Music and once wrote a book of classical minuets for the piano without ever having played that instrument, writes songs that are alternately silly, loud and beautiful, in styles including Delta blues, hip-hop and thrashing rock 'n' roll. There are references to '70s and '80s rock that engage the parents. There are sitars and bongos, and hints of the Beatles, Bowie and Brazilian pop.
And if you think kids' music is just about talking teapots, think again. Weinstone addresses such disparate themes as spending the day alone with Dad, fighting with a best friend, toilet training, going to visit the museum, prejudice, old age and death. "I find kids get the joke and can appreciate some sophisticated content if the vehicle is correct for delivering it," he says. "Other arts for kids, like literature or theater, are of a different quality--any adult can enjoy Charlotte's Web--but in kids' music, so much of what's out there is gooey, badly written, condescending."
Kids get the difference. In his classes, where the comedic and unpretentious Weinstone skillfully puts even the shyest children at ease, it's not unusual to see a toddler rocking her head in perfect rhythm, or dancing a limbo, say, with a laughing parent. Temple St. Clair Carr, a jewelry designer, says her son Alexander, 4, likes Weinstone so much he has begun to compose ditties of his own on his ukulele. After Mollie Fox, a former client, moved to Chicago last year, the songs helped ease her son's transition to his new neighborhood. "He would refer to Superman, about people looking different, as a way of talking about the fact that our new neighborhood was less diverse than our old one." Indeed, local schools have used the music to inspire discussions on tolerance.