CORNWALL — In 1986, musician and entrepreneur Kevin Dolan started a small music education venture, providing lessons to children and adults.

The venture became Musical Associates, owned and operated by Dolan and a staff of professional musician teachers. His wife, Josephine Cannella, taught music in the Avon Public Schools. Eventually, Musical Associates became the Village Music School. When Cannella retired in 2019, she joined her husband and became the school’s director.

Since the founding of the Village Music School, Dolan’s focus has always been simple: To provide music education to children in first and second grade using a system of letters, not notes, to encourge the child to become comfortable with the keys of piano or the strings of a guitar. They quickly learn simple tunes, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

By continuing lessons and practicing at home with their parents, by the time the children reach third grade, they are ready to learn to read music. Dolan has also established a Village Music School Foundation, to provide funding to children whose families can’t afford lessons.

Before the pandemic hit Connecticut, the school, which has no physical location, brought lessons to aftercare programs in local school districts.

“The business model we use is that we partner with aftercare programs, and provide group instruction into groups of four to eight children,” Dolan said. “School ends at 3 p.m., and if a mom works until 5 p.m., she’s looking for vendors such as ourselves to provide enrichment programs.”

Dolan would sometimes partner with a parent-teacher organization, which would subsidize the music lessons for students; or directly with a school district.

After the state closed public schools in March this year in response to the coronavirus, the Village Music School had to change its method of teaching, and chose a virtual format with the same teaching approach.

“With the pandemic, aftercare programs aren’t on the map anymore,” Dolan said. “This year, we also decided, since we have the foundation, to offer reduced cost lessons, recognizing that music classes might be a burden to families.”

This year the school is offering scholarships to families who are enrolled in the state’s free or reduced-cost lunch program for low-income families. “We were going to partner with an educational program (like EdAdvance in Litchfield) but that didn’t work out, so we decided to do it ourselves,” Dolan said.

The need-based scholarships come through the foundation. Scholarships are determined using a sliding scale to Litchfield County families who participate in free and reduced lunch programs.

The Village Music School is now offering four-week, small group online summer music instruction sessions to beginner musicians, ages 5-12. Registration for the weekly lessons in guitar, violin and piano is now open. At the end of the session, students can participate in an informal virtual recital.

“The reduced-cost option for families on the state’s free or reduced-cost lunch program also applies to instrument rentals,” Dolan said. “So, if a family comes to us and says, ‘We’re on the lunch program,’ we’ll have them sign a release to verify it with their school.”

Teaching young children to play an instrument is a process Dolan has fine-tuned for the last 15 to 20 years. It is built on the idea of learning notes using the alphabet instead of reading the music itself. “The most important thing we want to emphasize is that using our program, a child can go home after the first lesson, and play something for mommy,” he said. “With the piano, instead of using notes, we use the aphabet, and right away, they can play the first measure of ‘Brother John’ or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ Children come to us and want to play the piano, and we’re going to teach them to do that, but not to read music. That will come later.”

Dolan tells his instructors to remember how to teach a child. “From the first lesson, they need to feel successful, and that will drive them to practice and become proficient,” he said. “I tell my (instructors) all the time; if you’re teaching a one-on-one lesson, you have one job, and that’s to figure out how the child learns.

“For group classes, it’s easier for a young child to learn,” Dolan said. “They can move around, listen to the teacher, and be with other children. And we can offer these lessons at a price point that shouldn’t scare anybody. We’ve made it very affordable.”

In-person classes are the most ideal way to teach, but Dolan is excited about the possibilities of using remote learning. “At this point, with COVID-19, we can do this nationally,” he said. “We have a lesson group with two children from Goshen, starting next week, with three children from Washington, D.C. We can put groups together from all over the country.

“It’s not the ideal way of delivery, to have virtual classes, but it’s the only way we can do it right now,” the school founder said. “Of course, it’s always better for children to be in the room with us.”

One of the biggest challenges for the school, Dolan said, is getting people to sign up. “In this (pandemic) environment, our analysis is that people are just frightened — about losing their jobs, about money.”

This summer, classes in guitar, violin and piano are now forming, and registration for a four-week lesson package is $99. Small group lessons are 30 to 45 minutes and rental instruments are available for $15 per 4-week session. In-person instruction in after-school programs will return this fall and students will have the option to continue virtual lessons.

The faculty of The Village Music School, Dolan said, share both a profound knowledge of their art as well as a love of teaching. Instructors include Carter Huntley, who holds a master’s degree in guitar from Yale University, and Patrick Dillery, a flutist who has played and taught around the world. Additional faculty members include saxophonist Gottfried Stoger, percussionist Bob Meyer, and Sarah Jane Cion, who was a first-place winner of the 17th annual Great American Jazz Piano Competition.

To learn about the school, visit www.thevms.org and Facebook. For more information, registration and scholarship information, visit www.thevms.org/online-classes, or call Village Music School Director Josephine Cannella at 860-212-6990.

Connecticut Media Group