Music for life

Actress, singer, storyteller, and mother Risa Cohen has developed a series of classes for infants, young children and their caregivers at Shai Café on Monday mornings. Cohen, who moved from New York City to Toledo two years ago with her husband and children, began singing and performing before she can even remember.  “I think I may have started [singing] in the womb,” she says.  “My mother always sang to me…and at family gatherings, we would pass around a guitar.”  At twelve, Cohen asked for her own song to sing at family get-togethers, and her mother taught her “This Land is Your Land.”

After formal voice and piano lessons, and informal instruction on the guitar from her mother, Cohen knew that professionally or just for fun, music had to be a part of her life.  Earning a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Acting from New York University, Cohen worked her talent into her job at PlaySpace where she performed storytime, puppet shows, and sing-alongs as part of the indoor playground’s program.  From there, Cohen was recruited to be a music teacher, and over the next several years, though she continued to act in commercials and on tours, she found that while away, she really missed teaching.  “I got a Master’s in Early Childhood/Elementary Education from Bank Street College,” says Cohen, who taught in the New York City public schools until the family moved to Toledo.  “When we moved, I was very happy to be able to stay home with Jude, and now Clint, but I missed teaching, so I started [Music Circle].”

Music Circle, a series of classes that Risa developed, incorporates rhythm, singing, movement, finger puppets, stories and whatever else evolves as the children’s imaginations develop.  “No two classes are alike…I try to teach at least one new thing each class.” Since March of this year, Cohen has been teaching the hour-long classes on Mondays at Shai Café, a locally-owned Mediterranean restaurant.  The first half hour is for parents and guardians to socialize and enjoy food and beverages from Shai.  The first 14 children that arrive for class then participate in music, fun, and games.  “I mostly use folk music and we sing in a key that is comfortable for the children,” says Cohen.  “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.” “Risa has an amazing music class,” Holly Allen, an attending mother, reports.  “I love how she personalizes the class and knows all of the kids’ names…she does a combination of new songs and old favorites and we love singing them when we are at home.” 

With the attendance, positive feedback and interest Cohen has received from the classes, she’s making plans for the program in the future.  “I would like to lead Music Circles a few times a week, and also lead Storytime Drama classes.”  And eventually, she would like to make DVDs for parents and children to enjoy at home. The mother of three-year-old Jude and 14-month-old Clint incorporates plenty of music into their family life, too.  “We have a song for everything…and if we don’t have a song for it, we make one up.”“I am a progressive educator. I don’t think that my job as teacher is to tell kids what they need to know and have them repeat it back to me…rather, I think my job is as a facilitator, to provide a stimulating learning environment wherein students can construct knowledge from their own experiences.”

Music Circle is held every Monday at Shai Café at 5236 Monroe Street from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.  There is an $8 fee per child, and no registration is necessary.