The Bright Siders’ Dr. Kari Groff Emerges from a Dark Year with Upbeat, Purposeful New Tunes

By Marisa Torrieri Bloom

When the coronavirus hit New York City back in March, Brooklynite Dr. Kari Groff, a psychiatrist, mom and musician, faced the same fear and uncertainty as her neighbors. But instead of shuttering inside with he stringed instrument, she opened the door – channeling energy into playing for her neighbors, right on the stoop of her Park Slope home. 

The Bright Siders (photo credit: Jefry Andres Wright)

Picking up the fiddle earned Groff little fame (see the New York Daily News writeup here) and gave her a much-needed energy boost. 

“As a musician, to not perform and play together was also giant loss that has needed to be accepted and processed,” says Groff, who spent much of the last year nurturing a new-ish musical project — The Bright Siders, her duo with songwriter Kristin Andreassen. Their album A Mind of Your Own (Smithsonian Folkways) is out today. 

We recently caught up with Groff to learn more about the new record, pandemic parenting, and how she hopes to help others.   

Rockmommy: For those who might not be familiar with your music, how would you describe your sound? 

Dr. Kari Groff: Because The Bright Siders collaborated with so many different musicians from so many diverse backgrounds, I would say that our album A Mind of Your Own has infusions of pop, jazz, rock, folk, Latin, and even one punk rock piece called “Bully This!”

I definitely would describe the sound as “fun and upbeat” but purposeful and thoughtful.

Rockmommy: What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the last 12 months? If you’re a parent, please speak to those challenges too!

As a person, it was difficult to be separated from so many of my friends and family.  As a parent, it was difficult to see my child go from being an active and independent elementary school student to an isolated, online learner. 

As a musician, to not perform and play together was also giant loss that has needed to be accepted and processed.  Professionally, I had to develop new skills as a physician to address a large-scale trauma that was happening to many people because of Covid-19.  Everyone has been affected but in very individual ways. 

But if I had to point to the greatest challenge of all, it was that we were not able to gather together in a time of great sadness and to not be able to lean on the things that bring me joy (parties, live music, making music together, etc).

Rockmommy: How did 2020 influence your music and creative process? 

Dr. Kari Groff: As the mother of a biracial child (Haitian and European background), the Black Lives Matter movement made me think even deeper than ever before about it meant to be a White mother to a Black child and what the Black American experience is. My daughter (age 10) wrote some amazing new songs at home and we were able to collaborate on this.  Being with her so much at home inspired me as a songwriter.  She is extremely creative and has a natural sense for what makes a good pop song.  She pushed me to elevate my skills and to expand my creative process. She would question my lyrical and musical choices thoughtfully. 

My daughter also has younger twin sisters with her dad and his wife. I have her twin sisters over to our home frequently to play and make music. All three are so musically talented, and I absolutely delight in their song creations and amazing voices and energy. My experiences with them really made me think about how The Bright Siders could do even more to be more inclusive and representative. I could see them carrying the torch of this project forward with me, along with Kristin and Smithsonian Folkways, because of their amazing energy, musical skill, and unique experiences and voices as Black Americans.  

Rockmommy: What are you most hopeful for in 2021? 

Dr. Kari Groff: I am grateful that there is a vaccine that is being delivered. I’m excited for a new and diverse political administration, especially our first woman VP!!!  I am excited to travel and perform again! I am hopeful that the pandemic will make us think about how we can live more compassionately towards each other and with greater environmental awareness.

Rockmommy: Any recent or upcoming projects you’d like to share?  

Dr. Kari Groff: The Bright Siders is releasing our debut album A Mind of Your Own today (Smithsonian Folkways). The album is an incredible collection of songs and skits, in spirit of Free to Be, You and Me. It’s all about emotions and growing up. The music is very family friendly, educational, and uplifting. We are also releasing a video-book called “Victor and the Great Pause”- a thoughtful and deeply compassionate story about a dog that experiences NYC during the early days of the pandemic. 

Rockmommy: What advice do you have on balancing parenthood with creative life?  

