Nevaeh Enos, a seventh-grader at Leonard Middle School, practices her clarinet skills with her University of Maine tutor. Credit: Courtesy of Shianne Priest

OLD TOWN, Maine — When Shianne Priest and Philip Edelman created a virtual music tutoring program earlier this fall, they had hoped it would help students maintain their musical progress during the coronavirus pandemic.

What the two local educators didn’t expect was how important the lessons would become to the middle school students and their college-aged tutors.

“This is not what I expected to have happened,” Edelman, an assistant professor of music education at the University of Maine, said. “The growth that I’ve seen in my students far surpasses what I thought would have happened.”

The new program pairs students at Leonard Middle School in Old Town with music education students at the University of Maine for regular private and free lessons. Thirty-two UMaine students in two of Edelman’s courses give regular lessons every week. Afterward, tutors fill out forms about what their students worked on during the lesson so Priest and Edelman can monitor their progress.

As of Monday morning, Edelman’s students had given approximately 396 free lessons since the beginning of the school year.

Since they first met in 2016, Edelman and Priest have formed a close working relationship that frequently led to intertwining their unique programs.

“We’ve done a lot of things together,” Priest, who is the music director for LMS, said. “It’s a really reciprocal relationship.”

But the pandemic presented new challenges to music education they weren’t anticipating.

Under state guidelines for music instruction, chorus and band practices must take place outdoors with at least 14 feet of separation between students to limit transmission of the coronavirus as respiratory droplets can travel at least 13 feet.

Non-wind practices — such as piano, percussion or stringed instruments — can be held indoors.

Navigating these restrictions has been a challenge for educators who are trying to make sure their students continue making progress with their music studies.

“Every music educator, regardless of what grade level they teach, was really worried about how to manage this pandemic. We’re trying to keep it fun for our kids,” Priest said. “It’s pretty tough to do when [students] signed up to play an instrument or sing and they can’t play an instrument or sing.”

With the new virtual lessons, students at LMS can sign up for either a 30-minute or one-hour private tutor session via Zoom with one of Edelman’s music education students at UMaine. Students do their lessons in between their other classes on days they are doing remote learning or during evenings, Priest said.

While Priest said the program has been rewarding, it’s a big time commitment outside of their regular teaching schedules. “This has kind of been our second job at night. But it’s totally worth it.”

While Edelman said his student tutors are getting invaluable teaching experience, they’re also building lasting relationships with their middle school pupils.

Zach Wilson, a seventh-grader at Leonard Middle School, practices the trumpet with his University of Maine tutor. Credit: Courtesy of Shianne Priest

Priest said her students love their tutors and look forward to their lessons every week. Some are even starting to gain confidence that extends beyond music, too.

During one lesson, one of Priests’ students, who is very shy, began to come out of her shell as her tutor mentioned her upcoming wedding. The student — who Priest said rarely speaks at school — asked if she could be the flower girl during the ceremony.

The next day, the student went up to Priest in class and said, “I’m gonna be [my tutor’s] flower girl and I think I’m gonna wear a pink dress.”

“They’re really [making] true, powerful connections,” Priest said.

Students are also getting opportunities to practice music one-on-one that they otherwise might not have ever had, Priest said. Private music lessons are a luxury that many students at LMS can’t afford, especially during the pandemic.

Edelman’s university students seem to really value the program, too, he said, adding that “they’re becoming great teachers.”

While the program is a requirement of his two sophomore and senior-level music education courses this semester, Edelman hopes to find a way to keep it going in the future, including paying his students for their lessons.

“If I could find a funding source to pay my students to keep doing this, I would do it in a heartbeat. I would write a thousand grants if I could,” Edelman said.