Professional musician Ryan Rickenbach uses virtual music classes to entertain kids

NEW YORK CITY -- When Ryan Rickenbach moved to New York City to chase his dream of being a professional musician, he never imagined his mobs of screaming fans would be 2-year-olds on a virtual call.

But this children's entertainer by day, singer-songwriter by night wouldn't trade his path for anything.

"It's hard to have a bad day when you're working with kids," said Rickenbach. "There's a joy in children, and you can't help but share in the enthusiasm."

Rickenbach moved to the city to become an actor, but soon found himself disaffected and living off catering gigs. He took a job that piqued his musical interest as a teacher with 'Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals,' a children's music class started by David Weinstone in 1997.

Instructors nationwide license Weinstone's catalog of wacky, catchy music to build song and dance classes for kids ranging in ages from six months to five years old.

"Ryan's very talented and animated," said Graeme Maclean, father to four-year-old Lachlan. "The minute he sees him, Lachlan is absolutely engrossed in what Ryan is doing."

"A kid's not going to lie to you," said Rickenbach. "If you can hold a toddler's attention span for 45 minutes, you've really accomplished something."

A few months ago, Rickenbach's operation was gaining steam. He had a budding list of clients and was consistently booked at preschools, birthday parties, and private events. Then, as is the case for so many, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

"I was terrified," said Rickenbach. "My next paycheck was dependent on me changing my entire business model."

He adapted his class for online sessions, focusing on high audio/visual quality and high interactivity. After a few growing pains, Rickenbach found a model that benefits not only his students but adults who can park the kids in front of a tablet long enough to fold the laundry.

"It gives parents a break," said Wallis Post, mother to four-year-old Clementine, "Whether it's work or cooking or one of the other hats we're wearing. But it also brings joy into our children's lives."

During live-streamed classes, Rickenbach calls out each child by name and encourages parents to send suggestions via chat. The result is an immersive world in which kids feel acknowledged, understood, and special.

Until live classes resume someday, parents aren't exactly complaining about having a digital babysitter in the house.

Maclean and his wife, Rachelle Dupere, joked with Ryan, "Is there any way he can have like a 6-8 hour session?"

Despite his success on the toddler circuit, Rickenbach said his rock star dreams ultimately remain.

"Working with kids helps me with my own stuff," said Rickenbach. "It's not a side job. It's all one thing. It's all music."