ROCKLAND, Maine — Vera Fine, a sweet-faced 14-year-old, looked fierce behind the drumset one recent afternoon as she worked hard to get a beat in a Jimi Hendrix tune down pat during a music lesson at the Midcoast Music Academy.
Her teacher, Tom Ulichny, played the melody on an electric guitar as she felt her way through the groove, stuttering her drumsticks a little at first before she settled in to the infectious beat of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
“One and a two and a,” Ulichny, founder and director of the downtown Rockland music school, said. “Nice! There it is, Vera.”
They both grinned as they rocked out in the small practice room, the walls and soundproofing barely containing the strains of rock ‘n’ roll.
It was a good day at the music academy, just one in a series of good days since its inception in 2012. If Fine has anything to say about it, that stretch will continue for a long time to come. She likes it so much there, she recently took the $85 in crumpled $1s and $5s she saved from her chore and birthday money and donated it to the music academy’s current fundraising campaign. Ulichny and Anne Bardaglio, the school’s programs and operations manager, are trying to raise $15,000 to build a third lesson room and support 10 scholarship students for a year.
“It’s really good. I really like the people,” Fine, who wants to have a band someday, said of the music academy. “It’s really fun to jam with friends.”
The 33-year-old Ulichny, who has a relaxed teaching style, took a roundabout path before founding the academy. He graduated with honors from Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was a multi-instrumentalist, then taught music in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Baltimore. He came to Maine a few years ago with Bardaglio, his fiancee, and worked as a lobsterman and a carpenter.
“I wanted to get back to music,” he said. “I brainstormed a contemporary music school, which would balance fun with nuts and bolts.”
It seems that variety is on the bill at the music academy, where students can learn African drumming, finger-picking blues and more.
“Whatever music speaks to people’s interests, we tackle,” Ulichny said.
The school started very small and has been growing steadily. It now has 65 students. Children and teens comprise about two-thirds of the student body, with adults making up the rest.
“We’ve doubled our student base every year we’ve been open,” Bardaglio said. “We’ve had 44 inquiries since January. About half of them we’ve had to turn away because we don’t have room.”
Ulichny said the work they do there fills him with gratitude. When the school was new, he worked carpentry full time and taught music in the evenings, which made for a very long work day.
“But you’d see a student get it. A light switch went on, and they start having fun,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Robin Lane of Rockland is an adult scholarship student who recently sang classic Frank Sinatra tunes during his voice lesson. The 21-year-old has a part-time job at a downtown Rockland restaurant and met Ulichny when the teacher was offering free African drumming lessons at the Rockland Public Library.
“Music has been in my life since I was pretty young,” Lane said. “Lessons can be expensive. The scholarship opportunity was great for me. It’s nice to have the ability to expand myself.”
Ulichny and Bardaglio said offering scholarships is an important part of their mission.
“One of our greatest philosophies is that outstanding education should be possible to all interested students,” Ulichny, who now teaches music full time, said.
This year’s fundraising campaign has raised more than $10,000 so far, with money coming in online and directly to them. The couple hopes they will meet their goal before it ends Friday. With donations like Fine’s, that seems possible, they said.
“When Vera handed me that envelope, in many ways it was hard to accept,” Ulichny said. “I was humbled.”
He said it was one of those moments that makes hard days feel worthwhile. Another happened this winter, when a special-needs student walked through one of the snowstorms with a hole in his shoe because he didn’t want to miss his lesson.
“That’s real,” Ulichny said. “That gives you goosebumps.”
For more information about the music academy, visit the website midcoastmusicacademy.com or call 701-7410. To help raise money for the scholarship and expansion campaign, visit the fundraising site at indiegogo.com/projects/spreading-music-education-2015-drive.