A few moments later, when Balamurugan plays the first song, Peter Schmalfuss’s version of “Clair De Lune,” the children put their heads down and draw images that pop into their minds.
By the time Balamurugan has streamed three classical songs during this Zoom class on a Friday evening in late August, the kids’ papers feature drawings of watermelon, roller coasters, chocolate bars, sunsets, cupcakes, pumpkin patches and Snoopy.
Los Angeles high school students Balamurugan and Katheryn Williams created this class, Music for Milestones, to provide local children a creative outlet through music. The free Zoom classes give children a chance to socialize and clear their minds at a time when they’re usually stuck in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The most meaningful part about all of this is getting to see the kids smile every single class and the joy on their faces,” Williams said. “That was our goal, just getting these kids to have a sense of normalcy and joy during all of this craziness. Having this time period … where they can have some fun and see other kids’ faces and play with other kids, that’s just awesome.”
Balamurugan and Williams, who are 17 and rising seniors at University High School Charter, bonded over music.
Balamurugan began playing the piano at age 6. She went through hour-long practices almost every day and partook in local competitions. Balamurugan enjoyed playing waltz, but she also liked performing pop songs to energize family and friends. Playing the piano would boost her family members’ spirits after they returned from work.
In high school, the piano became more of a creative outlet for Balamurugan as she realized how composers deliver a story or message through their performances. She taught piano to family friends who had money for lessons, but she wanted to reach those who didn’t.
Meanwhile, music was a driver in Williams, improving her state of mind. When she was 9, she lost motivation to pursue goals in and outside of school. She felt angry at the world.
Around that time, Williams’s grandmother, Delmy Lopez, played her “Esta Vida” by Jorge Celedón — a song that preaches appreciating the small pleasures in life. That song changed her perspective, and the next day she signed up for her school’s band, learning the bass, guitar and drums. She later gained the confidence to try out for the school’s basketball team.
In December, Balamurugan and Williams attended a meeting at their school about the Dragon Kim Foundation, which offers a fellowship program that provides $5,000 to a handful of California teenagers, helping jump-start programs they aim to form in their communities. A few days later at their school’s basketball practice, Balamurugan and Williams looked at each other while running suicide sprints and knew what each other was thinking: They wanted to team up to create a music program.
They decided they would teach music to children around the Los Angeles area. They would create a free workbook for the class and use the grant they’d receive to purchase keyboards for the children participating.
The fellowship accepted them in February. Williams couldn’t stop screaming on the bus to school when she received the news at 7 a.m.
“We just bonded on our experiences on music and how they’ve really acted as a milestone in our lives,” Balamurugan said. “Katheryn is an amazing public speaker and has such an affable personality, and with me taking the reins on the organizational aspects, we played on each other’s strengths.”
Balamurugan and Williams handed out keyboards and workbooks to children at a local music academy. The original plan was for the hour-long classes to occur in-person, but they shifted to Zoom when the pandemic arrived.
Online classes have allowed Balamurugan and Williams to expand their reach, as families have inquired about joining from multiple states. While interest was scarce at first, about 20 children now participate in their classes. Balamurugan and Williams go over the basics of music notes and tempos, give instructions on how to play the piano and suggest how to use music to improve one’s mind-set. They also bring on guests for question-and-answer sessions.
The majority of composers are men, and Balamurugan and Williams are proud to inspire children by showing them women of color can create and teach music, too.
“We want kids to know that through all your struggles, through anything that you’re facing,” Williams said, “music can be an outlet and it can give you personal strength.”
Dustin Phan, an 11-year-old in Orange County, Calif., has always been interested in music. When he was 5 years old, his mother, Yen Tran, taught him to play “Ode to Joy” on the piano. He began piano lessons shortly before they were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Without structure, he spent most of his days playing the video game Minecraft.
But Music for Milestones has allowed him to explore his passion for music again.
“During the pandemic, since people are socially distancing and all,” Phan said, “I haven’t been able to see any of my friends lately, so it’s nice to socialize.”
After every kid had presented his or her drawing at the end of that Music for Milestones class in late August, Balamurugan reminded them there’d be another class the next evening. Their guests would be saxophone players who perform music from the movie “Tangled.”
“You guys always love when they play Disney songs. Are you guys excited?,” said Balamurugan, as two girls rocked around in their seats with smiles.