Longtime Islanders, former directors of the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, and teachers of the popular children’s music program Music Together, Owen and Bridget Johnston, will soon add “shop owners” to their extensive resumés. They recently signed a lease with Hudson Related to open a permanent classroom and playspace, called Music & Play Station, at 507 Main Street. When completed, the new space will host music classes, an indoor play area, and birthday parties. They hope to open by the middle of July.
The space, which was most recently inhabited by the Paul Calendrillo New York Gallery, is about 800 square feet, with white walls and cement floors. To achieve their child-friendly vision, replete with climbing walls, a higher ceiling, and a separate class and playspace, Owen said it will take four to six weeks to build out. Music & Play Station will be designed to serve children five years old and younger.
The couple says their plan is to teach Music Together classes in the mornings, and then offer open play for a nominal fee from noon to 4:00 pm. Parents will be able to sign up their kids for private lessons in piano and guitar, as well. On the weekends, they’ll host birthday parties.
“Parents need help planning,” says Bridget. “We go all over the city for parties. Now that we’ve planned 75 parties, we’re like, ‘We could plan parties.’” They also plan to build playtime into the Music Together schedule, giving kids a chance to run around after music class is over.
“I think it’s going to do really well from the response I’m getting from the Music Together family,” Owen adds.
As for their renovation plans, the duo is excited to have more vertical space, and plans to raise the ceiling by a couple of feet. The class space will be located on the south side of the space. The north side will boast a play loft along the wall, with a little bouldering wall. They want the playloft to be clear, so the children are always visible to their caretakers. In the back, there will be an office space, a space for private lessons, and a bathroom.
Regarding its current state, Owen says they will be installing new floors as well. “To be on cement would be bad for my grandmothers, the babies, and I would shrink because of the compression on the discs in my back,” he says of the current floor. They are going to put down a soft dojo floor under the play loft. The rest of the space will be Marmoleum with a cork layer underneath to give it more cushion, on top of the sub-floor. They also envision a floating floor, something with cushioning.
“I want to do it right,” he says. “So many times things don’t go right here on Roosevelt Island. So we’re working hard to try and do it right the first time. I don’t want to have to go and do it again.”
The Johnstons started the Roosevelt Island chapter of the Music Together program five years ago as a way of combining their love of kids with their Broadway experience. The early childhood music education program has chapters worldwide.
Owen recalls the search for the right music program: “I looked at Music Together, Kindermusik, Music for Aardvarks... I looked at half-a-dozen music programs. I kept coming back to Music Together because it is based in research. It’s specifically geared for education later on and bringing children to a level of basic music competence, which will help them in language learning and literacy and cognitive development in social and emotional development.”
Also, he says, “I was not interested in standing in front of kids and performing for them. We were looking for something to help parents do that for their kids. You may not believe that you sound great when you sing, but your child doesn’t care. To give the parents the confidence, and permission, to just be, and just sing, and just allow their child to enjoy them as much as they’re enjoying their child. The child just wants more and more of you. Being able to facilitate that is such a great part of this program.”
According to Owen, the program rotates through nine different song collections every ten weeks, which means you can participate in Music Together for three years and not repeat a song collection. Each song collection includes music from different cultures and has interesting meters and modes of music that aren’t typical for kids’ music. “It’s steeped and based specifically in research that shows that when kids are exposed to these kinds of layered music, non-major tonalities, non-duple meters, it lights up their brains. It’s very complex music that’s coming at them in a really kid-friendly package,” he says.
Not only does Owen love the program, he thinks it dovetails well with Roosevelt Island’s diversity. “Music Together is such a good fit for the Island. There are so many multi-lingual households here, which is unique to this community but feeds right into what Music Together is all about,” he explains.
“Music Together helps kids in their language-learning, especially in this environment where there are so many kids learning more than one language. It takes the language learning out of it, they absorb what’s happening musically, because research proves that language is processed in the same way as music.”
As parents who raised two sons, 19-year-old Jordan and 14-year-old Noah, on the Island, the couple appreciates the cohort they serve. “I love the age of the family [that takes our classes]; the parents are learning how to metamorph into a family,” says Bridget. “We have fun. Watching parents interact with their little ones is so great.”
A Second Act
Bridget and Owen love what they do; yet it is a sea change from their days of performing on Broadway stages and around the world.
Owen was the dance captain in the Broadway show Rent from 1997 through 2008. He says, “When my show closed in 2008, I was faced, for the first time in my adult life, with the reality that 20 years in production contract shows doesn’t have value in the real world because I never finished college and I never got my degree. I didn’t have any real skills outside of the artistic world. So I was going through a significant crisis in who I was and what I wanted to do and how I was going to support our family. It was a real soul-searching time – not a happy time. Because, with the economy going down the tubes, there were no jobs to be had. Shows were closing left and right, there was no opportunity. For the first time in my adult life I was afraid of what I did for a living. That’s when I went back to school. I got my Bachelor of Arts in theatre and music in 2011, and [then] my Master of Arts in theatre.”
Owen says, “During all of that transition time, Music Together was born.”
While handing out coupons outside the M&M store in Times Square to make money a year after Rent closed, Owen was offeåred a spot on a national tour for Billy Elliot, but says he had to turn it down as he it would require being away from his family for long periods of time. “We kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be another way.’”
The first official Music Together session was offered in January 2013. Currently, they operate out of a small classroom in the Good Shepherd Community Center. “We have to share with everybody who is using the space,” says Owen. “We deal with little ones who are crawling the floor, so before class I’m there early with a vacuum. I’ve found stray pins, broken glass, push pins, you never know who’s been in there [before us].”
They believe that once they have their own space, they will be better able to grow the program. They say that the process the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) uses to reserve community space prevents their program from being receptive to demand. RIOC requires the space and time be reserved and paid for six months in advance. Johnston says that restriction makes it, “impossible to grow the program from where we are now.”
According to Owen, “Hudson Related was great to deal with.” Before settling on 507 Main Street, they were shown the former boy scout den, located next to the China One restaurant, and the now vacant CDM Kids Learning Academy space, at 568 Main Street.
A Family Affair
Owen says they are hoping to create a space where even working parents can feel like a part of the family. “We want to live-stream music lessons for parents to watch so they can see their kids,” he says, envisioning a working parent thinking, “It’s 3:30, I want to see my kids’ piano lesson,” and having an access code, going online, and watching the lesson.
“It’s all about communicating. It’s all about doing something together. The question we are trying to answer is, how do we bring the parents in even when they’re not there?”
Bridget Johnston says, “We had a dad Skype in from Afghanistan to see a class. He was deployed and Skyped in to watch his family do Music Together. Those are the reasons.”
“Nannies are constantly taking pictures and filming,” she adds. “But we’d love to make it easier for working parents to be part of it.”
They hope to create a space that will “give parents the confidence to do what we do,” says Owen. “You don’t need to be on a Broadway stage to sing to your child.”