Dr. Kari Groff: My best advice is to get up early before your kids. My own creative, music-teacher mom taught me this. Make time for your creative process. For me, it is the early hours of the morning when it is quiet and before I have started to tackle my physician work for the day. My mind is clear, and I can write lyrics and melodies with greater fluidity and less sort of background noise (literally and figuratively!). I also recommend taking a couple days off here and there just for your own creative process if possible. My co-creator on The Bright Siders project, Kristin Andreassen, hosts an amazing songwriting camp called Miles of Music. This would be the perfect opportunity to have a creative experience in a beautiful setting!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy. 

Kids Imagine Nation Swaps High-Energy Live Shows for a Virtual Music Program That’s Fun, Engaging and Whimsical

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom 

It’s not always easy to capture the imagination — or attention — of a toddler or grade-schooler in a virtual music class. My kids love their music teacher, don’t get me wrong, but they are already weary from singing “This Land is Your Land” over a Google Meets connection. It’s chaotic at best, trying to get them to focus.

Aaron B. and Rachel C. of Kids Imagine Nation, a live performance kindie rock act hailing from Orange County, get that. While virtual (aka, “distance”) learning can work academically, music class doesn’t necessarily translate well. 

But their new online music program might just change that.

[RELATED: The Most Danceable Kiddie Record for Ska- and Punk-loving Parents is Coming in September

Like their Kids Imagine Nation live show, the Kids Imagination Kindie Music channel leads little learners through movement exercises, musical instruction, and other hands-on educational activities, which are the perfect supplement to any 2020 distance learning curriculum. 

We’ve only begun to watch them, and I can attest that they’re awesome.

My kiddos and I opted to try out music class, which is live-streamed at 11 a.m. PST on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but available on demand anytime, to check it out. The one we tried — an October 10 Music Class, on demand — kicked off with a yoga-like movement sequence (Aaron growing into a big, strong tree), and featured a singalong sequence, dance time, and a music history lesson on the bass guitar (I had no idea the bass guitar was invented in 1930, did you?!). 

While the music class is designed for learners ages 4 to 8, other content in the Kindie Music program, such as the weekly storytime and crafting classes, are perfect for children ages 2 to 4. All lessons move from one sequence to the next every three to five minutes, to ensure that even the most finicky preschooler can focus. As a guitar teacher, I know this is the only way to keep children coming back for more — especially over a virtual platform. 

We recently caught up with Aaron over email to talk about Kindie Music program, and why it’s a fun way to enhance online learning during challenging times. 

Rockmommy: Tell us about the creation of Kids Imagine Nation’s Kindie Music program. How did this come about? 

Aaron B.: Rachel and I — two-thirds of Kids Imagine Nation — have always been performers and educators. While we created videos and music for kids, we have also been teaching preschool music classes at various schools in Southern California. We would also perform over 200 shows a year at schools, libraries, and The Disneyland Resort. But when Covid-19 hit, and our schools shut down and all our shows were canceled, we needed to adapt.  We took our music curriculum and our love for creating videos, and began teaching online.  It was a way for our schools and students to still interact with us, but it now opened up the possibility that our Kids Imagine Nation fans could participate as well. Right off the bat we offered five music classes, four story times and Friyay dance party every week.  

Rockmommy: One of the biggest challenges I’ve found is keeping kids engaged in music over a virtual connection. How did you curate the content based on kids’ real-life personalities and needs for engagement? 

Aaron B.: This is a great question! There are pros and cons to teaching over Zoom. Being able to see your students is a huge plus, but with that there becomes a lot of distractions, especially when everyone can see everyone else.  We decided right away to present our class like a live tv show.  We know, as early childhood educators, that activities need to be done no more than 5 minutes. So, every 5 minutes we are doing something different, and each section has its own video introduction.  We have the ability to put items on the screen, during class, that we use for games that turns our class into “Active Screen Time.” We also provide a chat feature, where parents can participate, if they choose.  

This allows us to specifically call out names during class. Another tool we use is a polling feature that the kids can use to vote for different things that Rachel or I do at the end of class. We also ask the students to draw pictures that we use during our Fairy Tale Night, where Rachel tells a story and we put the children’s artwork on the screen, live. Because of our years as performers and teachers, we know what to say, and more importantly how to say it, to keep the children engaged, and to make them feel that what they are watching is specifically for them.

