- Courtesy of BenAnna Band
- Ben Norton and Anna Delgado
When longtime children's music teacher and performer Andrea Soberman picked up her guitar, arranged her puppets, and tested the mic and camera on her laptop for her first virtual music class in the spring of 2020, she was taking a leap of faith.
"I did not know how to do anything on Zoom," she said with a laugh.
Like so many other movement and music teachers who work with toddlers and preschoolers, Soberman said COVID-19 affected not only her livelihood but the very nature of her craft. After all, holding the attention of wiggly 1- and 2-year-old kids during an in-person music class is challenging enough. How do you keep tiny tots engaged when they're just one of many boxes on your computer screen?
"This has been my life's work," Soberman said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."
For nearly 30 years, Soberman — known as Miss Andrea to her students — has been a music teacher and children's performer, mostly in New York and more recently in the Waterbury area. Small outdoor music classes worked for a little while, but as the pandemic stretched into the summer, Soberman knew she would have to create a virtual experience if she wanted to keep her business, Musical Munchkins, alive. She hired a tech-savvy friend to teach her the ways of Zoom, updated her website to include a sign-up system for virtual classes, and then bravely turned on the camera.
At first, the classes were a little frustrating for Soberman. "For some kids, it just didn't work," she said. She realized she would have to find a way to make the experience feel more like a real classroom, where caregivers are able to engage. She began communicating with families in advance of class so they could be prepared with real or improvised instruments, such as macaroni boxes and cooking pots. She invested in a green screen to create eye-catching, themed backdrops. She also created PowerPoint musical stories that could help keep the kids engaged. Positive feedback from parents and kids has been immensely gratifying, letting her know that her perseverance is paying off.
- Courtesy of Andrea Soberman
- Andrea Soberman
Online classes still have their drawbacks. "Without the lively engagement from in-person classes," said Soberman, "I have to make sure I am more expressive and animated. It's a different challenge, but I am finding it fun and rewarding."
While business has slowed down over the past year, Soberman's love of working with children keeps her optimistic. In addition to her regular classes, she's started doing Zoom birthday parties and library concerts. She's looking forward to seeing students in-person again but in the meantime will continue to offer her online classes at a reduced rate. She plans to keep teaching partially online, even after the effects of COVID-19 wane.
Wallingford-based BenAnna Band has had to make creative adjustments, as well. The duo, composed of partners Ben Norton and Anna Delgado (Ben + Anna = banana ... get it?), formed just a year before the pandemic hit. With only a handful of performances under their belt, BenAnna had just booked a monthslong tour of shows in public libraries all over New York, Connecticut and Vermont when the world shut down. "It was pretty chaotic in the very beginning," said Delgado, who's also a licensed music therapist.
While they initially continued to perform for library audiences over Facebook Live, the bubbly duo, who wear goofy banana shirts during their energetic performances, quickly found their groove on Zoom. While the lack of interaction made Facebook Live performances feel "exhausting," Norton said, they loved the switch to a more interactive platform. Not only were they able to engage individually with their "kiddos," but performing in their own home gave "a little more breathing room for activity planning." During Black History Month, they used that flexibility to celebrate the accomplishments of Black musicians and innovators. When they told the story of Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., the first African American person to go into space, one of their students ran away from the screen, then returned with an astronaut action figure he could now put a name to. "It's so cool to be able to make those connections," Delgado said.
Norton and Delgado have also used the opportunity to help kids adjust to living through the pandemic. The YouTube video for their original song "Who's Behind the Mask?" is a playful romp that celebrates kids singing, dancing and still having fun while wearing masks.
In addition to live and recorded classes, BenAnna's website also features merchandise and the option to purchase a personalized song or video for a loved one. And though it's sometimes difficult to turn down requests when people want them to create content or do events for free, BenAnna has continued to grow their audience. In addition to their students in Vermont and New York, they connect regularly with a classroom of kids in Italy. They even did a Zoom performance for a group of Russian children over Christmas.
"We know we'll go back to in-person performances eventually, but we're hoping this virtual option doesn't go away either," Delgado said.
"Working creatively with kids opens your eyes up to the world in a whole new way every day," Norton said. "It's refreshment for the soul."