File photo of a Modern Band class in 2015, courtesy of Little Kids Rock. Credit: Courtesy Mark Jaworski

A national music education program that provides instruments and training to students in underserved school districts has officially launched its Maine initiative, with an eye toward transforming the way music is taught across the state.

Maine Kids Rock, a program of the national organization Little Kids Rock, began a pilot program last summer in 30 different Maine schools. The full program officially launched this week, with a concert Tuesday afternoon in Augusta hosted by Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Education, featuring some of the first students to come out of the pilot program.

Little Kids Rock has since 2002 brought weekly music education classes to schools across the country, offering free instruments and a unique curriculum — Modern Band — that teaches popular music styles including rock, pop, reggae, hip hop, R&B, country and other modern styles.

In a first for Little Kids Rock, the Maine Department of Education has partnered with the organization to jointly supply funding to expand the program. The MDOE and Little Kids Rock will together initially invest $450,000, with another $1.5 million in investment coming in the next few years. It’s the first time Little Kids Rock has partnered with a state government to offer its programming, though a similar effort is currently underway in Colorado.

The eventual goal, according to Keith Hejna of Little Kids Rock, is to offer Modern Band curriculum in as many as 400 Maine schools.

“Last year the MDOE sent out a survey to see how many teachers would be interested in participating in Modern Band, and out of all the state certified music educators surveyed, 82 percent of them wanted to launch Modern Band at their schools,” said Hejna, who has managed the launch of the Maine program for Little Kids Rock.

In order to be eligible for the program, schools must have enrollments in which at least 50 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and must agree to offer Modern Band as part of its regular music education curriculum throughout the school year.

Last summer, 10 school districts that were part of the pilot program each received $5,000 to purchase instruments, and music educators from 30 districts attended an intensive workshop about instructing popular music — a different style of music education, compared to more traditional music programs such as concert band, marching band and jazz.

Little Kids Rock and the MDOE expect many more educators to participate in this year’s Modern Band workshop, set for May 19 in Orono.

The Modern Band curriculum is not intended to replace already-established instrumental training at schools — rather, said Hejna, it’s a complementary program that develops different musical skills, and brings in students that might not otherwise want to participate in music classes.

“It gets kids excited about music in a way they might not otherwise be,” said Hejna. “Instead of playing Beethoven, they’re playing Beyonce. They’re learning how to play Led Zeppelin. They know this music. It becomes accessible.”

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Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.