Rockmommy: What do you hope to impart with the show? (e.g., life lessons, etc.)? 

Aaron B.: Of course we want to show that music is fun, and encourage the love of performing it, but more importantly we want to provide a virtual place that is safe, inclusive, and empowering.  

Rockmommy: How are you trying to create a sense of community during this isolating time? 

Aaron B.: Because we feature videos and pictures that students submit, and we offer an “interact” section on our site where families can post and comment on other families discussions, a lot of our families now follow each other on social media sites.  Although our live stream network is designed to watch what you want, when you want if you can’t watch the actual live stream, most of our families watch live, and because we talk about what students are doing (because of our chat feature) our students literally refer to the others watching as “friends”.

Rockmommy: What kind of feedback are you getting from your audience? 

Aaron B.: The feedback we receive is overwhelming great.  When we hear from families telling us how our program has affected their lives, it fills our hearts up because we love what we do and we are so glad that other feel the same.

Rockmommy: Any hopes of performing live again? 

Aaron B.: WE LOVE PERFORMING LIVE!  We know its coming, and when it does we will be out there!  We are already planning a full country tour once we are allowed to!!!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.

Laurie Berkner’s Daily Livestream is Exactly What Kids and Homeschooling Parents Need Right Now

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

If you’re like most urban or suburban parents in America right now, you’ve recently entered into the world of “distance learning” — aka “homeschooling” — for the first time. But whether if you’re already a stay-at-home parent of wee ones or a boss mama who’s trying to manage the insane balance of working from home with keeping kids educated, you could probably use a little more music and joy. 

You’re not alone. One of our favorite children’s musicians Laurie Berkner is also stuck at home. Fortunately for us, the artist — known for her awesome, catchy kindie-rock tunes like “We Are The Dinosaurs” and engaging live shows — has sprung into action with a free, new virtual series that can help families find a routine, get up and move, and learn and play together.

Every day for the immediate future, Laurie will be streaming LIVE “Berkner Break” concerts, most weekday mornings at 10 p.m. EDT on her Facebook page. 

[SEE RELATED: Superhero Mom Laurie Berkner: 20 Years of Making Cool Tunes in the Ever-Evolving Kids Music Soundscape]

Additionally, each weekday on Laurie’s social media, she’s posting a video of one of her songs for a morning “Berkner Breakfast” (7 a.m. EDT), an afternoon “Berkner Break” show (3 p.m. EDT), and an evening “Berkner Bedtime” show (7 p.m. EDT).

Here, Laurie tells us more about the importance of enjoying music right now, and how her shows can enhance distance learning for kids and more.

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Rockmommy: I was so excited to see you are doing a virtual morning show. Why did you decide to do this?

Laurie Berkner: It’s a terrible feeling as an artist to have to cancel concerts and disappoint fans, especially when those fans are kids! I was looking for a way to reconnect with people who listen to my music and hopefully soften the blow of the cancellations. I also realized how many people are looking for fun, active, positive things to do with their children right now, and I hoped I could offer that to them. It seemed clear that this would be a good way to do it, because so many people were asking me to. It has been an incredible feeling to know that while things are so difficult, I can still do something that brings joy.

Rockmommy: Why is enjoying music so important right now?

Laurie Berkner: Music gives people a way to connect with each other, to temporarily let go of the things that are hard, and to just be in the moment. It can be a way of expressing feelings, moving our bodies, feeling pleasure, and sharing an experience. I also think it helps to lessen some of the anxiety that is everywhere. Kids who may not fully understand what’s going on will at least be feeling that from some of the grownups around them, and music can help to diffuse that as well.

Rockmommy: What do you think of all of the online shows and gatherings? I happen to playing my first Facebook Live concert next Wednesday — it is helping me deal with the temporary loss of my band.

Laurie Berkner: I think it’s great! It’s such a testament to human creativity, the desire to make lemonade out of lemons, and the need to keep connecting — even when it seems impossible to do so.

Rockmommy: What can kids expect from your live broadcast?

