Some parents might tire of hearing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" on the car stereo for the 50th time, but the song never gets old for musician Derek Burkins. Neither does the interminable "The Wheels on the Bus." These kids' classics are staples of the weekly music classes he offers for babies through preschoolers all over Chittenden County. The songs have staying power because kids know and enjoy them, Burkins says.
Enjoyment is key — the 41-year-old music man wants his itty-bitty fans to have fun at his sing-along sessions. "Being exposed to music and having a love of music at a young age is going to serve them their whole lives," he says.
At a recent gig in the playroom of Buttered Noodles in Williston, the lanky six-foot, three-inch musician sat on a folding chair in the center of the room with his acoustic guitar slung around his neck. Moms and grandmas swayed babies on their laps and tapped their toes as he strummed his way through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" and the alphabet song.
Burkins usually starts his shows with calm, familiar songs. This helps to build comfort with the newer kids in his audience who might be a little wary at first. They gradually warm up to him, though. "You'll see the look come over their faces," he says: "'Oh, he knows that song, too.'" Once he's established his calm, easygoing presence, he rises from his chair and picks up the pace.
For his next number at Buttered Noodles, Burkins launched into one of his original tunes, "The Moving Kids' Blues," which invites kids to stretch their arms to the sky, stomp their feet on the ground, jump like a frog and turn like a top. The babies needed help from their grown-up companions, but one preschooler leaped gleefully around the room.
Encouraging movement and interaction is part of Burkin's M.O. Many of the songs in the latter part of his show, such as "The Hokey Pokey" and "Shake Your Sillies Out," call for kids to turn, stretch and wiggle their bodies. Audience members suggest what kind of animals Old MacDonald has on his farm and, at the end of each show, Burkins invites everyone up front to take a turn strumming his guitar.
Burkins didn't set out to be a performer for the pint-size. He studied music growing up and in college, but initially began a career as a middle and high school science teacher. When he and his wife decided to start a family 10 years ago, Burkins took on the role of stay-at-home dad and began attending local music and story times with his two young sons.
Five years ago, a librarian at the Jericho Town Library who knew that Burkins was a musician invited him to start a weekly morning session there, his own kids in tow. Since then, he's added other paying gigs to his weekly schedule. His wildly popular music time at the University Mall in South Burlington, which runs from September to March, draws up to 150 people.
Burkins says he's happy he can provide entertainment to families with young children who are looking for something fun to do during the week.
"I fully understand being a stay-at-home parent; you really need to get out of the house," Burkins says. "It's super important for kids and adults."