Walking into The First Beat play space in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, you are immediately immersed into a world of music and imagination. The First Beat, the brainchild of Bethany and Raffi Rachdouni, is a feast for the senses, geared for children up to six years old.
Bethany and Raffi met in 2007 while studying music at the University of Rhode Island, later marrying in 2015. Both are music educators – Raffi in public school and Bethany part-time at St. Rocco School in Johnston, RI. Active members of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church, they are the parents of Marcos (five), Tomas (three) and Rafael (two), all of whom are students at the Mourad Armenian Saturday School, where Raffi is the music teacher.
I recently visited The First Beat to talk with the Rachdounis about their venture into the world of play spaces. I was enthralled with the music-themed decor, from instruments and music notes to actual record albums hanging on the walls and pint-sized instruments throughout the rooms. And yes, there are multiple rooms in this musical play space, which is the point. This brings us to the inspiration behind The First Beat.
Bethany always dreamed of opening a daycare with an arts component, but when that didn’t materialize, the concept of play spaces intrigued her. She was a nanny for many years and attended many Music Together classes, a music and movement program, with her charges. “I thought, why not incorporate the two? So we took a play space and brought in the music classes,” she said.
The couple was eager to share the story of how they coined The First Beat. Bethany had fully expected Raffi to think of the name since “that was his thing—he’s the one who comes up with names.” Raffi began brainstorming ideas like “play…something or kid music…something, but nothing was clicking,” they recalled.
“I had just finished teaching pre-K, and Marcos was in my class. I was saying, ‘stead-y beat, stead-y beat’ [in a steady rhythm]. And I remember thinking, these are their first beats, and it just clicked. I told Raffi, and he said, oh, that’s it!” shared Bethany.
The First Beat opened in May 2023, and at first, the concept was new to people who were used to taking their children to a music class and then leaving. The idea here is for people to come and stay to play. “This morning a family came in just to play with the toys,” Bethany explained. “I sat and did ukulele with the little girl, and then I left her and her mom alone to go grocery shopping or whatever they wanted. The whole thing is to come in for music class, but instead of it just being a half hour and then you have to leave, people stay for hours to play, which is really sweet and really nice.”
Raffi and Bethany see The First Beat creating a sense of community among those who attend. Parents and grandparents get to know one another, sometimes even socializing outside of the play space. Some people bring their laptops and work while the children take music class and play, and others observe or participate in the play.
Bethany explained that their setup is much like a children’s museum concept. Rather than one large play space area, there are multiple rooms: music festival, sensory play, vehicles, garden, tools, shopping and climbing—something for everyone. This allows for “the structured music class and unstructured exploratory play, which is a great balance of sitting for music class and then going to play,” Raffi said.
The music is hands-on and includes movement to expend energy. The feedback from parents and grandparents has been very positive, both to the movement and to the familiarity of the songs that the Rachdounis use for music classes.
The opportunity for all the kids to interact with each other at very young ages prepares them for preschool, too. “I tell parents that just one day a week will help that drop off at preschool,” Bethany said.
Another special component of The First Beat is Ms. Stacey, the Rachdounis’ aunt Stacey Khatchadourian. While Bethany and Raffi work as music teachers at their respective schools, Ms. Stacey is at The First Beat doing storytime, bubbles and more. Ms. Stacey has regulars who come in just for her at The First Beat. “We couldn’t do it without her,” Bethany said.
“I am happy to be a part of The First Beat,” Ms. Stacey told the Weekly. “Forming relationships with the families and watching the children develop skills makes me happy. When they enter the door and say, hi Ms. Stacey, it makes my day!”
The Rachdounis have a large and supportive group of friends who frequent The First Beat. In October 2023, they held a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien that was attended by many friends and family from the Rhode Island Armenian community. “It’s been nice to see our friends so supportive of our business and our place and the talents that we give to their kiddos, not just in church but also here with Bethany,” Raffi said.
Newly-elected Camp Haiastan Board member Ani Megerdichian Arakelian planned an excursion to The First Beat during the first week of Day Camp in June 2023 for out-of-town parents. They brought the younger siblings of the day campers to the play space, where the Rachdounis held English and Armenian music class followed by lunch and play. The day was such a hit that they are planning it again for this summer during Day Camp.
Hrag and Ani Arakelian have been bringing their children to The First Beat from the start. “Anoush and Kevork absolutely love The First Beat. When Anoush was too young for preschool, The First Beat was a way to introduce her to experiencing lessons, following directions and socializing,” said Hrag. “Although our kids may not be the most active participants during the music lessons, they sing the songs all the way back home.”
Now that their parental leaves are over and Ani and Hrag are back to work, Ani’s mother takes the children every Thursday to The First Beat. “The children truly enjoy music class and are engaged by the well-planned and always changing lesson plans. My mom also enjoys taking her grandchildren, as well as the socialization with other grandparents and caregivers,” Ani said.
Bethany and Raffi are encouraged by the outpouring of support from the community. They have held many birthday parties and special events at The First Beat. The most recent one, a New Year’s Eve Balloon Drop, drew a record 20 families to the space. The event featured movement (get your giggles out), a dance party with a disco ball and the balloon drop, all receiving an enthusiastic response. “That’s the day I went home and said, we’re doing it. We’re making it happen,” Bethany recalled.
Bethany hopes to expand the space and add more rooms and music classes. She is considering adding an ice cream parlor room and a veterinarian room, among others, all while maintaining and building upon the children’s museum concept.
Most importantly, Bethany loves being able to talk with people while the children play. It allows her to get to know the family members and caregivers and ask about their days—creating community and connections at The First Beat.