It’s been a crazy year, to say the least, and we continue to face uncertainty in the near future. At the Portland Conservatory of Music (PCM), a nonprofit community music school for students of all ages, abilities, and financial levels, the delivery of music education, concerts, and recitals have continued throughout the pandemic, albeit in a new online format. We have been fortunate that our teachers, students, and families quickly made the transition to online learning and hence helped create a sense of normalcy so desperately needed at this time.
Why music education matters
As music educators, we understand the benefits of music education. Music has the power to heal and nourish the soul. It allows students of all ages to express themselves in ways that other forms of communication simply cannot. The disciple of daily practice sets the foundation for good habits and structure, while the resulting progress yields students a sense of confidence in their abilities. As studies have shown, studying music is like exercising the brain; it enhances cognitive development and creates new neural pathways, which is probably why many successful people have studied music. Playing music in groups has the added benefit of building social skills, particularly listening and team building.
We met the online challenge in spring 2020
We were impressed when our faculty quickly pivoted to online learning this spring. It was a little bumpy at first, but it worked. So much so that we held online recitals at the end of the semester. To ensure that the recitals ran smoothly, we asked students to submit videos of their performances, which we put together in one hour videos and aired live on Zoom. It was a sheer delight to see our families and their reactions as they watched the Zoom recitals. The new format had the added benefit of allowing extended family members from afar to enjoy the recitals.
We also held our bi-annual Ocy Downs Piano Competition online. We asked the performers to come into our studios one at a time to film their competition pieces. (Thanks to an arrangement with Steinway & Sons, the Conservatory is equipped with beautiful Steinway pianos, which are also available for sale.) The performances were then edited together and sent to our panel of jurors. All of the students did an outstanding job. The first and second place winners were our very own students, Michael Bostock and Quentin Wu, both students of Naydene Bowder, charter PCM faculty member. The videos of Michael’s and Quentin’s performances can be found online here. Note, Michael is only 14 years old.
Our Noonday Concert Series, held bi-monthly and alternating between First Parish Church and the Portland Public Library, also moved online with 30-minute performances available for two weeks. Our free Noonday Concerts have always been an integral part of our mission to provide equal access to quality music and highlight our talented faculty and students.
Improving the online learning experience
What we’ve found is that like anything else, there are pros and cons to online learning. While online lessons are not quite the same as in-person, they are convenient, allow some students to participate more fully, encourage utilization of online enhancements, and have the potential for expanding our geographic reach. In an effort to adapt to the new normal, we have been working on delivering a better online experience this fall to provide online transparency and communication between teachers and students/families. This will include a user friendly template for detailing items covered at each lesson with links to various online resources. We’ve also invested in high quality equipment so our faculty can teach online lessons from our studios.
As a community music school for all ages, abilities, and financial levels, we have worked hard to add a variety of group opportunities to create a sense of community and make music lessons affordable. Group classes have included cello choir, chamber music (advanced and beginning), jazz history/theory/ensembles, Middle Eastern ensemble, beginning fiddle, and Cuban Rumba. We also have the Boy Singers of Maine and the Girls Singers of Maine choral program for grades 2-12. On Saturdays we offer the College Prep Program for advanced middle and high school students considering a future in music.
Come fall we anticipate a hybrid approach; both online and in-person private and group lessons. However, we will not require anyone, faculty or students, to come in for in-person lessons if they are uncomfortable doing so. The safety of our community comes first.
While are plans continue to evolve as events change, we will be following CDC guidelines for our anticipated fall re-opening. In general, string and jazz ensembles will be in-person, while our choral program will remain online with possibly periodic optional in-person small group sessions. Group classes such as fiddle and jazz history/theory will remain online. We anticipate offering our Early Childhood Music program in-person in the spring. (Most everyone agrees that it is just about impossible for toddlers to practice social distancing and an online format is less than ideal.) Our College Prep Program for advanced middle and high school students will be in-person on Saturdays from 10:00 am-1:00 pm. The College Prep Program teaches music history, theory, ear training, and small group ensembles. Applications for the College Prep Program, along with an audition video, are being accepted until September 1; the 12-week program begins September 12.
At this point, we are anticipating in-person recitals in December in the large Sanctuary so audience members can practice proper social distancing. However, for our choral groups, singers, wind instruments, and those students continuing with online lessons, we will hold online Zoom recitals as we did in June.
Financial aid for lessons during the pandemic
Thanks to the efforts of our faculty from our annual Faculty Fundraising Concert, we are able to offer need-based financial aid of 30-50% off the cost of lessons. In addition, we are currently fundraising to provide financial relief to those families (current and new) that have been economically affected by the pandemic through job loss. In addition, our board just announced that they will match new donations for the pandemic relief drive! We anticipate distributing these funds on an as needed basis until used.
At this time we do not anticipate any concerts in the fall, but hope to resume them in the spring. In addition to our Noonday Concert Series offered throughout the academic year in downtown Portland, we present a Dimensions in Jazz series. This innovative series brings national and international jazz musicians to Portland, which also serves to supplement our Jazz Studies program. The shows primarily take place in the Chapel here at Woodfords Church, but we also collaborate with innovative venue partners such as Cove Street Arts, SPACE Gallery, and the Apohadion Theater. We also present various special events, fundraisers, and festivals, but these plans are also currently on hold due to the pandemic.
It is a challenge running a nonprofit community music school, now more than ever. Although arts education is not seen as a primary need, it is a means of creating better citizens and enriching our community, which is fundamental to our society. If you’ve ever considered learning an instrument, we encourage you to register. We take pride in the exceptional quality of our instructors.
As PCM embarks on its 25th anniversary, we are looking at how best to serve our community going forward. If you would like to help us in this endeavor, please contact us. We are always looking for volunteers, board members, and of course, donors.