Midcoast Music Academy student Ruben with his instructor Tom Luther on a Zoom lesson. Credit: Courtesy of Jen Feldman

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close to in-person instruction last spring, music schools were not spared from the mandate.

While music lessons are not a fundamental part of every child’s education, Midcoast Music Academy Executive Director Jen Feldman knew that for her students, a consistent connection to music was vital.

Over the last year, the academy has had to completely rethink how it connects students and instructors, including a pivot to virtual instruction, modified and distanced in-person lessons and hybrid recitals. The school’s physical location even moved to a building with better ventilation.

The transition to pandemic-compliant music instruction faced its share of technological difficulties and forced some folks out of their comfort zones. But for the students who have seen so many other aspects of their lives upended due to the pandemic, they were grateful their connection to music was one thing they didn’t have to give up.

“I wanted to be able to continue with my music lessons in any way that was possible with the circumstance because it’s a very important part of my life,” Midcoast Music Academy piano, guitar and vocal student Aili Charland, 16, said. “I like being a part of that community and so I was glad that this connection didn’t just dissipate when COVID hit.”

The Midcoast Music Academy was founded in Rockland in 2012 as a one-room music school with one instructor. The school has since grown to serve about 180 students, ranging from the ages of five to 75, with seven instructors teaching everything from piano to guitar, vocals to percussion and wind instruments to computer generated music.

In March of last year, when the tidal wave of COVID-19 closures was closely approaching Maine, Feldman said she saw the “writing on the wall” and knew they needed to come up with a plan to continue instruction when they ultimately would be forced to close their doors.

Over a weekend in mid-March, Feldman and the school’s founder Tom Ulichny scrambled to make sure the school had enough devices like webcams to take lessons completely online. They hashed out a plan for how online instruction would work and spent the following Monday with the school’s faculty giving mock lessons virtually from studio to studio. By that Tuesday the academy was doing all of its instruction virtually.

“It was really important to us to keep our momentum going. Everything was so unsure and scary and up in the air. We already knew how important that touchpoint of weekly lessons was for most of our students,” Feldman said. “We wanted to make sure that we were providing that stability.”

If a student didn’t have the instrument they needed for their lesson at home ― like a proper keyboard ― the school began lending out its own stock of instruments. While the school had not lent out its instruments in the past, Feldman said this lending program will likely continue even after the pandemic is over.

Overall, most students were already equipped with a device ― like a tablet or computer ― to connect virtually with their instructors. However, Feldman said the varying degrees of internet strength proved difficult. In a few instances, lessons were temporarily suspended until an in-person lesson was possible, or until a student could access a more stable internet connection.

Other hiccups with online instruction included fixable things, like figuring out that the video meeting service Zoom has a setting that mutes some rhythmic sounds, like drumming, unless a user opts to change it.

But online instruction offered some pluses that in-person lessons lack, including flexible scheduling and the ability to cut down on travel. Video lessons also allowed instructors to see the set-up in which a student practices their instrument so they could offer suggestions for possible tweaks, Midcoast Music Academy teacher Tom Luther said.

Additionally, especially for piano instruction, Luther said the multiple camera angles he can share on the screen allows a student to see all components or proper form while playing. Luther also records lessons, so students have the ability to review it.

“It just occurred to me that there was more opportunity with the online component than anything else,” Luther said.

Despite online instruction taking away the direct in-person connection, Midcoast Music Academy student Scout Bookham said her virtual lessons still give her a needed sense of connection to her instructors and fellow students when that was lacking in other areas of her life during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, it was a time that was very hard, especially not being around other people,” Bookham said. “I felt like my guitar and vocal lessons were not just a chance for me to learn music, but to have good discussions. It wasn’t just playing music, but also discussing the effect of music on so many things. It’s been really, really nice.”

As restrictions on in-person instruction eased over the summer and into the fall, a few instructors began giving masked and socially distanced lessons. Feldman said priority for these limited in person lessons went to students who either had internet connectivity issues, or who were otherwise finding the online format challenging.

In November, the Midcoast Music Academy moved from its longtime home in downtown Rockland to a standalone building on Commercial Street in Rockport that lends itself to safer instruction during the current health environment.

“We’d been thinking about moving for a while, but once COVID hit and there was no ventilation in [the Rockland] building, it made that decision to finally move much easier,” Feldman said.

The school’s new location is a former medical office, with exam rooms that have been transformed into lesson rooms. Each room has a window that can be opened, unlike the previous building, and a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was recently installed.

Typically, the music academy holds two recitals per year to mark the hard work of its students and staff. This past year was no different, aside from the format.

For the summer 2020 recital, individual students could either be filmed around Rockland or send in a recorded video that would be compiled into a virtual recital. This winter, students who felt comfortable were filmed performing on stage at the Strand Theater in Rockland ― where the school typically holds its recitals. Both the summer and winter recitals were released on YouTube.

“We consider our recitals anyway to be a celebration of the work that they’ve been doing all semester and we didn’t want to take that away,” Feldman said.

The academy is hoping to hold its summer recital in June as a live performance outdoors.

As more instructors become vaccinated, Feldman anticipates that more in-person lessons will be possible. But given the success that virtual instruction has had over the last year, Feldman says they plan to continue offering these types of lessons.

“Now we’re at this place where we’re in our new space, we’re kinda looking forward to summer and trying to figure out what that’s going to look like. What we would like to see is maintaining what we’re offering and offering a little bit more,” Feldman said. “But we’re always going to offer the online piece, there are benefits to it that we never considered.”