Aoife Mahoney had big plans for the acoustic guitar that she propped on one knee.

The 10-year-old Portland girl wanted to learn a Taylor Swift song, and when her instructor, Don Pride, told her that he knew how to play the electric guitar, she wanted to learn to play that, too.

“Will you teach me?” she asked, her eyes wide, bright and hopeful.

Sure, Pride told her. But first, she needed to learn how to hold a pick.

Mahoney is among the first wave of students taking advantage of a new program offered by the Portland Conservatory of Music that targets youngsters in the city who otherwise might not have access to after-school music instruction.

The Youth Music Club is open to students ages 8 to 18. The conservatory is offering classes in African drumming, choir and guitar at Mayo Street Arts in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, made possible with a $5,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation. A big chunk of that money was used to buy 10 acoustic guitars.


The conservatory’s location on Woodford Street can be difficult for some families to get to, executive director Mark Tipton said. One goal of the program is to bring the classes to the students’ neighborhood, even it if means lugging guitar and drums cases across town.

“We’re off the beaten path, off the peninsula,” Tipton said. “For students who do not have transportation, we are not an option for their musical education. We are creating an opportunity for people who do not have transportation or funds.”

The classes, which meet weekly and last up to an hour, are free to many students. Those who can afford to pay are charged on a sliding scale depending on family income.

The program, which began in March, will last 10 weeks, and kids are welcome to still join.

It got off to a slow but promising start. Two girls, including Aoife, attended the first guitar lesson. The next week, there were four young guitarists. A handful of kids showed up for the first African drumming class.

Mayo Street Arts executive director Blainor McGough recruited 10 kids for the choir class. She has no doubt that the Youth Music Club will succeed. Mayo Street Arts is busy every day with activities for neighborhood kids, and music is always popular, she said. Mayo Street’s Club Hip Hop meets twice weekly in the summer and once a week during the school year, and it is almost always packed, she said.


The Youth Music Club perfectly dovetails with Mayo Street’s larger mission of strengthening the neighborhood and community through art and education, she said. In addition to teaching kids how to sing and play the guitar and drums, it promotes confidence and teamwork. Music also helps kids improve their language and math skills.

“It’s going to take some time,” McGough said. “If I have to go knock on doors, I will. It’s just going to take a little bit of time to build.”

In addition to Pride, whose credits include touring with pop star Clay Aiken, instructors are Jordan Benissan of Colby College in Waterville and Nick MacDonald of The Waynflete School in Portland. Benissan teaches African drums and MacDonald teaches choir.

The program is divided into two age groups: 8 to 12 and 13 to 18.

The goal, Tipton said, is to offer affordable music education to supplement what is available in the schools. As school budgets are cut and services reduced, it’s important that organizations like the conservatory and Mayo Street create partnerships to fill in the gaps, he said.

For his lessons, Benisson arranged five upright hand drums in a semi-circle, with a bass drum mounted with a bell off on its own. The bell provides the foundational rhythm, and the other drums play off the bell, Benissan said. Hand drumming might appear to be an easy thing to learn, but it’s actually complex. It requires each drummer to focus on his or her own responsibility while paying attention to the other musical parts, he explained.


Benissan grew up in Lome, the capital city of the African country Togo. He began drumming and dancing as a young boy, and is glad for the opportunity to pass along his knowledge and tradition.

“This is a very good opportunity for the kids,” he said. “The way I teach, I treat it as a discipline. You need to concentrate and focus. The best thing about this music – it’s a gift to the mind and it’s good for the whole being.”

Pride, the guitar instructor, hopes to reach kids for similar reasons. Music has given him so much happiness in his life, he’s glad for the opportunity to share.

These are basic lessons, he said. He’ll teach the kids how to hold a guitar, show them a few chords and, he hopes, provide enough of a spark that they will take the initiative to stick with it. If they learn a Taylor Swift song, great.

If they enjoy these lessons enough to want to pick up an electric guitar, even better.

Maya DeSouza, 10, said she plans to stick with it. She already envisions herself in a band.


“I’ve always wanted to play the guitar,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite instruments.”

Before that process could begin, Pride addressed a more pressing issue.

“Why do you have long fingernails on one hand and not on the other?” Aoife asked, interrupting the lesson before it could begin.

“They are like picks on my finger,” Pride said, barely pausing. “Now I am going to show you how to hold the pick.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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