Laurie Berkner: I’ll be singing songs, reading books, encouraging lots of participation and movement, and maybe doing crafts or other things yet to be decided. It will all depend on how long this lasts — the longer I do the live concerts, the more creative I will have to get with the content! Each live concert is about 25 minutes long.

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My son Logan, 6, taking a break to listen to Laurie Berkner during a recent 10 a.m. Facebook Livestream.

Rockmommy: Will you be playing classics like “We are Dinosaurs?”

Laurie Berkner: Yes! I already played that on Day 2. I am going to be sprinkling in the hits every day.

Rockmommy: How is music and performing online helping you get through tough times?

Laurie Berkner: It’s great to have something to plan for and look forward to each day. It also feels so fantastic to see kids singing along with me in videos that parents post, and read about kids’ positive reactions. Seeing the kids respond with so much joy to my music is one of the things I love most about doing live concerts, so I’m grateful to get a little glimpse of that, even though I can’t perform in person right now. I also feel like I need this connection to people, so I feel very lucky to be able to have it. And finally, still getting to play music with kids and families reminds me that what I do, actually matters.

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy. 

Balancing Band Life and Raising Boys: How Much is Too Much of a Good Thing?

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom 

Five years ago, having a few moments to myself to strum my guitar — without getting interrupted by a toddler — was a bit of a miracle. 

Fast forward to 2020 and my two young sons are no longer toddlers. They’re 6- and 7-year-olds with their own interests who need me less and less. This is bittersweet: While I don’t want to repeat the baby years — the diapers! the sleepless nights! the 2-hour nursing sessions! — I miss our constant time together. I miss reading to them big chair, snuggling on the couch, pushing the double stroller to the park while clutching a mug of coffee. The whole bit.

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Baby Nathan, sometime in 2013, and my guitar.

One positive development that’s come out of their independence is my ability to nurture interests of my own again — namely music.

[SEE RELATED: New Year’s Goal #1: Making Time for More Joy and Spontaneous Jam Sessions]

After Nathan was born in 2012, I pretty much put #bandlife on a shelf, save for teaching guitar and the playing occasional solo gig or reunion show with my longtime D.C. pop-punk band Grandma’s Mini. But in 2018, I was ready to fire up the old Fender Stratocaster — and the new Gibson SG — and play out again. The only thing I was missing was bandmates. So I asked the universe to help me find them.

The universe granted my wish. In November of that year, my guitarist pal Anna and I met with rock daddy bassist (and guitarist) Doug E. through Craigslist, scored rehearsal space in a studio, and soon after, brought my friend Jason’s brother Nick D. into the group to play drums. Several rehearsals after that, our band Trashing Violet became a living, breathing, gigging machine. 

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Me, rocking out with my band Trashing Violet at Cafe 9.

Yet amid the sheer joy of playing songs every week in our rehearsal space, never in my wildest dreams did I think we would actually play shows — not just occasionally, but ALL THE TIME. About a month ago, we were asked to play so often that I started getting that nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach when I’d have to ask my husband, yet again, if he minded that I got booked for yet another show. 

As I explain in this interview (below), filmed over the weekend at our gig at Sage Sound Studios, the fact that my bandmates and I found each other in a similar time in our lives was nothing short of pure serendipity. That I could find bandmates with intense day jobs and parental responsibilities who understood that I’m a #mommy first and a #rockmommy second was amazing. 

 

But of course, as we rehearse weekly and gig weekly, my sons are undoubtedly seeing less of me. I’m not there 2 nights a week to tuck them in. My older son, who is especially independent, is OK with this; my younger son gets a little clingy each time I leave (he’s been known to shout “band practice is dumb,” according to dada). It was a bit of a wakeup call when I realized this morning, while scanning photos on my phone, that I have taken more pics of my bandmates than Nathan in the last two months. As I gazed into his dark-chocolate brown eyes, my heart swelled, and I felt a tinge of guilt: Am I playing out too much, and missing out too much on the little things?

[SEE RELATED: ‘I Started a Band with my Toddler’: The Nap Skippers’ Julie Rustad on Life and Gigging with a Wee One]

I realized then that achieving absolute perfect balance in every area of my life would be impossible. At the same time, there are limits. I need to make sure I’m considering the feelings all of the people who need me before I overcommit myself. Time is more precious than ever. Every minute I spend away from my loved ones better be worth it because it’s a minute I’m missing out on being with them.

