Portland school partnership believes rock ‘n’ roll is good for the soul

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PORTLAND — Experts say participation in music programs can help students achieve academic success and learn a variety of positive life skills.

But music can also be “good medicine for whatever ails us,” said Emilia Dahlin, a local singer and songwriter, who is also on the staff at the Maine Academy of Modern Music.

Recently, the academy, which already offers several programs in cooperation with the Portland School Department, launched a new rock chorus program for students at Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot elementary schools.

The rock chorus program at Ocean Avenue is funded through a grant from the parents association at the school. The Presumpscot after-school program is being made available thanks to a grant from Portland Education Foundation.

The mission of the Maine Academy of Modern Music, according to the organization’s website, is to give youth the opportunity to make contemporary music with a goal of instilling self-esteem while also learning about “the transformational power of music.”

About 25 students take part in the rock chorus program at Ocean Avenue, which is offered during the school day, and Dahlin, who leads both groups, said about 12 students are now taking part in the after-school rock chorus at Presumpscot.

“We launched the rock chorus program to serve more vocalists and to connect local youth through the joy of singing popular music,” said Jeff Shaw, director at the Maine Academy of Modern Music.

“Appropriate and positive song suggestions are largely given by students (as) I want them to be excited and invested in the songs they sing,” Dahlin said. “I do give a few suggestions for classics, but the final choice is always (up to) the students, who cast votes for their favorites.”

Along with the new rock choruses, the Maine Academy of Modern Music has also offered songwriting workshops at both Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot over the past five years or so.

In addition, the academy also sponsors a yearly rock band competition for high school students, offers summer camps, and sponsors the Girls Rock! concert, which is held every March in honor of Women’s History Month.

It also sponsors a New Orleans-style brass ensemble for students ages 10 to 18, to give them a chance to perform with professional musicians. Drumming lessons are offered at the East End Community School as well.

Shaw calls the new rock choruses at Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot a way “to further grow the partnership” that was initiated with the songwriting workshops.

“It’s just so inspiring to be in the room when all of these students are singing their hearts out,” added Dahlin.

Heather Sumner, the music teacher at Ocean Avenue, said the rock chorus is open to students in grades three-five. What she appreciates about the program is that it provides an opportunity to “expose (students) to all kinds of music at an early age.”

“Having (the rock chorus also) helps develop a strong music education program for our school and community and deepens the impact of music on our students,” she said.

At Presumpscot Elementary, music teacher John Fenlason said, “(We have) a great deal of talent and it needs to be showcased. We have many students who don’t have the means to express their talents, and (the new rock chorus) offers an opportunity to do that.”

Sumner said the chance to hold rock chorus during school hours at Ocean Avenue made the program more “accessible for all students to participate.” She said the students meet once a week and rehearse with Dahlin for about 30 minutes each time.

The goal, according to both Shaw and Dahlin, is to hold a concert sometime this spring that will feature the rock choruses at the two elementary schools, although a date has not yet been chosen.

Sumner said for a pilot program, participation has been strong, and so far students “have been very enthusiastic about the songs they are singing, most of which are familiar to them. They also love working with Emilia.”

Sumner added, “Having strong ties with community partners is a critical factor for a successful music program and to keep music alive and healthy in public schools.

“We are fortunate to be able to have a Maine Academy of Modern Music program on our campus. We are (also) fortunate to have a supportive leadership team and an incredible parent association that helps provide these rich, meaningful music opportunities for our students.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Students at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland participating in the new rock chorus program offered by the Maine Academy of Modern Music. Leading the students is academy staffer Emilia Dahlin.

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