Pictured: Sophie Cosgrove, 13, PMAC Student (photo credit: Dave Cosgrove)

This story first appeared in the Union Leader on Feb 2, 2021 Read the Full Story HERE


Students on the Seacoast are participating in music lessons using different formats this year but say the healing power of creating art is helping them through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Song is definitely helping people a lot this year,” said 13-year-old Sophie Cosgrove.

Cosgrove is a student at Portsmouth Middle School, where she is in choir with Choral Director Olin Johannessen.

Typically, the choir is singing all of the time in preparation for performances, but this year Johannessen is taking his students on a different journey.

Johannessen is focusing on using music as a means of helping students process current events. Topics include civil and racial unrest, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, perseverance and youth empowerment.

“I can show them the ways music helps us understand and reconcile a lot of things that are happening in society right now,” Johannessen said.

Johannessen has students use news articles, famous quotes and songs to create videos, new song lyrics, poems, essays and paintings.

“I say there’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer. You need to find your way into things and show then how they relate to each other,” Johannessen said.

Cosgrove said having the skill sets Johannessen is teaching gives her a different perspective and will enhance her in-person performances in the future.

“It’s definitely going to help, having a variety of tools I can use on a song,” Cosgrove said. “It will help us grow as a choir.”

Cosgrove also takes voice lessons virtually at Portsmouth Music & Arts Center on Islington Street. PMAC attracts students from throughout the Seacoast area.

Andy Messier, 16, is a student at Exeter High School who has been studying at PMAC for four years. He enjoys playing the guitar and uses BandLab to collaborate with his peers.

“I think it’s a good way to take your mind off some of the hard things that are happening in today’s world,” Messier said of making music online.

“Being able to use the internet allows you to be able to relax. I’ll be more relaxed and I think that helps people during a pandemic.”

Virginia Macdonald is a music therapist and teaching artist at PMAC who has her masters degree in music therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

Macdonald has some advice for parents. She suggests incorporating music into the lives of preteens and teens to help them get through this year.

Working in a group to create music builds empathy, she said.

“They have shown that we build empathy because we are, in essence, being in this thing where you have to listen to one another and care for each other,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald teaches clarinet and piano. Once a week she is in-person with students at the arts center, but all of her clarinet classes are still virtual because no wind instruments are allowed in the building.

Other instructors at PMAC are also offering hybrid lessons, including Nick Phaneuf.

Phaneuf is a string instructor who teaches guitar, electric bass, ukulele and recording technology. He directs the rock band program.

Phaneuf said being able to connect with preteens and teens, even virtually, is a stabilizing and grounding force for those students.

“I think that for my students, having another adult in their life outside the home is valuable in itself,” Phaneuf said.

Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that he is fully funding the Art Council’s Public Value Partnership operating grant program for Fiscal Year 2021.

Due to COVID-19 budgeting concerns last year, Sununu authorized just 60% of the awards. Now the state is fully funding the remaining 40% of grants.

This brings the state’s general fund up from $180,660 to $301,100, according to a news release.

The federal portion of this program will be fully funded and totals $46,200, according to a news release.

The Public Value Partnership grant program provides unrestricted operating support to 27 nonprofit arts organizations throughout New Hampshire. PMAC in Portsmouth is one of them.

PMAC offers tuition aid for students in need. For more information, visit www.pmaconline.org.

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