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My younger son Logan, playing the keys at the local movie theater.

So, yes — I can play consecutive shows if the opportunity arises. I can practice once a week with my band because it makes me happy. I can go on tour for a weekend or even a few days … should the right opportunity arise. But I can’t rehearse every single night and play every Friday and Saturday — nor can (or should) I say “yes” to every opportunity that comes my way. 

When my kids are 14 and 15, I might find that I’m needed even less, and there’s more time to pursue music goals. Maybe I’ll go on a two-week tour. Maybe I’ll do a lot of things — travel to Greece, surf in Hawaii, learn how to play the drums.

But in the immediate future, I need to pause and reflect, and see things through the lens of motherhood: Is a gig I’m being asked to play good for me and my band? Is it worth taking time away from our families? Does it fill my heart with joy?

Putting my family’s needs first is important, even if it means saying “no” once in a while to creative endeavors. And it makes the stuff I say “yes” to all the more special. 

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy. 

Sukey Molloy Discusses ‘Five Little Oysters’ and Using Music to Engage Children

By Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Children’s music artist Sukey Molloy brings joy and music into children’s lives on a regular basis, but when she got her start in 1985, she was more focused on leveraging the power of movement. More than 30 years later, Molloy can’t imagine her life or career without music (or movement), and has written dozens of engaging songs for the littlest listeners.

Here, she catches up with Rockmommy about her latest project, Five Little Oysters.

Rockmommy: You began working with children in 1985. How did it occur to you to bring music into the picture?SukeyMolloy07-72+photo credit Dyana Van Campen

Sukey Molloy: My work with young children began with an interest in exploring movement activities to nourish the developing brain. As the program developed, it was a natural step to include music and singing as part of the overall ‘learning through play’ emphasis. I first adapted and created new lyrics for familiar traditional tunes, and then began writing my own songs to accompany the movement activities I was exploring with children. It became clear early on that music and movement together create an atmosphere of play and learning that complement one another in a very natural way — and serve as a remarkable invitation for children to learn while having fun!

Rockmommy: How did you create ‘Five Little Oysters’?

Sukey Molloy: The album ‘Five Little Oysters’ was created with my co-producer, Larry Alexander, and is intended to feature favorite, traditional tunes, along with original tunes, poem, and story. And of course, I adapted many new lyrics for the traditional songs, but the melodies remain as known, along with lots of special nuances and fun sound effects with surprising twists and turns. We are very proud that the album won the NAPPA Award! As for the Five Little Oysters audio picture book and animation, I created those images in my felt art studio, and once the book was completed, I worked with my animation friend Mark Marshall to create the “Five Little Oysters” animation video for YouTube.


Rockmommy: What do you love best about what you do?

Sukey Molloy: There’s a special look that appears on a child’s face when an activity calls the attention, and the child becomes fully engaged. That particular quality of participation, when the child attends completely voluntarily, is the most rewarding moment for me. And particularly when it happens to a whole room of parents and young children at the same time! There is a deep resonance for me when what I am bringing attracts the attention in the room, and allows a group of children and families to feel the joy of learning through movement, music, and play. I believe that this experience helps them to feel acknowledged and respected, and to feel the encouragement and permission to relax and enjoy the moment.

Rockmommy: From where do you draw your inspiration?

Sukey Molloy: I feel we all have a little child within who remains there from our birth, and it is that small child in myself who I call upon to help me locate the melodies, lyrics, felt art images, and movement vocabulary I bring to my work. Also, along with that childlike ambiance, I have studied developmentally based music and movement education, and I make sure to include that understanding when I am creating songs, stories, books, videos, and movement programs. But most importantly, I draw inspiration from the children and families I have had the privilege to work with over the years who are my greatest teachers!

Rockmommy: What do the best circle times for children have in common?

Sukey Molloy: Learning through doing, hands-on materials and activities, full engagement and participation, fun and laughter and a feeling of ‘I can.’ And so much more!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.